Born on October 6, 1948, in Harrisburg, PA. Education: Attended Emerson College, in Boston, MA. Addresses: Record company--Atavistic Records, P.O. Box 578266, Chicago, IL 60657 E-mail: email@example.com.
Glenn Branca is a completely self-taught musician who made himself into one of the most controversial composers of the late 20th century. He established his name writing serious avant-garde music for groups that came to be known as "guitar orchestras": four or more electric guitars, some of his own invention, along with percussion and keyboards, that looked like a rock band, but which played high volume sheets of raw sound which apparently contained no melodies, themes, or development. "The Glenn Branca experience is an explosive one," wrote Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, adding that if Branca had written his music in the 1600s, he would surely have been hanged for witchcraft.
Branca was born on October 6, 1948 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His first musical love was Broadway musicals which he was able to see during regular visits with his parents to New York City. Branca decided to study theater and in 1971 received a degree in stage direction from Emerson College in Boston. He formed his own theater group, the Bastard Theatre, while he was in Boston. Although he had no musical training except for a few rudimentary lessons on the classical guitar, Branca began writing experimental music for his theater group, and before long he was splitting his time between theater and music. At one point, he considered putting together a rock band. He realized, however, that he had no chance of finding gigs in Boston clubs for the sort of austere band he imagined, and he gave up the idea.
In 1976, Branca gave up the idea of music entirely, got rid of his guitar, and moved to New York City to concentrate his energies on doing theater. In New York, he met Jeffrey Lohn, who shared his interest in cutting edge theater and avant-garde rock. They formed the Theoretical Girls, a combination theater/music project, whose work Branca described to William Duckworth in Talking Music, as "loosely rehearsed, high energy music." It was a time when punk, new wave, and then no wave was sweeping New York, and the Theoretical Girls played all the famous spots, especially Max's Kansas City and CBGB's. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they realized in short order that audiences were responding to them as a rock band far more than theater, and they forged boldly ahead in that direction. Branca later admitted it was his experience in the Theoretical Girls that changed him from a theater person to a music person. Branca and Lohn eventually began moving in different directions and Branca left the group, forming The Static, a band based on a musical group he had conceived of while studying in Boston.
But in 1979, when Lohn's Theoretical Girls were offered a gig at Max's, Branca asked if he could open the show. Instead of The Static, however, he brought a group of guitarists who played a composed work Branca had written, called Instrumental for Six Guitars. The piece had startled Branca as much as it did the first audiences to hear it. He had his guitarists tune their instruments in a non-standard tuning that Branca had devised. It led to some completely unexpected musical dynamics. "I didn't really know what six guitars playing in this tuning was going to sound like before I heard it in rehearsal," Branca told Duckworth. "The piece went through four varied sections. All of them sounded good, but the last section sounded stunning. The last section was so amazing that I actually stopped in the middle of the first rehearsal. I couldn't continue." The specially tuned guitars combined with the music's high volume brought out overtones that are not normally heard. "You could hear voices and choruses and horns and strings," Branca recalled for Duckworth, "all of this happening separately from anything I had written, conceived or even knew was there."
He set out to discover what was responsible for the strange musical phenomena he was hearing for the first time. When he learned that close harmonies tended produce the extra voices, he wrote even closer ones. Sonic intensity--loudness--was also a factor, so he added instruments and cranked them up. In 1980, about six months after Instrumental was first performed, Branca organized a permanent group to perform his compositions, the Glenn Branca Ensemble. He began writing longer and longer pieces for the Ensemble.
The process culminated in 1981 with the composition of Symphony No. 1, for guitars, keyboard, drummer and percussion. Until then, Branca still thought of his work as a "rock music." And that was reinforced by some of the music press which referred to his group as a "guitar orchestra." But when he started calling his work "symphonies," the serious music establishment, which until then had dismissed Branca as a pop musician, began to take notice, as if that moniker alone sufficed to give the music respectability. Branca explained to the New York Times' Steven Holden why he chose the name: "A symphony to me is a full-length, large-scale piece with a variety of instrumentation and orchestral range. I've never dealt with any kind of sonata form. But in the density of texture, the sense of slow movement and the development of thematic ideas, I think of my music as symphonic." Branca was clearly moving into the territory of minimalism and the modern avant-garde. At the same time his music retained all the trappings of rock: electric guitars played at bone-quivering volume.
Other symphonies followed. Symphony No. 2 used an instrument of Branca's own invention, the mallet guitar, a modified hammer dulcimer, with electric pick-ups and more strings than a guitar so a single guitarist could play many more notes. At the same time, his interest in music theory was growing. For Symphony No. 3, he modified harpsichords with guitar amplifiers and added them to his ensemble. He became absorbed in the harmonic series, which he discovered seemed to imply--mathematically almost--certain music. He developed new tunings for guitar to take advantage of his discoveries, and used them in his next symphonies. His study of the harmonic series led him to the science of acoustics, which in turn led to mathematics and its applications to his music. He plunged in with an abandon, and only emerged when he realized that his actual composition had nearly ground to a halt.
