Artist Spotlight: Glenn Branca

Back in high school, I would often take lunch in the choir room. It was quiet and safe. On occasion, it was just me and Mrs. Sidener. She would usually eat in her office, leaving me free to mess about on the piano. One of my favorite things to do was to press the sustain pedal and slam my arm across the keys. As the sound would decay, I would lay my head on top and listen to the notes blending together, wrapping around each other and giving birth to new notes and overtones. It was what I imagined heaven, if it were real,1 would sound like. That sound got my heart rate going and filled me with an excited apprehension, and I love it. Two artists make sounds that, while different in execution, produce that happy, scary feeling. The first and favorite is Glenn Branca.

Glenn is most famous for writing works for multiple, sometimes 100, guitar symphonies. He cam into this style during the early 80s NYC Branca has a goo No-Wave scene. His style emphasizes harmonic overtones, unusually tuned guitars, and guitar-like instruments of his own construction. His concerts were noted for their overwhelming volume. This volume was off-putting to some, but essential for producing the feedback and overtones that can’t be achieved and a normal, volume. The concerts notably unnerved composer John Cage, who described Branca’s work as “a sustained climax.” Although most famously known for pieces full of oppressive dissonance, he also wrote pieces of consonant beauty. His use of open and unusual guitar tunings and unique playing techniques were a heavy influence on the band Sonic Youth, whose members Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo met as players in Glenn’s Ensemble.

Branca has a good number of releases under his belt. According to Discogs, he has 22 official releases including recordings of his early No-Wave bands, Theoretical Girls and The Static.2 Most are recordings of his works as performed by the rotating cast of his ensemble. Some recordings better than others. In an interview he did for the late zine Forced Exposure, he lamented that “It just doesn’t make it on the tape the way it sounds live.”

His first full-length LP release The Ascension, is my favorite and is, to my ears, his most accessible. It was released in 1981 on 99 Records, a label he co founded that also released Sonic Youth’s first self-titled EP along with records by ESG, Bush Tetras, and Liquid Liquid among others. It has short and medium length works and it showcases his already confident grasp of that “Branca Sound.” If this has made you at all curious to hear his stuff, I would recommend that as a starting point. By the end of that record, you’ll know whether you dig it or not. I’ll link to it below.

Glenn Branca is a huge influence on how I approach music composition and performance. And I’m sure he has done the same for countless others. His death this past Sunday hit me hard. This is far from a comprehensive overview of his life and works. I didn’t even mention his conventional orchestral and chamber works that are also worth your time and attention. He will be missed.

Glenn Branca, 1948-2018. R.I.P.