From Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony to Rihanna’s Umbrella, stormy weather has inspired some landmark musical moments. This Thursday, the Sydney festival will see a new addition to the genre courtesy of Lee Ranaldo, co-founder of Sonic Youth. He will be performing Hurricane Transcriptions with Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring, an orchestral piece with guitar and electric piano which he was inspired to compose in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the city that has been his home since the late 70s.
Ranaldo was at home in lower Manhattan when the storm arrived in the afternoon. “I started to hear all this really weird-sounding stuff coming through the windows,” he says. “It didn’t sound like typical wind noise, it sounded like voices and instruments and chords; consonant and dissonant. Finally, I couldn’t resist. I got my rain gear on and I had a little handheld digital recorder that I wrapped in plastic and just went out in the storm and recorded a bunch of this stuff.”
It was two hours from the height of the storm, but Ranaldo says that the weather was “intense – metal garbage cans were flying down the street; on the west side the Hudson was starting to spill over the riverbank to the roadway.” He stayed out for 45 minutes, making what he calls a “field recording”, then on arriving back home sat at the piano trying to play the notes he heard within the sounds.
The following week, Ranaldo says, New York struggled to recover from the storm. “It brought to mind the post-9/11 period. It felt very apocalyptic out on the street, even more in 2001. You had a week of enforced contemplation of things – there was no work to be done, there was no travel to be had, the subways were down, and most people in my neighbourhood spent their days wandering, looking for some place to juice up their phone or their computer. In the evening we’d eat dinner by candlelight.”
At the time, Ranaldo was also writing songs for his post-Sonic Youth band Lee Ranaldo and the Dust, including the Sandy-inspired Last Night on Earth and Blacked Out. Eventually, he decided to merge both the experimental piece inspired by his storm recording and three of the more conventional songs into a 45-minute work. The effect, he says, is of someone out in the storm, then back in the security of their home thinking about it, and then back out in the storm. “It goes back and forth a few times – that’s the conceit of it anyway.”
That said, Ranaldo is keen to point out that Hurricane Transcriptions is a world away from the kitsch evocations of a storm beloved of B-movie soundtracks. When Ranaldo heard the storm it reminded him of an art project he’d seen in 1981; a giant Aeolian harp built by the sound artists Bill and Mary Buchen and installed by the Hudson River. “It was almost like an umbrella made of aluminium with strings stretched across it so the umbrella amplified the sound. The wind from the storm played through the fire escapes and nooks and crannies downtown in a similar fashion.”
Sydney will mark only the second time the work has been performed – the first was at the Holland Festival last June. Ranaldo confesses that he was somewhat taken aback by how little time he had to rehearse with the first ensemble that performed it – Berlin’s Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop (who jointly commissioned it with Holland and Sydney festivals).
“When Sonic Youth wrote music, we would rehearse for months before anybody heard anything. With this, we had four or five days and didn’t have a complete run through of the work until the performance. It went off good, but it still had a certain skeletal quality to it. We’re modifying it for Sydney but we’ll see how it goes.”
So does Ranaldo miss Sonic Youth? The band went on hiatus in 2011 after the divorce of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, the rancorous details of which Gordon revealed last year. “I guess the quick answer is that I don’t miss it so much at the moment,” says Ranaldo, “but to go one step further, Sonic Youth hasn’t really gone too far away. I’m in that studio a lot, I talk to everyone in the band quite frequently, we’re working on archival projects pretty much all the time. Right now I’m having a great time with my band and presenting my music – it’s been a very fulfilling two years. After 30 years it was, at the very least, time for us to have a rest.”