After Symphony No. 5 was written, the Christian Science Monitor wrote about Branca's "cascades of sound you've never heard before." And for Branca himself, that was exactly the point of his music. He told Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith that he was "trying to make some kind of music that I've never heard before. Admitting that such a goal was inherently difficult, he added, "it seems I never get it right which means I just have to try again.... I'd say there are four or five kinds of pieces that I want to hear, none of which I've successfully written yet."
He pushed on though, into the study of musical theory, and was eventually able, in the mid-1980s, to write for conventional orchestra. He and choreographer Greta Holby were commissioned by the Opera Tomorrow Festival to write an opera based on Woyzeck by Georg Bchner. The collaboration with Holby did not work out, but Branca completed one scene of the opera, entitled In Passion's Tongue which was performed at the festival in 1986. Branca recycled other material composed for the opera in his first large-scale work for full orchestra, Symphony No. 7. After that work, Branca threw himself into composing for symphony orchestra, producing pieces for dance, theater and film. He was attracted to the broader sonic palette that the orchestra offered. For years, he avoided writing for guitar ensemble. He accepted the commission for Symphony No. 8, a guitar work, in the late 1980s, but only with great reluctance.
By the early 1990s, he was looking forward to some indefinite future when he would be able to write for a huge musical group he called a "Strange Orchestra:" a kind of super orchestra comprised of instruments from every musical tradition on earth. "I want to write for more interesting timbres than are available to me in the orchestra," he told Cole Gagne. "I want to put together an orchestral sound--you see, I love the orchestral sound--but I want to introduce all kinds of other instruments that I love too.... But I'm not talking about just a hurdy-gurdy or bagpipes. I'm talking about hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, sarangi, sitar, tamboura, musette, steel drums--a whole spectrum, a massive orchestra that would include all the orchestral instruments as well and would be treated as a western orchestra." In other words, Branca sees his place solidly within the Western avant-garde tradition; he is not interested in writing world music.
By the mid-1990s, however, Branca had returned to the guitar compositions and aural assault that had made his name. By the end of the century he had inhabited a musical no-man's-land where no conventional label seemed to apply to his music, which was how he liked it. Critics, when not outright hostile, were frequently mystified by the music. David Toop of the Times of London, for example, wrote: "The beauty, or horror, of Branca's art is that all of it is much the same.... This is music frozen in a null-point between agony and ecstasy, but good fun, nonetheless." Even composers differ. John Cage denounced Branca as fascistic after hearing Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses; composer Ben Johnston, who heard the same performance, later said with fascination: "It was like looking through a microscope at a world I've never seen." For Branca, however, all that matters is the sometimes quixotic search for music he has never heard before.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Glenn Branca's Career
Moved to New York City, 1976; formed Theoretical Girls with Jeffrey Lohn, 1976; composed first piece, Instrumental for Six Guitars, 1979; composed first large scale work, Symphony No. 1, 1981; composed Symphony No. 2, for own invention, mallet guitar, 1982; studied acoustics, mathematics and music theory, 1980s; first work for traditional orchestra (commissioned), an opera based on play Woyzeck by Georg Bchner, 1985; completed first large-scale work for symphony orchestra, Symphony No. 7, 1989; composed ballet, The World Upside Down,1990; composed Symphony No. 8 (The Mystery), 1992; composed Symphony No. 9 (L'Eve Future), 1993; composed Symphony No. 10 (The Mystery Pt. 2), 1994; composed Symphony No. 11 (The Netherlands), 1998; composed Symphony No. 12 (Tonal Sexus), 1998.
- Selected discography
- The Ascension , Robi Droli, 1980.
- Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) , ROIR, 1981.
- Music For The Dance 'Bad Smells' ,GPS Records, 1982.
- Symphony No. 2 (The Peak Of The Sacred) , Atavistic, 1982.
- Symphony No. 3 (Gloria) , Atavistic, 1983.
- Symphony No. 5 (Describing Planes Of An Expanding Hypersphere) , Atavistic, 1984.
- The Belly Of An Architect , Crepuscule, 1987.
- Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven) Atavistic, 1988.
- The World Upside Down , Atavistic, 1991.
- The Mysteries (Symphonies No. 8 + No. 10) , Atavistic, 1994.
- Symphony No. 9 (L'eve Future) , Point Musi, 1994.
- Anderson And Five Generations Of American Experimental Composers, Schirmer Books, 1995.
- Gagne, Cole, Soundpieces 2: Interviews With American Composers, Scarecrow Press, 1993.
- Smith, Geoff, and Nicola Walker Smith, New Voices: American Composers Talk About Their Music, Amadeus Press, 1995.
- Christian Science Monitor, August 1, 1983; November 23, 1984.
- New York Times, December 23, 1983.
- Times of London, February 28, 1994.