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Over the Wall – #6

June 16, 2009

With everyone talking about the new Sonic Youth record, this week seems like a good opportunity to look at a figure who, after enabling their whole career, went on to be one of the most daring composers of his time.

Edition #6 – Dissonance: Glenn Branca.

Glenn Branca is an important, but sometimes unaccounted-for presence in modern music. He is an artist who has remained outside of any one category or another over his long career, and from his early work in the no wave scene, to his large symphonies in later years, his approach has remained challenging, mixing formal art and loud experimentation together. His pioneering work with the electric guitar over the last thirty years has shaped sounds seldom explored, and his output in the post-punk era remains some of the period’s most original and truly avant.

Branca’s engagement with punk and what followed began in 1976, when he moved to New York to pursue composition for theatre. He soon met fellow musician and composer Jeffrey Lohn and the two caught on to the punk happening. Along with drummer Wharton Tiers (who went on to become a very successful producer in later years) and keyboardist Margaret Dewyss, they formed Theoretical Girls, a short-lived but important group in the New York underground, in 1977. They were an active part of the ephemeral no wave scene, but were not one of the bands included on the No New York compilation, which left them out of said scene’s primary documentation. The jagged, arty punk of Theoretical Girls could likely have been the most influential of the no wave set, but being that the band only released one single before splitting up in 1978, they remained largely unheard for years. Later in 1978, Branca, joined by Barbara Ess and Christine Hahn, debuted a new group, The Static. Even shorter-lived and more cult than Theoretical Girls, The Static also had only one single released while together. Both groups remained in obscurity for years after they disbanded, but a 1996 compilation called Songs ’77-’79, collected Branca’s contributions to Theoretical Girls along with The Static’s single, while another compilation, Theoretical Record, released in 2002, features the songs Lohn wrote for Theoretical Girls. Initially, the recorded legacy of the band was planned to be compiled onto one record, but for some reason Branca decided to release his songs on a separate record, leaving Lohn’s tracks (the bulk of the band’s material) to gather dust for another few years.

After Theoretical Girls and The Static, Branca started working on instrumental pieces for electric guitar, pursuing his interest in twentieth century minimal and avant composition. Taking some inspiration from the work that Rhys Chatham was doing at the time with guitar pieces (Branca was a performer in Chatham’s Guitar Trio ensemble in 1978), he began composing longer works for electric guitar ensembles himself.  In 1979 he debuted his first work of the sort, “Instrumental for Six Guitars,” and between ’79 and ’81 he composed and performed the pieces that would be his first solo releases. The first of which, Lesson No. 1, came out in 1980 and was followed the next year by The Ascension. If Branca had done nothing else, these two records alone would have secured his reputation as one of the most innovative artists of the era, and a real explorer in terms of the guitar, but they were just the beginning. In more ways than one, it should be added, as among the players in Branca’s ensembles of this period were Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, who, of course, were shortly to form their own group and employ some of Branca’s techniques to great acclaim. The first Sonic Youth record (the 1982 self-titled one) was actually released on Branca’s small, short-lived Neutral label.

In 1981, Branca composed his Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), the first of, to date, thirteen full symphonies. Throughout the first half of the eighties his exploration of the guitar led him into entirely uncharted waters. He was using guitars as orchestral instruments, intricately tuned and arranged to create textures that had never been heard before. He also began experimenting with the instrument itself, crafting various specially made guitars, sometimes making them into percussion instruments and so forth. In the later half of the eighties, Branca’s works began incorporating more traditional orchestral elements in addition to his array of guitar treatments. His works grew in scope as his commissions grew, leaving more resources at his disposal. The culmination would have to be Hallucination City (Symphony #13), Branca’s best-known work, a piece for one hundred guitars that was debuted in 2001.

Branca’s discography is a difficult one to trace, as he has been composing and performing since the early eighties, but not always recording the works. To date, not all of his symphonies have been recorded, and very few of his commissioned pieces and works for film and stage are commercially available. In some ways, his presence and intention alone suffice where a discography might not. For nearly thirty years, Branca has been testing the limits of the guitar and audiences. And for most of those thirty years, he was so fringe, so outside that only the most adventurous listeners and players were completely on board with him. He drifted further and further away from the rock world over time, but was not accepted by many in the classical crowd. Since the late eighties, he’s remained more in the contemporary classical realm, and eventually gained his place among the lineage of twentieth century composers he was inspired by. He remains a compelling figure for both the worlds of classical and rock, though, not fitting easily into one or the other. It’s likely that the full purview of Branca’s work won’t be completely understood for some time, but he’s opened up some doors which will be waiting for further exploration.

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