Farewell Glenn Branca – you darkened the skies, as promised
I’m very shocked and saddened tonight to read of the death of American composer Glenn Branca, October 6, 1948 – May 13, 2018).
In memory I would like to share a little feature I wrote about his work and my earliest memories of experiencing his music, originally published in The Wire magazine in 1999.
Symphony No. 4 (Physics)
Music from the First Seven Octaves of the Harmonic Series (with 10 Hertz as the fundamental frequency)
‘Tonight the skies will grow dark over Hammersmith” read the tantalising line in the London listings magazine and my bookish teenage eyes were drawn to the photo of an almost messianic figure, mouth wide open in ecstasy, scruffy jacket with upturned collar in its almost obligatory punk fashion violently ravishing the guitar thrown around his skinny neck.
I recognised his name. Inspired by a review that ensnared me with it’s unforgettable closing line: “Nobody was ready for this…MOVE MOUNTAINS, IF NECESSARY, TO OBTAIN THIS RECORD’, I’d been astonished listening to an imported copy of Glenn Branca’s recording The Ascension (99 Records). I was already a disciple of this rock and roll renegade.
The concert was on a Saturday so school was not a problem and my job at the local library finished in time for me to charge up to Hammersmith to purchase a ticket. I waited in line with a diverse gallery of characters, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan fleshy art mob – women in horn rimmed glasses, couples in tuxedos with mohicans, leather jackets and Doctor Martens boots everywhere. I knew no one.
Alone, I bravely sat in the front row, nervously read the programme notes and tried my utmost to look cool in my ex school blazer and shamefully porcupine blonde hair. The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath. The bejeaned figure that shuffled onto the stage at the Riverside clutched a bottle of Coca Cola but didn’t resemble the illustrious figure I had envisaged. Accompanied by 10 more bohemian musicians they assembled around a series of coffin shaped wooden boxes on trestles that were to be their instruments : Branca’s Mallet Guitars, a form of contemporary dulcimer fitted with an electric guitar pickup, balanced by the rather more conventional organ, drums and bass. Rows of amplification carpeted every surface at the rear of the hall.
Nothing could prepare me for what was to follow – each of the symphony’s three movements began with a rumbling wash of abstract sound punctuated by chiming chords that crashed and leapt angrily against one another, building into the most extraordinary, sustained climax, percussion forceably entering at the pinnacle. Branca was seemingly possessed, inside the music. Waving his hands in the air, conducting the mass, sipping the Coke and then throwing the whole bottle over his sweating head, using his entire body to direct the composition. The absurdly lanky and skinny guitarist Thurston Moore span his head round 360 degrees in time to the music; Lee Renaldo raced hammer patterns across his guitar and Barbara Ess of ‘Just Another Asshole’ magazine harvested rumbling bass signals that seemed to expunge the very pit of my stomach. To sit there and watch these haunted figures mould into one unit, to dissolve and direct the sound into the space was a performance the like of which I had never seen, drawing me completely inside the music, and as it built its sustained highs, then recessed again, then reached higher and higher, the onslaught evolved into an experience for me that was absolutely hypnotic and awe inspiring.
I felt as if I had experienced an authentic symphony of the streets. Fusing the monochromatic texture of rock with classical polyphonic grandeur in the most brutal fashion I genuinely felt as if something had mutated inside me. Attempting to convey this experience to a school chum who accompanied me to a repeat performance the following evening was futile. He left midway, back home to listen to his Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream collection. I felt misunderstood. How could I share this spectre? These two performances were to motivate this teenager to an interest in work of Varese, the bruitisme of the futurist movement, the no wave instrumental art-rock of the late 1970s with DNA and Lydia Lunch, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, The Swans. Few performances would ever have the same impact again – Rhys Chatham at the ICA a year later, Einsturzende Neubauten at North London Polytechnic, La Fura Dels Baus in Docklands.
Interestingly no recordings exist of Symphony No. 4. It is the one missing principal work in the canon of Branca. As magnetic tape is nowhere near as competent a memory system as the brain perhaps this is the best thing. Arriving home that first night my mother asked me how the concert was. All I could do was shyly smile and attempt to awkwardly illustrate that it had been the best evening of my life. Ever my mother she responded “oh that’s nice. What a weird son you are Rob.’
Let me leave this rough, raw and visceral video I filmed of the last show of his I caught in London, live at LCMF 2013 / Bold Tendencies with the Glenn Branca Ensemble, 27 July 2013. Filmed at the front of a capacity crowd in an industrial car park in Peckham, London, it featured Branca’s immortal words “Eric…f**king asshole…turn off the goddamn feedback, the only thing I can hear now is the f**king snare drum” after which he kicked over the music stand and stormed off ‘stage.’ RIP Glenn!