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