Skip to main content

Glenn Branca obituary

Glenn Branca, composer, musician

Born October 6, 1948; died May 13 2018

Glenn Branca, who has died aged 69 from throat cancer, was a musical iconoclast whose appliance of a barrage of post-punk guitars found its voice in New York’s No Wave scene. He invested his series of increasingly ferocious-sounding symphonies with a classical sensibility that found both influence and respect, even as he continued to push his minimalist compositions to the limit. Without Branca’s unflinching and coruscating way with a guitar, bands such as Sonic Youth and Swans might not have applied their own form of experimentalism to similarly-inclined ear-bleeding washes of noise.

Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to John and Dee Branca. As a child he acted at the local community theatre, and developed an interest in Broadway musicals. As a teenager he branched out into rock music, and started playing guitar aged fifteen. He was also attracted to making tape-based sound collages. Between 1966 and 1967 he attended York College, and in the so-called summer of love, played in a Doors-referencing covers band, The Crystal Ship.

In the early 1970s Branca studied theatre at Emerson College, Boston, majoring in directing. His productions included George Buchner’s Leonce and Lena and Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, and were noted for their eclectic use of music, running the gamut of jazz, rock, contemporary classical and world music. After college he began writing plays. His first, Club Limbo, written in 1972 was never produced, though his second, Scratching the Surface, had a two-week run in a pub theatre in Earls Court after he moved to London. Both plays were absurdist farces.

On his return to Boston in 1974, Branca met John Rehberger, with whom he formed the experimentally inclined Bastard Theatre the following year. The pair wrote and composed for plays such as Anthropophagoi and What Actually Happened. As portents of things to come, the productions were uncompromisingly confrontational. One review said the music for one show ‘makes John Cage sound like Victor Herbert.’ Hungrily lapping up a welter of influences, Branca and Rehberger also performed as The Dubious Music Ensemble. The formality of the name, however tongue in cheek, was telling.

In 1976, Branca moved to New York with intentions of continuing Bastard Theatre, and producing his solo piece, Shivering Tongue Fingers Air. After meeting conceptual artist Jeffrey Lohn of the N. Dodo Band, he was introduced to the sounds of kindred spirits such as Suicide, and the pair ended up starting a band, the Theoretical Girls, named by Canadian photography-based artist Jeff Wall.

While the band only released one single, a 7” featuring Banca’s composition, You Got Me and Lohn’s piece, U.S. Millie, during their existence between 1977 and 1981, their punk-inspired slabs of metal guitar music sat well within the fertile and incestuous New York art-rock scene. Contemporaries included James Chance and the Contortions and DNA, who the Theoretical Girls would go on to appear beside on retrospective compilations from the era.

With Lohn concentrating on solo work, Branca formed The Static, and started performing his earliest multiple guitar pieces at Max’s Kansas City. At various points, Branca’s band formed to tour the material featured Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, both of whom would go on to form Sonic Youth.

The guitars-and-drums rawness of the Theoretical Girls and others on the scene eventually trickled down to a new twenty-first century wave of avant-garde primitivists. Such attention has helped make Branca’s work sound more palatable today, its belligerent minimalism now a more recognisable assault weapon in young bands’ musical armoury.

This isn’t to suggest Branca ever compromised. On the contrary. In the course of a wilfully singular career, Branca never wavered from creating an intense and physical experience. This wasn’t just for the audience, but for Branca himself, whose response to the sounds he conjured into being either through playing or conducting often saw him flailing and thrashing in crazed synch. It was if he was wired for sound on every level in deeply theatrical fashion.  

This was the case whether working on guitar pieces, or on chamber and orchestral works such as Symphony No. 7 (1989) and String Quartet No. 1 (1991). Such classical sensibilities became increasingly expansive, with early work for guitar ensembles such as The Ascension (1981) and Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses (1981) eventually giving way to cacophonous full-scale symphonies.

Over more than forty years, Branca released fourteen albums, wrote sixteen symphonies and penned scores for ballet, theatre, opera, choral works and art installations. His work has been performed by the London Sinfonietta and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and he worked with a slew of fellow travellers including David Bowie, the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Crash Ensemble and the Wooster Group.

