Glenn Branca’s voice was even raspier on Tuesday than it was back in February, when he premiered his latest work, The Third Ascension, at the Kitchen. But somehow the iconoclastic composer managed to croak his way through a chat with Alan Licht as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.
If you didn’t know the 67-year-old was an inveterate chain-smoker, you might guess his forced whisper was the result of having to shout down his musicians during rehearsals of his famously voluminous electric-guitar symphonies. (At least two current ensemble members, Reg Bloor and Arad Evans, attended Tuesday’s talk at Red Bull Studios in Chelsea, along with past member Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth.)
Whatever its cause, the rasp didn’t prevent Branca from sharing stories about his early cover band in his native Pennsylvania, his start in Boston’s and then New York’s experimental theater scenes, the artist Dan Graham’s role in popularizing Branca’s formative No Wave bands The Static and Theoretical Girls, and his transition to composing the hair-raising, heart-stopping guitar symphonies for which he’s now known.
Branca’s latest, a 2008 recording of Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City), is being released by Atavistic today. The piece, written for 100 guitars, is not to be confused with Orgasm, the 100-guitar symphony we saw in Paris. Branca isn’t releasing Hallucination City on his own label, Systems Neutralizers, because “it’s kind of bad timing,” he admitted. “People don’t buy CDs anymore—I don’t even buy CDs anymore.” Still, even if no one is waiting around to pop this one into their Aiwa, Branca is confident that the recording is “not to be missed. It’s a killer.” (Having seen the piece’s premiere at the base of the World Trade Center in 2001, I believe him.)
“We got a radio station recording and they really did a fantastic job on it, so it sounds as good as a studio recording,” Branca said, before going on to refer to one of his favorite composers: “I think if Bruckner had been alive today he’d get off on it.”
The audience gave that some applause, but what everyone is really anticipating is an upcoming performance at Manhattan’s Masonic Hall. On May 16, musicians like Justin Frye (PC Worship), Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy), Randy Randall (No Age), Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, Zs) and Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux) are banding together with Bloor and Evans to perform Symphonies No. 8 and 10 (originally recorded and released in 1994) along with the as-yet unreleased Symphony No. 12 (Branca said Red Bull may record and release that one).
Branca won’t be leading that performance (the musical director will instead be John Myers, a past collaborator), but on Tuesday he revealed that he had been working with the musicians online. “You can imagine the difficulty these sons of bitches are having,” Branca said. “Oh, I mean they’re great musicians, good rock musicians— but they’re not used to reading staff notation.”
Branca is notoriously demanding of his musicians. In 1982, John Cage was rattled by a performance of one of Branca’s first pieces for multiple guitars, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, and famously compared the music to fascism. He proclaimed that “Branca is an example of sheer determination of one person to be followed by the others. Even if you couldn’t hear, you could see the situation– that is, not a shepard taking care of the sheep, but of a leader insisting people agree with him, giving them no freedom whatsoever.”
At The Kitchen in February, Branca brought a performance of The Third Ascension to a sudden halt, seemingly because the music wasn’t synced properly with a slide projected on the wall. After a tense moment, his ensemble picked up where it had left off, but the sudden silence was jarring— especially since the work was being recorded for future release. On the other hand, Branca got laughs at the start of another movement when he announced that he was going to sit down and watch for a while, rather than doing his usual Frankenstein-on-crack lurching and swaying and gesticulating. (Bloor serves as the ensemble’s second in command, and also performs solo at venues like Bushwick’s Silent Barn, which helped make possible one of the movements in The Third Ascension.)
Despite the hiccups, Branca was confident this latest crew would pull through. “I think they’re going to get it— and if they do get it, it’s going to sound fantastic. It’s going to be beautiful,” he said, going on to praise the lavish Masonic Hall, built for the Freemasons over 100 years ago. “It’s like all marble— it’s really resonant, and for this particular music it’s perfect. People always used to have me play in churches, because the music would just resound. It would sound like orchestras, choirs, brass ensembles, all at the same time. And in a room like this they might get that sound, you know. That would be cool. I’d love to hear that sound again. It’s been many years. They just don’t let you play loud anymore.”
As for the days when Branca did turn it up to 11, he didn’t seem too interested in going “all the way back into the distant past.” He repeatedly poked fun at moderator Alan Licht (who interviewed La Monte Young at last year’s RBMA Festival) for bringing up obscure trivia. For instance, were you aware industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten played one of its first shows on a bill with Branca? “They were terrible” at the time, Branca said, though he admired the fact that their drum kit was made entirely out of metal. “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
That gig was at SO36 in Berlin, which is still active. “This is not the kind of shit that happens in Manhattan,” Branca, a West Villager, said of the venue’s perseverance. “We don’t give a shit about our history in Manhattan… We’re just tearing it all down here. Fuck it.”
Branca spoke with characteristic candor, at one point saying that East Village composer John Zorn “has pissed me off a little bit— he really, really does not like me.” (He didn’t explain.) At another point, he referred to fellow composer Rhys Chatham as a “prick.” In the early ’70s, when Chatham was The Kitchen’s first music director, he and Branca played in each other’s earliest groups a few times. Both went on to play with members of Sonic Youth and compose works for as many as 100 (Branca and Chatham) and 400 (Chatham) electric guitars. Chatham, who has also lured young Brooklyn musicians to play in his guitar orchestras, has said that he initially felt that like his style was “getting ripped off” by Branca, but he came to terms with it. Still, the composers’ similar experiments with overtones and massed guitars have led to several Chatham vs. Branca debates on message boards. (Chatham speaks more about himself and Branca as “competitors” here.)
Branca did have kind words for Bang on a Can director Michael Gordon (who he said belongs up there with Steve Reich and Philip Glass) as well as David Bowie. Back in 2013, when we spoke to Branca at the B+B Newsroom, he told us about a collaboration he did, in 2000, with Bowie and the late legend’s longtime video collaborator Tony Oursler. On Tuesday, Branca elaborated on the project, describing how Bowie came to Wharton Tiers’s studio to read a text that Ousler had written as part of an audio-video installation at the Expo 2000 in Berlin. “David was incredible,” Branca said. “This guy was a much, much better actor than anything anyone has seen from his videos or from the films that he’s in.”
Bloor, who is also Branca’s wife, wrote about the session after Bowie died in January: “He talked about underground comix and outsider art. He made fun of Glenn’s ripped jeans. Most of all, he was telling jokes the whole time, like he was doing a stand-up comedy routine. I think that was his way of controlling the room.” Bowie’s voice track ended up being cut when the project lost funding, and apparently has never been released.
Branca described the first time he met Bowie: “He had just put up his company on Wall Street and made $50 million in, like, one day… He was so excited— you wouldn’t have believed it. I’m a book collector and he was a book collector too, so we started talking about that, and he told me that he had just bought a book that cost $50,000.” (Bowie did love his bookstores.)
Branca didn’t recall the title of the book, nor did he recall the title of a book that Bowie once leant him: “But the funny thing was—and he was married to [Iman] at the time— it stank of whore perfume.” The crowd laughed, a little nervously. “I mean, for like, months. I mean, what the—you can’t tell me your wife wears perfume like this.”
Even if Branca is clearly a big Bowie fan, he won’t be making a dance record anytime soon. His closing words were: “I’m interested in complexity, not just shaking people’s bodies.” And with that, he ended the talk with a mic drop.