Legendary experimental composer and guitarist Glenn Branca died in his sleep on May 13 after suffering from throat cancer. He was 69. Lawrence English looks back at Branca’s incredible contributions to avant-garde music and the influence it had on his own music and outlook.
Glenn Branca’s history is complex. Between 1976 and 1981 he laid the radical groundwork for decades of innovation to come. He played a central role in the formation of no wave through his band Theoretical Girls. He performed on Rhys Chatham’s legendary Guitar Trio and, as the 1980s arrived, he released his debut recording Lesson No.1, a critical blast of just less than 20 minutes. The following year he unveiled his debut solo album, The Ascension. From there, his ambition for the works expanded rapidly, pushing the possibilities of his ensemble works to literal symphonic scales.
Branca’s music, whilst divergent in terms of structural and compositional methods, was aesthetically united through an absolute belief in the capacity of the guitar to create resonance and tonality in excess of the standard ways in which the instrument was utilized in more traditional popular music. He worked tirelessly to expand the harmonic capacity of the instrument through clustering, tuning techniques and other methodologies.
While his heart was filled with post-punk disdain, his mind was rooted in zones of mathematics (hence the interest in harmonics), politics and in music as divergent as Penderecki, Mahler and Gagaku, Japanese court music and some of the earliest music concerned with orchestral arrangements. Branca collided at the nexus of two seemingly opposing worlds: his work drew from the formalist structures of western art music but he imbued these frameworks with a tonal discontent fueled by punk aesthetics. Between these two positions, and perhaps because of these two positions, he was able to create considerable friction that, once ignited, categorically transcended the raw materials he used to conceptualize and execute his works.
“He had an absolute belief in the capacity of the guitar to create resonance and tonality in excess of the standard ways in which the instrument was utilized in more traditional popular music.”
In his pieces, Branca was always searching. The work, at its best, maintains a curious ambiguity and appears to operate at a subliminal level. Harmonies emerge and decay from unexpected spaces within the compositions. Whilst the pulse of the music surges with a sometimes-frenetic pace one can never become fully settled. Expectations are never absolutely met and this is indeed the beauty of the work. The journey is paramount and at times unerringly delicate and detailed, even if utterly loud and forthright. Euphoria is everywhere.
The work often polarized audiences, however. In one particularly excellent analysis, John Cage spoke at length about Branca’s work after seeing him in concert. His reading was a political one. Cage sensed the determination of control and drive that Branca put forth onto his players, this approach in direct opposition to Cage’s own desires for chance to break through.
In Branca’s music, chance did not exist in the moment of performance, rather its place sat somewhere in the past, in the creative exploration leading into the delivered work. To Cage’s credit, he surmised that whilst the approach may not be to his taste, it bares the marks of serious and unrelenting investigation. It is a defined mode, in search of a defined outcome.
I’m sorry to say I never had the chance to hear Glenn Branca in a live performance, let alone meet the man; being at the bottom of the world, it can be difficult to get access to such experiences. On two occasions I did attempt to arrange for Branca to travel to Australia, but both of these attempts were obviously unsuccessful.
To read of his passing then, I was deeply saddened to think I’d never have the opportunity to experience that wall of sound swirling around Branca as he maintained that individual sway of ferocious determination in front of a stage of musicians, with eyes like glue fixed on his every gesture. Hindsight brings with it a cruel focus. I can’t speak to the man, the person from which this work sprang forth. I can only speak as someone to whom these particular sonic offerings resoundingly impacted upon.
My debt to Branca is long and deep. His ways of approaching instrumentation, both in terms of contrasting harmony and intensity, have been central to some of the ways I have tried to approach composition in the last years. ‘Negative Drone’, from Cruel Optimism for example was built very much off a Brancian approach to harmony, and whilst those initial guitar patterns themselves are largely swallowed by another sound mass on the final mix, they were the seed from which that piece grew. Equally, large tracts of Wilderness Of Mirrors draw roots from some of Branca’s tonal palettes.
Branca’s work has never quite received the praise it deserves. I sense that in the next quarter century his output will continue to resonate, louder and more fully than it has through his time on this planet. He was an iconoclastic force, one with a powerful and determined concern. He dedicated his life to the fulfillment of that and, in this age of relentless distraction, we are so much poorer without dedicated figures such as him amongst us.
Lawrence English is a music producer and runs the Room40 label. Find him on Twitter.