Sunday, May 20, 2018

In memoriam: Glenn Branca

Glenn Branca

In the early 1980s I was anxiously awaiting the moment I could to move to New York City. (I hadn't figured out what I would do there or how I would possibly afford it, but never mind.) I haunted newsstands (remember those?) for the latest issues of the Village Voice and the New York Rocker, poring over their blurry print for scraps of information about a downtown music, art and performance scene that I could only experience vicariously.

In the the March 1982 New York Rocker I read this review from Michael Shore about a new album called The Ascension:
Ever wish the Clash would just shut up and keep playing the guitar intro to "Bored with the USA" over and over again? Ever tried to turn down the channel with Joey Ramone's voice so you could just hear a wall of loud, wild guitars. . .?
Say hello to Glenn Branca.
Shore went on to describe Branca's music as "a grinding, thrashing, distorted electric semi-raga that builds and builds toward a deliberately delayed orgasm." But he also noted that "the standard—and accurate—critical line has been that, good as Branca's music is, it's just not the same on record as it is live, where it becomes a true physical presence, and where one gets the added visual kick of Branca's emphatic conducting style."

Conducting? Yes, Branca fronted "orchestras" of eight or ten or twelve retuned guitars, and soon he was writing album-long pieces that he called "symphonies." I thought calling an hour of clashing guitars and pounding drums a symphony was either the most hilarious thing I'd ever heard, or the most pretentious. Was Branca seeking legitimacy from a system that the punk and No Wave movements he emerged from had tried to overthrow?

When Branca came to Chicago to perform in the New Music America festival I convinced a good friend to go with me to Navy Pier, the unlikely venue for the show. I recall being vaguely disappointed at this first encounter with Branca's music: the promised wall of sound seemed to be dissipated by the cavernous hall, and the guitars were strummed rather than (as I hoped) thrashed, scraped with broken glass or set on fire. It was not the overwhelming experience I'd been expecting.*

(I've been trying to determine what piece I heard that night. The festival schedule says that Branca "will perform an adaptation of his Symphony No. 2: The Peak of the Sacred," but that symphony is for "mallet guitars," which Branca describes in a 2010 Village Voice interview as being "built with screws, and two-by-fours." I seem to remember musicians playing what looked like conventional guitars. In an interview from 2012 posted on New Music Box Branca says that John Cage attended the Navy Pier concert and the next day launched into a diatribe against his music. Branca says that the piece Cage hated was Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses (1981). A photograph of Branca's group performing Indeterminate Activity in 1983 which accompanies the New Music Box post looks like the group I saw in Chicago, and this recording sounds something like what I remember hearing.)

A few years later I started listening to Sonic Youth. Often beginning in atmospheric dissonance, their songs built to squalling, clangorous peaks. I soon learned that Sonic Youth's guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had played in Branca's groups (and I think both had been on stage with him in Chicago; I seem to remember Ranaldo's wide-eyed stare). I sought out Sonic Youth's earlier recordings, and the very strong Branca influence that was apparent in them—their first records were even released on Neutral, Branca's label—led me to listen again to Branca's music.

I found that his Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (1989) sounded more like what I'd hoped to hear that night in Chicago. Branca has called Symphony No. 6 "a straight on, straight out guitar piece" (in the Village Voice interview); the recording was even co-released on Sonic Youth's label at the time, Blast First:

Another band that can be heard in Branca's music is Joy Division, especially in those moments when Branca achieves an almost ethereal stasis. His Symphony No. 3: Gloria for modified harpsichords (1983) has a feeling that's somewhat similar to the opening of Joy Division's "Atmosphere" (1980):

Sadly, Glenn Branca died last week at age 69, of throat cancer. Perhaps devil choirs greeted him at the gates of heaven. 

* The festival was an informal 70th birthday celebration for John Cage. In addition to Cage, among the many other performers appearing in the week-long festival were Muhal Richard Abrams, Ruth Anderson, Robert Ashley, Alvin Curran, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Joan LaBarbara, Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, Roscoe Mitchell, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Frederick Rzewski, and Christian Wolff. Each concert cost $3, or you could see all six Navy Pier concerts for $10 (serious money for me in those days!).

No comments :

Post a Comment