Sonic journey
Sight/Unseen. Picture: Connie Tsang

Can you imagine a world-famous violinist attaching a cable to their Stradivarius and swinging the instrument over the audience's heads?

That's pretty much what groundbreaking Sonic Youth musician Lee Ranaldo does with his guitar in Sight/Unseen, an audiovisual collaboration with his wife, artist and filmmaker Leah Singer.

The couple bring the constantly evolving blend of cinema, found and improvised sounds and theatre to Perth next month for a one-off Australian performance as part of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival.

The "students of film" started collaborating in 1991, soon after they met. Singer was already making experimental films with contemporary musicians, including classical composer Elliott Sharp and Japanese drummer Ikue Mori, when she met Ranaldo, who was branching out from Sonic Youth with solo performances incorporating cinematic elements.

Chatting alongside his wife in the Manhattan apartment they share with their teenage sons, the 58-year-old musician says the idea of suspending his weapon of choice came during the years experimenting with guitar sounds in Sonic Youth, the seminal alternative rock band he co-founded in 1981.

"I got interested in the idea of taking the guitar off and dangling it from the strap and playing it with a mallet or violin bow," Ranaldo explains. "It had quite a different sound.

"At some point when Leah and I were doing some of our duo shows here in New York, I just had the idea to try and hang the guitar, like a real sculptural object divorced from the posturing of wearing the guitar like a warrior . . . It worked out really good."

Rated No. 1 on Spin magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time alongside his Sonic Youth band mate Thurston Moore, Ranaldo adds that he was also inspired by modernist composer Steve Reich's 1968 work Pendulum Music, which involved microphones swinging in front of amplifiers.

The swinging guitar adds to the physicality of Sight/Unseen, which is usually performed in-the-round without a stage with Singer projecting images on to big screens.

The performances adapt to each space and don't have a set time frame - their 2010 show at Nuit Blanche in Toronto lasted 12 hours.

The guitar is wireless and can be taken off the cable. Ranaldo recalls a performance in Canada where he walked out of the venue and continued playing out on the street.

Sometimes he abandons the guitar entirely.

"Oftentimes the audience members would come up and start plucking on the guitar strings or start playing it, and that became part of the performance as well," he laughs.

"That's not our usual situation, where our audience responds like that. We've found that some audiences are much bolder than others and willing to join in that kind of fun.

"Sometimes, once the guitar starts swinging, everybody backs up and gives it plenty of room. In China, the audience didn't move and the guitar couldn't swing because all the bodies were in the way. It became almost a physical contact sport instead of a big, glorious swinging object. That added a kind of drama to it."

The Sonic Youth legend adds that as with previous performances he'll be looking for local musicians to participate in the Perth show.

As the title suggests, Sight/Unseen is about noticing "the banal things we take for granted", according to Singer, who adds it's an attempt "to see the poetry in the everyday".

Her imagery comes from her "backyard to the plains of Middle America, to China and Europe" - but don't expect travel snaps.

"For example, I was in Marfa, Texas, acting in a film," she says. "We were staying in a motel on the outskirts of town and there was a hole in the parking lot concrete. This enormous army of ants had decided this was going to be their kingdom. They were increasingly busy going in and out of this hole.

"I filmed it and, of course, it's always fascinating to watch ants build their little empire."

This year Ranaldo and Singer have taken Sight/Unseen to China and Iceland, collecting more images and sounds on the way. The couple and their 15-year-old son have hired a campervan and plan to see some of WA after making their Australian debut at Revelation.

"Probably a lot of things we gather in Perth and in Australia will figure in future versions of the piece," Ranaldo says.

When they started this project, the couple toured like a rock band, playing multiple shows through Europe for two weeks, lugging heavy film projectors. Singer transferred to digital in 2006 and now they mostly play one-off shows.

"The greatest thing with this performance is that it crosses all boundaries," Singer says. "We've done film festivals, music festivals, little clubs, cinemas - it's very open."

After their visit to Australia, Ranaldo plans to work on his next solo album. He says there are no plans for a new Sonic Youth album or tour.

"Nobody's talking about it," he says. "I can't imagine anything happening for Sonic Youth, if ever, if it will be quite some time in the future."

Ranaldo says that some Sonic Youth fans have come along to Sight/Unseen but "we try to make it pretty clear that they're not going to be attending a rock concert".

Both he and Singer are thankful that, due to the experimental nature of the all-time great New York rock band, "they're usually very willing to go on whatever sort of sonic journey we take them on".

Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: Sight/Unseen is at the Bakery on July 9. Tickets from nowbaking.com.au. Musicians can ask about performing via communications@revelation filmfest.org.

The West Australian

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