Glenn Branca(October 6, 1948 – May 13, 2018) was an American avant-gardecomposer and guitarist known for his use of volume,alternative guitar tunings, repetition, droning, and the harmonic series. Branca received a 2009 Foundation for Contemporary ArtsGrants to Artists Award.
Life and work
Beginnings: 1960s and early 1970s
Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Branca started playing the guitar at age 15. He also created a number of tape sound artcollage pieces for his own amusement. After attending York Collegein 1966–1967, he started the short-lived cover band The Crystal Ship with Al Whiteside and Dave Speece in the summer of 1967. In the early 1970s, Branca studied theater at Emerson Collegein Boston. In 1973, he moved from Bostonto Londonwith his then girlfriend Meg English.
After moving back to Boston in 1974, he met John Rehberger. While there, he began experimenting with sound as the founder of an experimental theatergroup called Bastard Theatre in 1975. Working out of a loft on Massachusetts Avenue they wrote and produced the music/theater piece Anthropophagoifor a two-week run. In 1976, The Bastard Theatre's second production was What Actually Happenedat a new loft in Central Square, Cambridge and later at The Boston Arts Group. Considering the unconventional and sometimes confrontational nature of the productions, the shows still received interested reviews from the Phoenixand The Boston Globe. All music for Bastard Theatre productions were original compositions by Branca or Rehberger and were performed live by the actor/musicians.
New York: Late 1970s and 1980s
In 1976 Branca moved to New York Cityto continue in experimental theater. He encountered the N. Dodo Band and watched their rehearsals in Chelsea, hoping to use the space for a theater production. Branca spent time with one of its members, Jeffrey Lohn, who introduced him to bands such as Suicide. The two began forming a theater group when Branca decided he wanted to form a band, which he called the Static and later Theoretical Girls. Branca put up posters to recruit members, and after seeing one of the posters, Lohn expressed interest.
Lohn's girlfriend Margaret De Wys joined the band as its bassist, and they borrowed drummer Mike Anthol from the N. Dodo Band. Artist Dan Grahambooked the band at Franklin Furnacefor its first performance.The group reformed in 1977 with Wharton Tiersas its drummer.Branca also recorded Barbara Ess's band Y Pantsfor their debut release on 99 Recordsand performed with Rhys Chatham's Guitar Trioin 1977,a noise musicexperience that was very important in the development of his compositional voice (Branca 1979). In 1982, Branca launched his own record label, Neutral Records, releasing Y Pants' LP and the first few records by New York noise rockersSonic Youth.
In the early 1980s, he released his first album under his own name, Lesson No. 1.In the same year, he composed several medium-length compositions for electric guitar ensembles, including The Ascension(1981) and Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses(1981). The Ascensionappeared on his second same titled solo album in 1981, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masseswasn't released until 2008.
Soon after these two compositions, he began composing symphoniesfor orchestras of electric guitars and percussion, which blended droningindustrial cacophonyand microtonalitywith quasi-mysticism and advanced mathematics. In 1982 he worked with Z'EVfor Brancas Symphony No. 2 in which Z'EV had a solo segment swinging with metal can overhead, and rattling chains and sheets of steel. With Symphony No. 3 (Gloria) (1983), he began to systematically compose for the harmonic series, which he considered to be the structure underlying not only all music but most human endeavors.In this project, Branca was initially influenced by the writings of Dane Rudhyar, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Harry Partch.
Early members of his group included Thurston Mooreand Lee Ranaldoof Sonic Youth, Page Hamiltonof Helmet, Phil Klineof The Del-Byzanteens, and several members of Swansincluding Michael Gira, Dan Braun, and Algis Kizys.
Custom build musical instruments
To further develop his compositions based on the harmonic series Branca built several electrically amplified instruments of his own invention, expanding his ensemble beyond the guitar. A few of these instruments were third bridgezithershe called harmonic guitars. He also built instruments with many strings which he referred to as "mallet guitars" because they were percussioninstruments played with drumsticks and monotone electric cymbalomswith an additional third bridge on resonating positions. Many of these instruments can be seen in the live performances that appeared on the DVD Glenn Branca - Symphonies 8 & 10 - Live at The Kitchen.
Recent work: 1990s to 2018
In the early 1990s, David Baratier attempted to document Branca's teaching style in They Walked in Line. In September 1996, The Glenn Branca Ensemble played at the opening ceremony for the Aarhus Festivalin Denmark. The ceremony took place in the Musikhuset Opera House, and in the audience were the Queen of Denmark, the mayor of Aarhusand other dignitaries. After the composer received more than 25 major commissions starting in 1981 until the time of his death in 2018, Branca's music has started to receive academic attention. Some scholars, most prominently Kyle Gann, consider him (and Rhys Chatham) to be a member of the totalistschool of post-minimalism.
Beginning with Symphony No. 7, Branca began composing for traditional orchestra, although he never abandoned the electric guitar. Branca also played duetsfor excessively amplified guitars with his wife, Reg Bloor, and conducted his 13th symphony for 100 electric guitars at the base of the World Trade Centerin New York City on June 13, 2001, less than three months before the center's destruction in the September 11 attacks. Since that time his 100 guitar piece has been performed in cities all over the U.S. and Europe. In 2008, he wrote his 14th Symphony, entitled The Harmonic Series, which is performed by a traditional orchestra. The first movement of this symphony, named 2,000,000,000 Light Years From Homepremiered in St. Louis performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestraconducted by David Robertsonon November 13, 2008. This was the 12th major orchestra to perform Branca's orchestral work since 1986.
In 2008, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary ArtsGrants to Artists Award as well as a CAPS grant in 1983, an award from the National Endowment for the Artsin 1988 and a NYSCAgrant in 1998, all for music composition. In 2010, Fortissimo Recordsre-released Branca's 1981 album The Ascensionas a special edition on 180 grams vinyl and Branca wrote a piece The Ascension: The Sequel, which was released in the same year on the label Systems Neutralizers. This follow up piece led to new interest in his work and notable performances at Primavera Sound Festival2011 and Villette Sonique2011.
In October 2014, Branca premiered Ascension Three, touring it with Glenn Branca Ensemble in Europe. In February 2015, Branca's second 100 electric guitars piece, Symphony No. 16 (Orgasm), was premiered at Cité de la Musiquein Paris. The Light (for David)for four guitars, bass and drums, premiered in October 2016 at the Roulettein Brooklyn.
On May 14, 2018, Reg Bloor's official Facebook page revealed in a post that Branca had died from throat cancerthe night before.He was 69.
Brancas musical output let to inspiration of many other artists that worked with the extended techniqueshe has developed during his career. Most notable is Sonic Youth. The members of that band played in his orchestra, Branca published their debut EP and the use of the drumstick prepared guitarsand bands signature octave tuned guitars are directly copied from Brancas approach.