There are few things in this world that make you feel more like a corporate lackey than sipping a free cocktail spiked with piss-colored (and flavored) energy drink at a show put on by said energy drink’s uber-branded festival that you didn’t pay for either. Ok, so maybe when it comes to the Marxist-guilt department, writing a glowing review about the aforementioned caffeine company’s spectacular music event tops one shameless night (ok, two) spent gobbling down all those freebies. But the real and honest-to-god truth is that Red Bull Music Academy is responsible for some truly killer (and sometimes truly rare) music happenings all over the world– Glenn Branca’s Symphonies, held at the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, were no exception.
Glenn Branca, of course, is the legendary guitarist and avant-garde composer with some serious music-dork street cred– I mean, mere mention of the guy’s name is liable to send anyone with a no-wave soft spot into an aggressive tizzy. He’s best known for his 1981 album The Ascension– a noisy wash of clangy, doom-inspiring guitar work and all-out disturbing weirdness (in other words– perfect)– which he dropped after disbanding Theoretical Girls.
Most recently, you’ve probably seen Branca’s name dropped around these parts for his insanity fest of a symphony, Orgasm (which calls for 100, yep, 100 guitars), as well as his second follow-up to that very first solo effort, The Third Ascension, which debuted back in February. And, heh, not to brag or anything– but Branca actually made an appearance (flesh, cigs and all) at the B+B newsroom a while back, and we’ve got the video to prove it.
The B+B editor in chief was lucky enough to catch Glenn Branca chatting it up at a talk held earlier this month (also part of Red Bull Music Academy stuffs), where the supremely raspy-voiced, 67-year-old composer waxed on about how freakin’ amazing this show was going to be. For one, the epic Mason digs were not too shabby, in terms of acoustics and atmosphere– seeing that the massive worship hall (er, whatever it is that Masons are doing in there…) was designed with old cathedrals in mind, complete with soaring ceilings, ornate details, a towering organ at the back, and balcony seating. Oh, and scarlet-red carpet that could easily conceal the dried blood of traitors.
By some great cosmic mistake, I was actually allowed to stumble into the Masonic confines for the Monday night showing of Branca’s Symphonies as performed by a buncha hellions. Just kidding, they were actually a group of “some pretty good musicians,” as conductor John Myers of the LA Philharmonic who’s been touring with Branca for something like 20 years, acknowledged to the crowd.
The cast handpicked to deliver Branca’s noise prophecy included Justin Frye of PC Worship on bass; Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy) manning baritone guitar and alto along with with Fabi Reyna (the 24-year-old founder of She Shreds magazine) and Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux); Arad Evans on alto bass; No Age’s Randy Randall and Red Bloor on tenor; both legendary metal god Mick Barr and Ben Greenberg of The Men on soprano guitar; and percussion impresario Greg Fox pummeling away on his instrument of choice. In short, I knew that the Symphonies were going to be epic, maybe not 100-guitars epic– but the secret-society scenery made up for it in ensuring a grand atmosphere. And who am I kidding? Nine guitars still make for a pretty hefty sound load.
I was maybe the last person in the door at the show. After pushing through the theater threshold, I struggled through a crowd and took a less than ideal side-stage seat behind a lovely pillar (which immediately reminded me of our good friend Market Hotel Pillar– take that, prissy music critics! even the freakin’ MASON hall had a pillar situation, and as talented craftsmen, I’m sure they’re very proud of their structural supports). As soon as my butt hit the seat, Myers lifted his arms, instructing the musicians to ready their weapons, and almost immediately after, there was a blast of incredible sound.
I was so bowled over by the in-your-face explosion that it took me a minute to make out all the faces on stage, floating above Persian rugs that evoked every basement show I’ve ever been to, and come to the realization that, yes, all of that noise and symphonic sound, part of the first movement of Symphony #10 was actually, actually coming solely from rock-band instruments. There were no strings, brass, or anything else that you’d fine in an orchestra pit or a philharmonic. It was strangely beautiful, but above all louder than the devil on a year-long meth bender– it definitely helped that I was about six feet from the enormous stack of speakers.
But I was also situated at a vantage point from where I had a complete view of John Myers’s face, which normally wouldn’t matter in the case of most tight-lipped conductors. Myers’s visage, on the other hand, was contorted into the most joyous expression I’d seen on anyone’s face probably ever (excluding that creepy primal thing that happens to people’s eyes when they’re watching their spittle-ing offspring do amazing things like point at a bird and say “burr”). So close were my sorry eardrums to the noise procession that I could read Myers’s lips. I could only make out numbers, mind you, but wouldn’t it be cool if he said something like, “Tighten up, fuckers!”? Except that there’s no way Myers would have ever said such a thing– the symphony was majorly on-point.
It seemed like it was a role the players gradually grew into, however, as opposed to one that came to them immediately and naturally. While Hunter Hunt-Hendrix was moving around like he would on stage during any Liturgy show, the rest were (initially) fairly stiff, looking down at their sheet music and uneasily up at their conductor and the crowd. At this point, the contrast was palpable– the ripped jeans, wrinkled tees, and long, metal hair that some of the players rocked, was the polar opposite of the high-minded implications of the setting and their symphony set-up. This lasted only through that first face-smashing, blood-letting 30-minute movement, and quickly melted away by the time Myers moved his army of shredders into “The Final Problem.”
I, too, had gotten past the initial shock of Branca’s music live (this show popped my Branca cherry) and decided that Symphony #10 was just as operatic in the Magic Flute sense, as “The Final Problem” was epically Wagnerian. While the first movement was decidedly noise pop, the second evoked grandeur and visions of a death-rattle/purgatory/celebratory-rebirth, cycle. Here, the guitars started to distinguish themselves as the sounds they were spewing suddenly became definable as cello-like and viola-esque (but none were quite violin-ish), while one guitar lingered above the rest, like a lone bassoon.
Some players were adagietto as all hell, speeding along like Paul Walker (RIP) in The Fast and the Furious 8 set in heaven. Other players’ ensemble rolls called for a languid, plucky persistence. Still, all of them were doing some impressive work, and I couldn’t believe how taxing a performance like this would be. Only one or two looked like they didn’t quite have the stamina or the patience, and were perhaps thinking about smashing their guitar on stage and calling it quits.
At “The Final Problem” finale, Branca made a choice to let the feedback linger, which might seem canned in a symphonic setting, but whoever was responsible for executing the piercing, hovering blast, did so naturally. The next movement, “The Horror” sealed the Branca trifecta of noise pop, power opera, and an all-out storm cloud of discordant haze. Somehow, one of the guitarists managed to emit sounds that were exactly like vocals– specifically, the penetrating screech of an opera singer doubling down on a moment of falsetto.
I left the Mason Lodge in an elated mood, my head felt blissed-out beyond belief, and the ride home was hazy– that might have had something to do with the fact that I could barely hear the lurch of the A train and the creaking slam of the subway doors, or anything at all for that matter. Or maybe it could be owed to the fact that Branca is especially capable of stirring up religious experience and lifting even in the most grounded people off into that otherworldly glory of classical music, without all the baggage it comes with, and with all the badass noise it declines to embrace.