Glenn Branca's Really Experimental Music: Why the Composer Is Still Punk After All These Years
If art music and rock music sat at either end of a scale, Glenn Branca would be standing on the fulcrum, smashing each side with as many guitars as possible.
Photo by Maria Jose Govea, courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool
Soon after we met, Glenn Branca led me to a dimly lit basement tavern near his Manhattan apartment. We searched unsuccessfully for a quiet corner before grabbing a couple stools at the end of the bar. Branca asked for Sambuca. The bar didn’t have any.
“We have Fernet Branca,” the bartender offered.
Glenn turned to me, speaking in a barely audible rasp. “Did you hear what he told me to have instead? Fernet Branca is not Sambuca. I know Fernet Branca—it’s my goddamn last name.” He ordered a Guinness.
The 67-year-old composer has long been a provocateur, settled in his own artistic convictions and little else. He’s a thoroughbred experimentalist, and if something has room to be pushed further, he’s going to be the one shoving.
“I wanted to do experimental rock, I mean really experimental,” he told me, describing his ambitions from the outset. To that end, Branca has—by anyone’s standards but, perhaps, his own exacting ones—succeeded. He helped define the sound of multiple generations of New York noise and punk music. He edged his way from the punk scene into the refined world of composition, in recent years winning academic recognition and achieving old-world milestones such as premiering his latest symphony, No. 16 (Orgasm) in the same theater where the Orchestre de Paris plays. And his influence continues to be felt. Just this month he released the recording of Symphony No. 13, a commissioned piece for 100 guitars—just one instance of the composer’s unrivaled sonic curiosities. As he told me, “If I knew what the music was going to sound like before I wrote it, I wouldn’t bother.”
When Branca moved to New York in 1976, he spent much of his time exploring the city’s experimental theater scene, attending 60 plays in that first year alone. He had no intention of being a musician—theater was his calling—but there was space in the experimental arts community for music. Theoretical Girls, the band he founded with conceptual artist Jeff Lohn, was borne in that “vaccum”—as Branca called it. The duo helped define the No Wave movement—a brief avant-garde scene in 1970s New York—and they’re often regarded as the “fifth band” to Brian Eno’s epochal No Wave compilation album, No New York (the LP documented four fellow No Wave groups: James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA).
In the decades since, Branca has been composing singularly experimental symphonies, mostly for multiple guitars. Those have taken many different forms, but the most interesting pieces utilize guitars of his own making, namely “mallet guitars”—percussive instruments designed to be hit with drumsticks—and “harmonic guitars,” whose extra bridge allows microtones to ring through. His music combines the minimalist structures and rhythmic complexity of Steve Reich with John Cage’s conceptual air. It shares both punk’s nihilism and the grandiose ingenuity of Mahler. Plus there’s just a lot of fucking noise. It was the music that quite literally set the stage for bands like Sonic Youth and Swans (early iterations of his guitar ensemble included Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, and Michael Gira). If art music and rock music sat at either end of a scale, Glenn Branca would be standing on the fulcrum, smashing each side with as many guitars as possible.
This month, the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in New York is honoring Branca with two events. Last week, Red Bull Studios hosted a public conversation between Branca and musician/journalist Alan Licht in which they discussed the disparate eras of his artistic career, highlighting his balancing act of the classical and rock realms. This Monday, an all-star cast of guitarists led by his wife Reg Bloor, Mick Barr (Krallice, Orthrelm), Randy Randall (No Age), Greg Fox (Guardian Alien), Ben Greenberg (Hubble, Uniform), and Justin Frye (PC Worship) will perform Branca’s 8th, 10th, and 12th Symphonies at Manhattan’s Masonic Hall. He’s been working intimately with the ensemble to prepare for the show. “I think they’re going to get it,” he told Licht. “And if they do get it, it’s gonna be fantastic.”
Branca is admittedly jaded with 21st century music, but he’s not strictly beholden to the past, and by no means has he given up. He still has an interminable will to push music where he wants to see it go, which is, very simply, somewhere it’s never been before. In his words: “I don’t like being called a legend. This whole idea of me being some kind of leftover from the past is extremely irritating to me, because that is not what I am. I’m very much here, and I’m very much working.”
Photo by Maria Jose Govea, courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool
Noisey: Where do you fit, in your mind, among the Cages, the Glasses, the Reichs, La Monte Young?
Glenn Branca: I’m not sure if I fit, but that is without a doubt where I’m coming from. All of those people are very important to me.
A lot of your contemporaries—like the people I mentioned—came from a classical background and then moved into experimental music. Their music was reactionary to the art music that preceded it. But you came from the No Wave movement and punk and then moved into orchestral music. Could you talk about that?
I was a record collector and I listened to fuckin’ everything. I was listening to Mahler one minute, and then Patti Smith the next minute, and then Miles Davis. I worked in a record store, that’s how I got into classical music. And that’s when I got turned onto Mahler. I had never heard him and my mind was blown. I mean I was still getting stoned in those days. Mahler was taking me places that no one in music had ever taken me.
