Downtown guitarist and composer Glenn Branca died last night at the age of 69. The longtime West Villager died in his sleep of throat cancer, his wife and collaborator Reg Bloor announced in a Facebook post.
“His musical output was a fraction of the ideas he had in a given day,” Bloor wrote. “His influence on the music world is incalculable.”
Hours after the announcement, Branca’s death was already being mourned by musicians such as Lee Ranaldo, who, along with his Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore, was a member of Branca’s guitar ensemble. “The beginning of my time in New York, 1979-1980, would have been nothing without the genius work that Glenn Branca was doing at that time,” Ranaldo posted. “The most radical, intelligent response to punk and the avant garde I’d ever seen.” John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards tweeted that his life was changed by watching Branca perform with his band Theoretical Girls.
That band, a pioneer of the No Wave scene along with acts like Suicide and Lydia Lunch, disbanded in 1981. Branca formed a record label that released Sonic Youth’s first album, and began writing hair-raising, heart-stopping guitar symphonies that called on the use of several open-tuned guitars at a time. His 1981 album, The Ascension, earned a perfect 10 from Pitchfork and was a favorite of David Bowie, who compared Branca’s massed guitars to something “akin to the drone of Tibetan Buddhist monks but much, much, much louder.” Writing in The Times in 1982, John Rockwell called it “music of massive sonic grandeur.”
Over the years, Branca’s “guitar army” produced hallucinatory, cacophonous, mind-melting symphonies that stretched the boundaries of both rock and modern classical music. Members of his ensemble included Michael Gira of The Swans, Page Hamilton of Helmet, and Phil Kline, best known for staging “Unsilent Night” in the East Village every year.
Branca spoke at length about his most well-known ensemble members, Ranaldo and Moore of Sonic Youth, when Bedford + Bowery celebrated his 65th birthday in 2013 with a live Q&A. As we noted in our recap of the event, the composer arrived with a bottle of whiskey and immediately lit up a cigarette. (Even then, his voice was noticeably raspy from chain smoking.) Both of these things were very much against the rules, but we weren’t about to to tell him so.
In her Facebook message, Bloor, who was also a member of Branca’s ensemble as well as a solo musician, acknowledged that her husband had a “gruff exterior,” but said he was “a deeply caring and fiercely loyal man.” Branca was known as a perfectionist. So much so that John Cage– rattled by a performance of one of Branca’s first pieces for multiple guitars, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses– famously compared the music to fascism and said that Branca reminded him of “a leader insisting people agree with him, giving them no freedom whatsoever.”
As a composer, Branca was known for his spastic lurching, swaying, gesticulating, and emotionality. At The Kitchen in 2016, he brought a performance of The Third Ascension to a sudden, tense halt, seemingly because the music wasn’t synced properly with a slide projected on the wall. He got laughs at the start of another movement when he announced that he was going to sit down and watch for a while.
Branca complained that critics tended to focus on his early work, but his recent symphonies were powerful as ever. In 2015, he premiered Orgasm, for 100 guitars, at the Paris Philharmonic. My review of that performance gives an indication of what Branca’s music is all about: relentless, sinister chord progressions that can be hair-raisingly unsettling. Controlled chaos. Sheer volume that brings goosebumps to your skin and occasionally tears to your eyes. Ethereal overtones that create the illusion of, say, a choir or a horn section (there’s a reason that 13th symphony, played underneath the World Trade Center in 2001, was titled Hallucination City).
In 2016, younger musicians like Justin Frye (PC Worship), Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy), and Randy Randall (No Age) banded together to perform Symphonies No. 8 and 10 (originally recorded and released in 1994) along with the as-yet unreleased Symphony No. 12. Nicole Disser’s review of the show for Bedford + Bowery was headlined: “Glenn Branca’s Guitar Orchestra Sorta Blew Out My Ear Drums, But I’m OK With It.”
While Branca’s music remained vital, his voice had grown noticeably raspier when he spoke at the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in 2016. During that conversation, he addressed his ongoing feud with Rhys Chatham, whose guitar ensemble he was in before going on to release The Ascension, and recalled an unreleased collaboration with David Bowie.
Branca had been working on an autobiography that surely went into more detail about both. While we wait to find out whether that and his unreleased recordings will ever see the light of day, go listen to his music. All of it. As Branca told us in 2013 (you can watch the entire conversation below), “I’ve written 15 symphonies and I can tell you most of them if not almost all of them are fucking gorgeous.”