Originally published at ABC Arts Online, January 2014
The key word is 'transcriptions'. After all, the storm is hardly a neglected theme in music: a selection of famous storms might include, say, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (The Pastoral), An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss or Britten's Storm Interlude from his opera Peter Grimes. Lee Ranaldo, at the forefront of experimental contemporary music and the genre imperfectly known as 'art rock' as Sonic Youth guitarist from 1981 to the band's apparent end in 2011, has created a musical response to the hugely destructive Hurricane Sandy that is more direct translation than representation; more record than expression; more sound project than any narrative of the arc of a storm, as in other traditions.
Ranaldo's Hurricane Transcriptions can be thought of as a document of a moment or moments. As Hurricane Sandy hit his New York neighbourhood on the afternoon and evening of October 29, 2012, "compulsive recorder" Ranaldo was captivated by the sounds of the wind as he sat in his Manhattan apartment, eventually donning rain gear and heading into the streets with his handheld recorder.
"I recorded it, came home, sat at the piano and played the recordings and just kind of grabbed what notes they were and wrote them down and then left it," says Ranaldo.
"A few weeks later it occurred to me it might be possible to use these wind sounds, that evoked strings. When I listened to them, especially when I was out that day, it evoked strings or choirs or a whole confluence of organists. But it was very musical – it was consonant then dissonant and moving through all these different layered textures of sound. I transcribed the sounds on my tape and the shifts they went through.
"The more I thought about it the more I could adapt it in some strange way to the ensemble – in a way it's almost like a piece of automatic writing."
Ranaldo's storm is written for 14-16 strings, and at Sydney Festival with Ensemble Offspring will include clarinet, flutes and percussion. Ranaldo himself plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar and vocals, with a conductor directing the musicians ("It really needs a dynamic conductor who almost pulls the music out of the ensemble"). The piece was commissioned by the Sydney Festival as well as the Holland Festival, where it premiered in June, and Berlin ensemble Kaleidoscope, who performed the work at the premiere.
As one of the most dramatic, devastating weather events in New York City's history, one might expect more conventional artistic renderings of Hurricane Sandy to reflect that trauma with large emotional flourishes, violence and perhaps a mournfulness. Hurricane Transcriptions is far from elegiac, however, demonstrating an objectivity that comes from Ranaldo's ear picking up on the qualities of the noises that day, rather than the storm's effect on civilisation.
"It was a transcription of a natural event," he says. "You think of that hurricane as being this crazy event but the music is not dramatic in the way one might picture a hurricane in an almost movie-like sense. It's not dramatic like that at all. It's really a transcription of all these events that were going on in the air that day. There's not a point when the storm comes crashing in or anything like that, it's what I was hearing tonally that I tried to capture."
As far as artistic precedent goes, Ranaldo points to French 20th century avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen's transcriptions of birdsong, but more resonant for him was the ancient Greek instrument, the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind and produces, as Ranaldo says, an "ethereal kind of chord". Specifically, he hails modern artists Bill and Mary Buchen's experiment in 1981 entitled Wind Bow, when the pair erected a giant Aeolian harp in Lower Manhattan, with an aluminium umbrella shape and a conical sound reflector, with strings stretched underneath. "You'd get these droning tones and chords and it was really interesting," says Ranaldo. "So I was thinking about that."
Hurricane Transcriptions comes at an interesting point in 57-year-old Ranaldo's career. Thurston Moore's divorce from Kim Gordon brought Sonic Youth to what may turn out to be a permanent dissolution in 2011, while Ranaldo's 10th solo album Last Night On Earth was released in October. That record's songs emerged from the same post-Sandy weeks as Hurricane Transcriptions, particularly the storm's immediate aftermath as Ranaldo and his friends and family endured days and nights without electricity, water or phone reception, the album's title being an indication of the impact of the ordeal.
Last Night On Earth was acclaimed as a more melodic and structured collection than is perhaps Ranaldo's reputation, and this emphasis on songwriting has in fact extended to the Hurricane Transcriptions performance.
"The other aspect to the piece in addition to the hurricane sounds is that I incorporated some songs," says Ranaldo. "I'm a guy coming out of rock music predominantly and being pushed in this direction working with a contemporary ensemble, and I thought it would be interesting to pull the contemporary ensemble into my domain a bit, and incorporate these songs that had a resonance as well, once I realised the piece was going to be based on Hurricane Sandy.
"So the piece is intercut. There are three songs and three abstract sections that cut back and forth – I wanted it to feel like what I felt that afternoon and subsequent day. I was behind my glass in the security of my home looking out at the storm, and one of the songs takes that kind of attitude. It’s a song about looking out at the world from somewhere you feel really secure. Then I was out in the storm recording, so the music goes back and forth, trying to evoke that. You're on one side of the glass and then you're on the other, out in the weather."
And with that comes a wider point that seems meaningful in these days of extreme weather dictated by climate change, combined with an ever-increasing reliance and pressure from humanity on technology and the artificial. Ranaldo's piece to a degree can be thought of as an expression of a Western, city-dwelling individual's confused experience of nature contrasting with the man-made, no more intense than when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Hurricane Transcriptions in many ways hinges on the window glass in Ranaldo's loft, the decisive division in the work.
"Any time you set up that wall there's a dichotomy, there's the natural world and the man-made world. I understand it more intuitively than anything else – I wasn't mining in a majorly conscious way.
"That's the ultimate dichotomy of life in a way, everything is always on one side of a line or the other: black and white, good and evil, nature and humanity butting heads."