Kim Gordon’s forthcoming memoir (being plugged at BAM tonight and Strand tomorrow) has brought new attention to the No Wave scene she emerged from during her downtown days in the early ’80s — Glenn Branca, one of the movement’s forerunners, was even name-checked in yesterday’s All Things Considered story about the book. And yet the premiere of Branca’s sixteenth symphony at the Paris Philharmonic on Friday strangely hasn’t received much attention, even though the hour-long opus has a hell of a title (“Orgasm”) and was written for a staggering 100 electric guitars (that’s 80 six-string guitars and 20 basses).
Maybe that’s because Branca has written 100-guitar symphonies before. I saw the first of them, his 13th symphony, performed at the base of the World Trade Center just three months before it turned to dust. While the twin towers made for a dramatic backdrop, hearing a Branca piece en plein air was somewhat of a letdown. Inside of a room like The Kitchen, where the composer debuted some of his earlier works, the sheer volume of his guitar army is overpowering enough to give you goosebumps and bring tears to your eyes, and the overtones that linger above the onslaught can create the illusion of, say, a choir or a horn section (there’s a reason that 13th symphony was named “Hallucination City”). Those overtones tend to dissipate outdoors – or, for that matter, when you wisely pop in some earplugs.
And yet, when I spoke to Branca on the occasion of his 65th birthday, he said the World Trade Center performance was revelatory for him: “I thought 100 guitars was going to sound just like mud, especially with the kind of music I write,” he said. “This sound was even more transparent than my small 10-guitar pieces… and I was shocked out of my mind.”
I was hoping for a similarly transcendent experience when I booked a ticket to Paris, which is pretty much what you have to do to see his latest: though Branca lives in the West Village, he does 90 percent of his work outside of New York, which is as baffling to him as it is to me. He spent October in Germany and France, premiering “Ascention Three,” a sequel to his highly praised 1981 album; in February, he played solo guitar pieces in Italy, Denmark and Poland.
At the 1,000-seat Philharmonie 2 hall on Friday, Branca shuffled onto the stage toting a stuffed backpack and wearing a blazer over a hoodie. (If you thought playing in the fashion capital of the world was going to send this iconoclast scampering to Le Marais for something chic, you were wrong.) As he leaned back on the podium, the seats filled up with guitarists, starting with his wife and ensemble member Reg Bloor, who took a seat directly to his left and snapped a photo of the sold-out room.
The other guitarists, who were applauded and called out by their friends in the audience, ranged from fuzz-faced to balding (almost all of them were dudes). Most were presumably Branca newbies who had answered a recruiting call that made it clear they’d be paid only in food and drink. (Not that they minded; a past recruit has described the experience as “a musical high.”) Knowing they’d only been slated for three seven-hour rehearsal sessions and a soundcheck, I was a little nervous for them as the drummer kicked things off by coaxing shimmying waves out of a gong. But then the guitars entered elegantly, with a series of harmonics akin to the most zen alarm-clock setting on your iPhone (I now want the “Cognac and Cigarettes” ringtone).
This would be the most subdued thing I’d hear all night: eventually the guitars settled into an interlocking march that was the sonic representation of M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” – each section of the orchestra was in lockstep with the other, but rising on different, perpetually shifting tonal planes. Until finally they stopped on a dime.
The next movement, “Entanglement,” started with the repetition of an ethereal chord similar to the one that kicks off Sonic Youth’s “Star Power” (Branca, of course, released Sonic Youth’s first record and has had Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore in his ensemble), which then gradually morphed and swelled into higher and higher registers. If the previous piece evoked Escher’s stairwells, this one was a straight stairway to heaven. It could’ve served as the soundtrack to a rapture scene — maybe the ending of Aronofsky’s The Fountain, to choose a suitably mind-bending one. This was classic Branca – the sort of piece that could’ve rightly been performed under Sacre Ceour’s towering dome and you’d think the massive pipe organ was in the mix even though it wasn’t. But if it started with ecstasy, it ended in agony, with a steady onslaught of staccato smitings that resembled a hammering at the earth and then a cacophonous howl that might’ve been sinners being sucked into its bowels. (Sorry if the description is a bit much, but Branca’s pieces are nothing if not bombastic.)
The next movement, “Interpenetrating Harmony,” incorporated another familiar element of Branca’s work: relentless, sinister chord progressions that can be hair-raisingly unsettling.
There are certain Branca pieces that convince you that if you were to listen to them on on the wrong drugs, you’d die of terror. This wasn’t quite one of those, but it came close. It was followed by a piece, “Wild Sound,” that, true to its name, began with clear, booming horn-like chords that soon spiraled into a tornado of discord. That controlled chaos only escalated during the finale, “Seismic Waves.”
I had my eyes closed through most of the performance, which is the best way to experience Branca (some claim to have visual hallucinations as well as the audio ones). As far as I could tell, he didn’t engage in any of the conniption fits he was famously prone to as a younger composer (not even he is immune to the effects of his music; he’s admitted to crying when he first heard one of his early works rehearsed, and who can blame him.) But his knees did often buckle as the sonic waves washed over him and he raised an arm in the air to signal the next progression.
Toward the end of the performance, a couple of younger guitarists who looked like they were probably in a post-punk band together finally lost it and began thrashing their heads. And then Branca kind of lost it, too. As the work approached its end (video above), he hunched backward and repeatedly cued rises in volume by upturning his palms and slowly raising his arms as if attempting to lift the entire orchestra. Finally the music ceased and he batted his mic stand away (Bloor caught it before it could put a dent in her forehead) in what was either frustration or satisfaction – who knows. One thing’s for sure: if it was a plain and simple mic drop, Branca definitely earned it.