Interview: Composer Glenn Branca



With his spiky, greying mullet, Bob Dylan shades and hotel room drink in a plastic cup, Glenn Branca cuts a mean, iconic hipster figure, a pure punk aesthete who for 30 years has been taking music -- call it rock, call it classical, call it Post-Minimalist, call it Maximalist -- to places the most shreddingest of experimental shredders fear to tread. In an infamous spat in the ‘80s, even John Cage turned a deaf ear to Branca’s wall of dissonance.

Branca is in town for a performance of his legendary “Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City)” -- a piece written for 100 electric guitars and played by local, volunteer musicians -- and the world premiere of “2,000,000,000 Light Years From Home,” the first movement of “Symphony No. 14” which was commissioned for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under director David Robertson. I sat down with Branca in the lobby of the Union Station Drury Inn to talk about the evolution of his sound and the rare Thursday night performance at the Pageant. – Roy Kasten


Roy Kasten: Let’s start at the beginning… Glenn Branca: The very beginning?

Well, your earliest interest in music. We don’t have to go all the way back to when I was ten years old. To begin, I had been doing theatre in Boston. I was experimenting with a lot of music in my theatre pieces. I had never thought of music as a career. Of course, I played guitar in my teens, like a lot of kids. But I really wanted to do theatre. When I came to New York in the mid ‘70s, that’s what I intended to do. But I had started incorporating music into the theatre pieces, to the point where it was almost like musical theatre, not in a conventional sense. I was doing totally experimental theatre, in fact to the point where there were no characters, no plot, it was really out there. It was almost performance art. All the actors were playing instruments. I didn’t realize music was where I wanted to go, but I had always had a desire to start a rock band.

I was in New York getting ready to set up a theatre group with a friend who had a loft in Soho. We were painting the whole place black and getting ready to do our own productions, plays we had written, pieces, whatever you want to call them. At one point, I said, “I’m starting a band.” I just couldn’t take it. I was really into the punk thing. I worshipped Patti Smith. I’m a ‘60s guy, I was into the whole psychedelic scene, and I was a big record collector. At the same time, I was into jazz, contemporary classical, international or ethnic music, the Ramayana monkey chant, the whole spectrum. At the time I didn’t realize who I was and what I wanted to do. I’d been doing theatre since I was eleven, and it was the only thing I had really thought of.

It turned out my friend who I was working with at the loft was a trained musician, and wanted a career as a classical pianist, but he had broken his thumb or something. So the moment I mentioned that I wanted to form a band, he said let’s do it. We just threw it together in a matter of weeks. I didn’t even have an electric guitar with me. We had a friend who was a successful performance artist, and he was really into punk, and he said, “Why don’t you do your new band on the same bill as one of my performance pieces at Franklin’s Furnace?” That was one of the cooler performance art places. We said sure.

So we had to put the whole thing together in three weeks. We wrote all the songs, got together all the instruments, borrowed a drummer from another band. It was an immediate success. To make a long story short, here we are, we’re on stage, in front of an audience, people love us, so let’s just do our theatre in the context of this rock band. Very quickly the rock band went from a very skewed version of a punk band. When I say skewed I mean both of us are coming from an experimental music tradition, and it became a real, honest-to-God experimental rock band. All of this happened in the matter of a couple of months.

Neither of us had any desire to be rock stars. That was not our intention. We just did anything we wanted. The strange thing is, the audience got bigger and bigger, the stranger we got. There were other bands doing similar things, though we didn’t realize it at the time. There was Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Mars, and they were all doing this post-punk, experimental stuff. Eventually some journalist came along and put a name to it and it became a movement: No Wave. And the whole thing went from there.

Glenn Branca solo, 1978:

Quickly, I started doing the kind of things I was doing with my theatre group, which was called the Bastard Theatre, in the context of rock music. I loved the music, but I was really more of a collector. I was the kind of person who would go on to be rock critic. But here I was in the middle of this exciting scene.

It went crazy from there. I started pushing it as hard as I possibly could. I started calling pieces “symphonies,” but saw them as theatre pieces. That was the first idea. I had come back from a European tour with a band of four guitars, bass and drums, and I wanted to push it further. So the idea of a symphony came to mind. I was a tremendous fan of Mahler, Bruckner as well as other twentieth-century composers who didn’t necessarily write symphonies, like [Oliver] Messiaen. I was crazy for that stuff. I thought they’d gone much farther than anyone in jazz and rock had ever gone. So I wanted to take all of that and put it in the context of rock. It wasn’t that there weren’t a lot of great experimental rock bands, like Henry Cow and Brian Eno and Zappa, of course, but what I wanted to do was something very different.