While latterly he focused on composing, for all his musical iconoclasm, Branca retained a sense of theatre, with every performance becoming an event. In June 2001, Branca conducted his thirteenth symphony, for 100 guitars, at the base of the World Trade Centre in New York, just three months before the centre was attacked and destroyed.

In 2007, Branca appeared in the unlikely setting of a holiday camp in Minehead as part of the Portishead-curated Nightmare Before Xmas festival, a strand of the All Tomorrow’s Parties franchise. This was with the Paranoid Critical Revolution, who featured Branca’s guitarist / composer wife Reg Bloor, who he’d met during his first iteration of 100 Guitars, and drummer Libby Fab, another long-term collaborator. At the front of the stage, Branca wielded his Harmonics Guitar, an instrument with a neck welded to a second body, and designed to bring out clusters of harmonics that existed beyond the range of his amplifier.

The Harmonics Guitar was one of several customised musical instruments built by Branca on a par with one of his inspirations, composer Harry Partch. Visually the effect was that of two guitars locked in mortal combat. In this sense, Branca remained a showman, and his instrument a symbol of how he bridged the gaps between contemporary, classical and avant-rock musical forms, putting the guitar at its centre in consistently devastating fashion.

Branca is survived by his wife, Reg Bloor.

The Herald, May 29th 2018


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ceildh

Tron Theatre, Glasgow Three stars
One kiss is all it takes for everyone to understand each other in Catriona Lexy Campbell and Mairi Sine Campbell’s new play. Linguistically that is, as ancient and modern are brought to rollickingly intimate life by the Gaelic-based Theatre Gu Leor (Theatre Galore) company in the Tron’s Vic Bar en route to an extensive cross-Scotland tour. The set-up is the sort of ghastly tartan-draped corporate function whose perma-grinning hostess Lisa makes bogus claims of preserving culture while blatantly intent on flogging it off to the highest bidder. Think McWetherspoon by way of Trumpageddon.
With the audience ushered into a cabaret table arrangement by Lisa’s step-daughter Eilidh and serenaded by Eddie’s oh-so-couthy accordion playing, the dirt from Harris is unearthed along with a bottle of David Beckham-branded whisky. This causes the corporate shindig to be disrupted on an epic scale by seventeenth century poet Mairi Ruadh. Which is when both the kissing an…

The Duke

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Four stars
Shon Dale-Jones seems like a very nice chap. You can tell from the way he welcomes each member of the audience into the theatre, shaking them by the hand to a soundtrack of energising 1960s feel-good soul. Such a personable approach helps create a warm and intimate atmosphere, so when he sits at a desk with only a laptop, a volume control and us for company, you can’t help but be charmed from the start of this hour-long foray, both into his own fantastical mind as well as the discursive set of first-world contradictions it lets loose into the world.
It begins with a Royal Worcester porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, which Dale-Jones’ dad bought in 1974 for £750. This would make it worth more than £8,000 in today’s money if his mum hadn’t broken it while dusting. This is just one more thing for Dale-Jones to think about as he attempts to apply a script doctor’s ruthless critique onto a film script he’s been working on for a deca…

This House

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Four stars
Five years is a long time in politics just as it is in the theatre. When James Graham’s epic reimagining of one of the most pivotal eras in late twentieth century British democracy first appeared in 2012, its depiction of the aftermath of the 1974 hung parliament in Westminster chimed with a then current coalition. Half a decade and a couple of referendums on, Graham’s dramatic whizz through to 1979’s successful vote of no confidence in the Labour government now looks like a warning.
Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s touring revival of a production first seen at the National Theatre begins with both sides of the House marching en masse in their grey suits and twin-sets down the aisles of the auditorium before cutting a well-choreographed rug in formation. As the Labour and Tory whips mark out their territory away from the chamber, this proves to be one of the few moments of unity in a breathless yarn that picks at the old-school gentleman’s agree…