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Interview: Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on John Cage (playing the Philadelphia Museum of Art on 1/4 – 1/6)


Lee Ranaldo is best known as the guitarist and co-founder of Sonic Youth, inarguably one of the most essential American rock bands. But his work outside of that band is just as adventurous, ranging from the singer-songwriter oriented album he released last year on Matador, Between the Times and the Tides, and his more feverish experimental work with critical voices like Mats Gustafsson, Zeena Parkins and William Hooker, and in groups like Text of Light (with Christian Marclay, Alan Licht and Ulrich Krieger ). In addition to his numerous music projects and releases, Ranaldo is also a visual artist and writer.

Ranaldo is performing several times in Philadelphia over the weekend as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Dancing around the Bride,” the massive ongoing exhibit celebrating the work of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. For these performances, Ranaldo will be interpreting several Cage scores, as well as performing some of his own work.

I caught up with Ranaldo a few days ago on the phone from his home in New York City to talk about his personal relationship with Cage’s work and legacy.

The Key: Did you ever meet John Cage?

Lee Ranaldo: I saw him at a few events around New York in the 1980s, but we weren’t really that friendly.

TK: Do you recall your first encounter with his work?

LR: I think it was “Rainforest IV,” with David Tudor. It was definitely mid-70s, when I was just arriving at college and starting to hear a lot of different avant-garde and 20th century composers, from Edgar Varèse to Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Cage.

TK: What was your first impression?

LR: I would liken it to the one I first had when I encountered mid-century avant-garde American film: at first you don’t know what to make of it, and then you realize it’s an entirely new language that you’re trying to understand. In a sense, you have to work your way into a language, or into a new art form; it’s like coming to an understanding of abstract painting. Continue reading →

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Beyond Silence digs deeper into the work of John Cage (begins tonight at the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Silence!

Despite an incredibly diverse career spanning six decades and uncountable genres, silence is what American avant garde composer John Cage is known for. His 1952 composition 4’33″, in which performers let four minutes and 33 seconds transpire without making a single sound, quickly became the font of Cage’s fame – and infamy.

Nonetheless, Cage continued to compose, perform and conduct a wildly varied repertoire: sometimes piano-driven, sometimes high concept pieces whose “scores” consisted of no written music, only performative instructions to musicians, or multimedia collaborations with performance and video artists like Nam June Paik.

There’s a lot more to John Cage than the absence of sound. And that’s the driving conviction behind Cage: Beyond Silence, a multi-sited celebration of the composer’s life, work and influence that will take place in Philadelphia from October 26 through January 20. Continue reading →