And I was a gigantic punk fan. I came to New York to do theater, but I came here to see all my punk heroes, too. As it turned out, everyone was on tour. You couldn’t see Patti Smith, or Television, or The Ramones. There was nothing happening. The other punk bands were more like power pop, commercial shit. I wanted to do experimental rock, I mean really experimental. Like long-form performance art rock music. The fact is Theoretical Girls came up in that vacuum. There really wasn’t anything going on in the art world, and our audience was entirely made up of visual artists who were all grown up on rock music.
When did you decide to take this combination of punk music and performance art and start composing?
I had already started composing. Both Jeff (Lohn, of Theoretical Girls) and I were very serious about it. That kind of punk lasted a month and a half with Theoretical Girls. After that, we just started to push it. We did shit that we couldn’t possibly have imagined. And the more fucked up it was, the better the audience reacted. People wanted this. They wanted something truly new. As much as I loved punk music, it was still blues-based. We were in the context of rock, but it wasn’t rock by any stretch of the imagination.
You just released the first piece you wrote for 100 guitars, Symphony No. 13. Why did you decide to release this now, and can you talk about some of the techniques you used to emulate the orchestral sound, just using guitars?
I had written a number of orchestral pieces at this point and I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to use the same approach with guitars. I had soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass guitars—as far as the tunings were concerned. It interested me to treat it like a guitar orchestra. I’m still learning how to do it right. I could say that about any of the music I’ve ever written. I’m never happy with a piece when I’ve finished it. The only reason why Lesson No.1 and The Ascension were ever released was because the record company demanded that I release them. I begged them on my hands and knees not to release The Ascension. I hated it. Now it’s the only record that I’m even known by.
Pitchfork rated it well—that’s why.
One of the last things you said in that interview with Alan was in regard to how pervasive electronic music has become. You said, “I make music, not sound.” How do you differentiate between the two? That was such a big idea that Cage worked with, so I’m curious to hear your definition.
Well I’m not sure if Cage wrote either. Cage wrote anti-music. I was a Cage fan when I was young, because he would do these collage pieces, and when I was very young I would do collage pieces on broken down tape recorders. So I’m not a Cage hater, by any means. He was the first conceptualist. There’s no question that the whole Manhattan downtown scene came out of Cage. He was so far in advance of everyone. I don’t think most people are aware of the fact that in the 1930s he did a performance in Town Hall where the entire group was playing nothing but animal bones. He was the first. He was the New York scene personified.
So how did you feel in 1982 when Cage heard your piece Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses and called you a fascist?
He didn’t actually call me that.
I’ve had so many thoughts about that. I did release a record of the piece that he heard in Chicago and I included a statement that I made about what he said in the album notes, and I put Cage’s entire interview on the record.
So you still feel the same way as you did in ’97 when that came out?
No, of course not, I’ve had plenty of different thoughts about that. On one hand, I think that Cage was being an egotistical little prick who didn’t like competition. On the other hand, I think he just misinterpreted what he was hearing, and that he simply didn’t like this kind of music. I mean, if the guy didn’t like it, that’s fine with me.
I’d still like to hear your thoughts on your “music, not sound” comment.
I thought I got by that one. In Europe, electronica is the music that people want to hear. And in all the clubs they have giant subwoofers under the stage, and these electronica musicians just make a gigantic noise that is nonmusical, as far as I’m concerned. Now I start sounding like John Cage.
Photo by Maria Jose Govea, courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool
What do you mean when you say nonmusical?
I just don’t like this idea of people buying very sophisticated digital instruments that, in a sense, are pieces of music unto themselves. All you have to do is push a couple buttons and then hit the keyboard and you get this gorgeous sound coming out. To me, the real composer is the guy that made the instrument, not the guy that’s playing it. And I mean they’re not even playing it; they’re pushing a bunch of buttons and turning it up really loud through these gigantic subwoofers that are capable of shaking entire buildings.
So how do you feel about today’s music scene, compared to then?
Of course there are good people out there—there always have been, but 99 percent of it is not very interesting to me. The audience determines the music they want. If all of those young artists hadn’t been excited about somebody doing an art rock band, I wouldn’t exist. I simply took the ideas of experimentalism and put them in the context of music.
One thing New York hasn’t come to accept is that the Grand Epic is over. We had this tremendous epic. I mean the heart of it lasted from the late ‘40s to the early 2000s, but it’s been over for 15 years. It’s not coming back. It’s over. Give me the name of a movement in any genre—dance, theater, visual art, performance art, music—that’s come about since about 2001. There hasn’t been one. We used to have one once a month. I’m not saying that things were better in the old days. I’m just saying that our Grand Epic is over. People don’t want to accept it. They just want to go to discos, that’s it. I wrote an (unpublished) article basically saying there will never be another John Coltrane. There will never be another Allen Ginsberg. There will never be another William Burroughs, or Jackson Pollack. And the article goes on for quite a long time, and it’s damn convincing. Where are they?
So do you have any hope for the music that’s happening now?
I wish I had a clever answer for that. No comment.
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.