When I moved to New York there was all this tremendous stuff that wasn’t known outside of New York at the time. You have to realize, people didn’t know about Philip Glass and Steve Reich in those days. Terry Riley was the most well known, because he was on Columbia, I think. But the whole minimalist thing was extremely important to me. It all took off from there, riding on that wave.

So it was really about discovering an audience. Yes, it really was as simple as that. That’s what was so cool about New York. It’s like, I had no idea. In those days, New York was considered a scary place to go. You really had to have some balls to go down to New York and try to do your work. I discovered it was nothing at all like anyone had said. For me, it was like, Oh my God, I’m home. This is where I was always meant to be. Everybody who was there was a visual artist, filmmaker, musician. You name it. And everybody was doing experimental work. So the audience was made up of other artists of various kinds. That was certainly the audience for my band, which was called Theoretical Girls.

In Boston, there was no audience; there were a few people, but in New York you were overwhelmed with people who were all making work of their own. And music, without a doubt, is the most exciting, most inspirational art, in my mind, that anyone could do. As much as I love visual art, as much as I love experimental theatre, there’s something about music. It’s not literal, especially if you’re talking about instrumental music, so that it moves you in ways that other forms of art just can’t do.

I think that’s the way it worked. People came to my shows and other people’s shows, to get that feeling, that sense of excitement that drove their own work. It spoke to them. Even Jim Jarmusch came out of that scene. It was just one of those things that happened at that moment in time.

Tell me about the development of Symphony 13. The first time you performed it was in New York in 2001? It was 2001 in the summer. It was part of a festival. The piece had actually been commissioned in Paris for the millennium festival. They wanted to do it for 2000 guitars! Personally, I thought the whole thing was completely ridiculous. People don’t have a sense of big numbers. Once you get past a couple hundred, people lose a sense of what it means. But I couldn’t say no. I was never in a position to turn down a commission. You gotta pay rent. I did get paid to write the piece. My agent in Paris was very smart. She kept the commission separate from the production budget. The production budget, which was subsidized by the government, escalated out of control. It went over a million dollars. Completely absurd. Every person was grabbing their piece of the pork pie, and not to mention the whole millennium thing turned out to be a big bust.

But some people in New York heard about it and were interested. They suggested we do it for 200 guitars, and I said even that is too many, really, let’s stay with a hundred. That’s how it started off. It was in 2001 at the former World Trade Center. There were a bunch of bands that performed that summer, not just me. A lot of people made a big deal that we played there a few months before the buildings came down. Someone shot a video of just the buildings, shaking, and people made a big deal that it was some kind of, you know, prophecy. No. We were one of a number of performances on the festival.

What’s the biggest obstacle working with a volunteer army of guitarists? I mean, what could go wrong? So far, nothing! I mean, we’ve gotten great people who are really committed, really into the project. We put it together in such a way that hopefully people don’t have to take too much time off of work. It’s something that’s taken on a life of its own at this point. No question, everywhere we go, people want to do it. It’s a workshop situation in a way. It happens over a three-day period, though there’s a tremendous amount of work that happens. They get their parts in advance, and they’re expected to know their parts. There’s an internet site where they can talk to each other and ask us questions about their parts.

The piece is not easy to play. It’s not just getting up there and jamming and playing some chords. It’s really hard. In fact, the guitar piece is harder than the piece I’ve written for the symphony, which will also be on the program. Let me tell you, I didn’t do that on purpose. That’s just how it turned out. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have an orchestra as great as the St. Louis Symphony performing this piece of mine. I went to some trouble, to make it a good piece of music, and make it work for the orchestra. I’ve tried to make this a real killer, a real ass kicker.

Symphony for 100 Guitars, 2007:

What can you say about the premiere of Symphony 14 in advance? Well, the name of the piece. “Two Billion Light Years From Home.” What’s that a reference to?

The Rolling Stones song. Yes, “2000 Light Years From Home.” It’s one of my favorite Stones songs of all time. I also wanted to make an oblique allusion to the unfinished Charles Ives symphony, which was going to be called “the Universe Symphony.”

