The Wire contributor on the life and work of the high volume composer
Composer Glenn Branca died at the age of 69 from throat cancer in New York on 13 May 2018, as announced by his wife, musician Reg Bloor. Branca was famous for his groundbreaking, visceral symphonies for multiple electric guitars, bass and drums. Occupying a self-created nexus between the rock and classical avant gardes, his music was mostly embraced by the underground rock and visual art worlds, rather than the modern classical establishment. “He is a nonpurist within the pure tradition of new music,” Kim Gordon observed in 1983, which put him in sync with the postmodernist zeitgeist of the 80s but also underlies John Cage’s notoriously aggrieved reaction ("Branca had me shaking") to hearing his music at New Music America around the same time.
Born on 6 October 1948 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Branca picked up a guitar as a teenager, forming a local covers band before heading to Boston to study and work with experimental theatre. Moving to New York in 1976, he encountered Jeffrey Lohn, an artist with a classical music background, and the two formed the group Theoretical Girls, with encouragement and support from Lohn’s friend and conceptual artist Dan Graham. Although part of the no wave scene, the band didn’t make it onto the epochal No New York LP, despite producer Brian Eno’s awareness of them. When Lohn left town for Europe, Branca formed The Static with his then-partner Barbara Ess and Christine Hahn. He also began performing Rhys Chatham’s piece “Guitar Trio” with Chatham, an overtone-based exercise for drums and several guitars playing one chord. Branca soon conceptualised his own extended works for multiple guitars, restringing them to accommodate octave and unison tunings, beginning with “(Instrumental) For Six Guitars”, which premiered at Max’s Kansas City in 1979 (and instigated a rivalry with Chatham frequently likened to that between Steve Reich and Philip Glass).
Branca gathered an ensemble and convinced Ed Bahlman, who was selling indie records out of his girlfriend’s Greenwich Village clothing store 99, to start a label and release his new music. 99 Records put out both a 12", Lesson No 1, and album, The Ascension, by Branca from 1980–81. The Ascension featured four guitarists (including composer Ned Sublette and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo), a bassist and drummer, and showed a new sophistication in balancing jittery no wave rhythms, dense tone clusters, repetitive motifs and rousing romantic flourishes. By 1981 Branca had already advanced this combination to symphonic length and form with Symphony No 1; the next year he started his own label Neutral with White Columns gallerist Josh Baer. Neutral released early albums by Sonic Youth, Swans and Bang On A Can composer Michael Gordon, as well as documenting early performances by monologuist Eric Bogosian and distributing an obscure six 10" box set of appropriated library music by artist Jack Goldstein. A second symphony, featuring his newly made mallet guitars and metallic percussion by z’ev, also debuted in 1982, and then, delving deeper into the psychoacoustic phenomena of amplified overtones that had marked his concerts, Branca composed Symphony No 3 specifically for the harmonic series, utilising modified keyboards with guitar pickups as well as mallet guitars and another Branca invention, harmonics guitars.
He retained the harmonic series approach for his next two symphonies, before returning more decisively to guitars for Symphony No 6 in 1989. By this time Sonic Youth were well established and still known for their initial association with Branca, and David Bowie had recently namechecked him in a lyric on a Tin Machine album; his profile was at a new high. For the next three decades, Branca continued making symphonies and shorter pieces, sometimes for traditional orchestras, sometimes with his trademark four guitar-bass-drums format. Two later symphonies, numbers 13 (2001) and 16 (2015), used 100 guitar lineups, and Symphony No 15 (2010) added an outlandish array of instruments – from tamboura, melodica and pennywhistle to wine glasses, walkie talkies and paperback books (his most improbable commission came from MTV/Viacom in 2002, for a piece for 30 guitars to be played by their employees!).
The high volume of Branca’s concerts would be reasonable, or at least familiar, to a rock club goer but not always to a classical listener; Steve Reich, an admirer and friend of Branca’s, once noted that he always wore earplugs to his concerts, as he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his hearing for Branca’s music. While the symphonies did grow out of Branca’s involvement in the downtown rock scene, to some extent their rock band format was a signifier; compositionally, his stated influences of the minimalists, Bruckner, Mahler, Messiaen and the Ramayana monkey chant often outweigh the rock element. This becomes strikingly apparent in works like the ballet score The World Upside Down, where the guitars (and more importantly, the drums) are gone yet the music remains unmistakably Branca’s. But unlike later music school composers who have tried to include electric guitars and affect a kinship with rock music, the self-taught Branca had described himself as being obsessed with rock, and his passion for it was palpable, authentic and undeniable. “I can remember in 1969,” he told interviewer Howard Wuelfing in 1989, “standing in front of my tiny guitar amplifier, the guitar pushed right up against the goddamn thing, screaming feedback for 45 minutes at a time, and that’s how I learned to write music.”
Branca’s galvanising stage presence was his other identification with rock; his frenzied guitar playing (as seen in an unforgettable clip above from 1978) and conducting fully embodied the music. The first time I saw him live, conducting Symphony No 6 in New York in 1989, he was constantly in motion, channelling James Chance rather than Leonard Bernstein; in fact, he was rocking much harder, physically, than anyone else in his group. Not only were his high energy gesticulations part of what made Branca’s concerts ring true as a rock experience, but the sheer speed and urgency of the symphonies’ development in the early 80s were characteristic of rock culture. I interviewed Branca for the Red Bull Music Academy in New York in 2016, and pointed out how rapidly his music had progressed and expanded from The Ascension to Symphony No 3 in only a couple of years – the kind of rate of change that Branca would have witnessed in rock overall in the 60s and 70s. Adding that Symphony No 4 was composed a mere two and a half months after No 3, he said in those days “I never imagined I would live this long.”