I Can Hear The Rain

8 January 2014 | 3:45 am | Danielle O'Donohue

"It sounded like there was music playing and sometimes it sounded very violent and discordant and other times it was very confident and beautiful."

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October 29 last year, the night Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, Lee Ranaldo was at home in his apartment in Lower Manhattan. As the wind was picking up outside, the guitarist was intrigued by the sounds coming from outside his building so he grabbed a tape recorder and ventured out.

“It sounded like there was music playing and sometimes it sounded very violent and discordant and other times it was very confident and beautiful,” Ranaldo explains. “I think it was just the wind playing tricks and whipping between the buildings but I listened to it for an hour or so and I was so intrigued that finally I put on my rain gear and I went out and spent about 45 minutes out on the street recording these sounds from different corners on the street and different blocks around my building.

“It was very intense out there as you can imagine but I was kind of following my ears, following these sounds and recording them and I came home that day and what I did was take the recorder over to the piano and try and transcribe some of these little sounds.”

In the days following the hurricane, Ranaldo, like most New Yorkers, was without power and water, so to occupy his time he settled down with an acoustic guitar and started working on songs and ideas for a piece commissioned by the Holland and Sydney Festivals.

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“At night there were no lights on the street, no streetlights on, no lights in the windows or anything like that. You had to grab your flashlight if you went out at night. It was a very surreal experience. In the evening there wasn't much to do. We were living by candlelight. There was no electronics. I ended up playing a lot of guitar that week. A lot of people were harder hit than we were - we didn't have any water damage. For days afterward you could walk around the streets and see the high water mark on the buildings and on the glasses of the storefronts and it was over my head. It was really kind of amazing. It was very, very intense.”

The work will be played for only the second time when he brings it to Sydney Festival. The first performance, for the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, teamed the Sonic Youth guitarist and new music composer with young Berlin ensemble Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop. This time around Ranaldo is collaborating with innovative local new music outfit Ensemble Offspring.

Though the piece is quite different from anything Ranaldo has produced with Sonic Youth there are still a number of more contemporary-sounding rock songs incorporated into it, also written during his Hurricane Sandy black-out period time and released on his latest studio album, Last Night On Earth.

“I've been having a great time writing songs,” Ranaldo says. “But the piece was designed so that we could remove the vocal pieces and play the entire abstract work without them. I wasn't sure how that was going to work - that could be a point where things potentially could get a little weird working with an ensemble. I wanted to do it as a challenge both for myself and for them. They're used to playing instrumental music and I wanted to challenge them to come a little bit further into my world as well.

“I included a couple of songs I thought were relevant. Home Chds is specifically about the security of your home and what people's relationship is with their home, especially in a time of disaster. Your home is your place of solitude so I wanted to affect this motion of going back and forth between songs and abstract sections like you're out there on the streets and then you're inside behind the glass windows again looking out at the storm or musing on this powerful weather that's going on outside.”

Though there aren't any immediate plans to release Hurricane Transcriptions as a record, Ranaldo isn't ruling it out. For now though, Ranaldo is happy just to re-work the piece before its performances in Sydney. “It's a very strange thing; when I write songs for my band we practise them in rehearsal for weeks and weeks and months sometimes before any of the public hears them. When you write a piece for an ensemble like this you write it and hand it to them and they practice it for maybe a day or two and then you're presenting it. A piece like this is bound to evolve and improve as the ensemble spends time with it.”