Had you worked with David Robertson before? No, never. It just came out of the blue. As it turns out, he lives just 40 or 50 blocks from me in Manhattan. But so do a hell of a lot of other people. He sent me an email saying, “Let’s get together and talk about something.” Normally, I’d say, “What is it you want to talk about?” In his case, I didn’t. I just said, “Whatever you want to talk about is OK with me, man.” I didn’t even say that. I just said, give me a time and a place. So I went up to this place and we went to a Starbucks around the corner.

He told me he wanted the 100 guitar piece, and then he told me the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was going to be playing on the same program, which is something I was not expecting. It blew my mind. Nothing like that had ever come close to happening. I couldn’t believe he had the audacity to suggest such a thing. And then he told me they were going to do a Varése piece and a Zappa piece, and I said, “Why don’t you commission a piece from me?” And he said, “OK.” I thought, all right. Fantastic. I’d never had a commission from a major, world-class orchestra. For me, it was a big deal. For him, it seemed like no big deal at all. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the best business meetings I’ve had in my entire life.

How do you think of the orchestral possibilities of the electric guitar? It’s usually thought of as a solo instrument. I never saw it like that. Even in the ‘60s, I was more into rhythm guitarists. I’ve never been a lead guitar fan or a virtuoso fan. That’s one of the reasons I like orchestral music. I like a big sound that kind of blends into this incredible mountain of sound, instead of one guy showing off his chops. That’s never interested me. Now, I have to admit, I’ve never had any chops, but I’ve never pursued a career as a musician. There are Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos that I have to admit are virtuoso pieces of music that are also gorgeous, that can’t be denied. But I’m more of a Bruckner, Mahler, even Wagner kind of guy. Even in the case of rock music. Most of what’s great about Zeppelin is not Jimmy Page’s lead guitar stuff. It’s all the very interesting things he did with chords and the kind of songs he wrote. It’s the same with the Beatles.

Are you still building instruments? No, not at all. I’m concentrating 100% on composition. That was a tremendous investment of time and money and energy, pretty much none of which I had. It was just too much. I found a way to approximate this microtonal system that I had developed for guitars and instruments that I designed and I figured out a way of doing that for the orchestra. That’s what the first movement of Symphony 14 is. The whole symphony will be about that when it’s finished. It’s for this tuning that’s based on the harmonic series, which is the most fundamental system of sound on the face of the Earth. I’m not a particularly religious person myself, but the harmonic series is as close to a sense of spirituality that I’ll get. It’s pre-existent, it exists in all forms of nature. What it is in the most straightforward sense is a series of harmonics or overtones that resonate when a string vibrates.

What most people don’t realize is that you’re not ever hearing a single tone. You’re hearing a combination of tones that are dominated by one tone. But all those tones put together, interpenetrating, are actually creating that sound. Actually every sound you hear, whether it’s knocking your knuckles on wood or a car crash, they’re all a combination of harmonics creating that sound. The system I’m using is the ideal set of harmonics created by a single vibrating string.

When I realized you could use it as a tuning system, it became extremely exciting to me. I had been working with tuning systems back to the late ‘70s. When I discovered that this natural form could be translated into music terms it was incredibly exciting. Now I can adapt it for orchestra, or an approximation of it, but the system itself is an approximation. Nothing is perfect. That’s why I use the term an ideal system of harmonics. Nothing will ever be perfectly in tune. It’s like the concept of infinity. It goes on and on and on, and never quite makes it. I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion, but there is philosophy here. This is the first time I’ve really had a chance to really do this the way I wanted to with an orchestra. People will see how strange and interesting, how different this is from what they might expect from an orchestra.

What advice would you give to the newcomer to this performance? Well, it depends on if you’re talking about the guitar piece or the orchestral piece. I’d say, come with an open mind. I like music that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before. That’s what I try to write. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. As far as the 100 guitar piece, I’d say bring earplugs. Well, personally I don’t think it should be listened to with earplugs, but if you’re not used to going to rock concerts, well…It’s not like it’s any louder than your average rock concert.

People have this idea that if you have 100 guitars it’s 100 times louder than Led Zeppelin. No, no. It is loud, but some of the loudness is an illusion. I like to work with dissonance. I definitely use more dissonance than any rock music you could imagine. But that’s what I like. When it works right, in the right kind of space and with a good performance, it’s actually a very beautiful sound, but it’s not what people are used to hearing.

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