Glenn Branca, Composer Who Blended Genres Loudly, Dies at 69
Posted May 15, 2018 4:57 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Glenn Branca, a composer who began his musical life playing with influential downtown rock bands in the 1970s, but whose omnivorous musical curiosity soon led him to create a hybrid style — blending classical, rock and avant-garde elements — that laid the foundation for much of today’s genre-crossing new music, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 69.
His wife, guitarist and composer Reg Bloor, said the cause was throat cancer. She said he died in his sleep at a hotel where they were staying while arranging for him to be brought up the stairs to their apartment.
Branca’s compositions often used massed amplified guitars of various kinds — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — to give his sound the same breadth as that of an orchestra.
Many of his works are meant to be performed at high volumes, partly so the overtones of his amplified guitars would linger and pile up, creating a phantom layer of harmony beyond what the musicians were playing, and partly as a purely tactile element, meant to both envelop and physically shake his listeners.
In the right hall, with a tightly packed audience, the roar of his guitar symphonies could have an oddly unifying effect, as if the musicians, the room and the audience were vibrating to the same pulse. John Rockwell, writing about Branca’s Symphony No. 1 (“Tonal Plexus,” 1981) in The New York Times, described it as “the loudest piece of music this writer has ever heard, anywhere; it made the Who sound like a convocation of lutes.”
In performance, either playing guitar or conducting, Branca could seem ecstatic and almost manic, his thrashing gestures involving his full body, his arms flailing, his head gestures so kinetic that his hair seemed to fly in several directions at once.
But though sheer noise was a distinctive element of his music, it was by no means its only salient feature.
He used unusual tuning systems, minimalist repetition techniques, complex rhythmic and contrapuntal figures, and structural elements borrowed from the romantic symphonists. And though his works cast in rock hues were his best-known scores, he also composed chamber works and symphonies for conventional instruments, beginning with his Symphony No. 7 (1989) and his String Quartet No. 1 (1991).
As his career progressed, he expanded his instrumentation, sometimes modifying conventional instruments to suit his needs. In his Symphony No. 3 (“Gloria,” 1983), he affixed electric guitar pickups to harpsichords so he could both amplify and modify the instrument’s delicate, plucked sound. In his Fourth Symphony (“Physics,” 1984), he modified a piano, adding a movable bar that could glide over the strings to change their pitches. His Fifth Symphony (“Describing Planes of an Extended Hypersphere,” 1984) called for “mallet guitars,” played percussively.
“What I most respect about Glenn Branca is that he’s an absolute original,” composer Steve Reich told The Times in 1995. “There are very few people who put a clearly defined stamp on their music — but right when you walk in, you know that’s Branca.”
Glenn Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 6, 1948, and began playing guitar when he was 15. His main musical interest at that point was rock, and he formed his first band, the Crystal Ship, while a student at York College in Pennsylvania in 1967. More than music, though, Branca was interested in theater, which he later studied at Emerson College in Boston.
While in Boston, he helped start the Bastard Theater, an experimental troupe for which he wrote plays — usually, he later said, without characters or plot — as well as directing and creating tape collages to be used as incidental music.
He also worked in a record store, where, he said, he listened to virtually every album in stock. Along the way he fell in love with the Mahler symphonies, the Beethoven piano sonatas and works by Varèse, Messiaen and John Cage, as well jazz musicians like Miles Davis and New York punk-rockers like Patti Smith, the Ramones and Television.
Soon after moving to New York, in 1976, Branca joined forces with Jeff Lohn, a classically trained guitarist who was more interested in experimental music than pop; they formed the Static and, shortly thereafter, Theoretical Girls. Both groups became leaders of the No Wave movement, adopting punk’s noise but discarding conventional song forms. Branca and his confederates built a devoted audience with works that were loud and unpredictable and that formed the basis of Branca’s later concert pieces. He also began collaborating with other guitarist-composers, among them Rhys Chatham, Phil Kline, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, performing their music as well as his own first experiments in concert music for rock instruments. And in the late 1970s he started a record label, Neutral, which released early recordings by Swans and Sonic Youth.
“I was just kind of messing around, trying different ideas,” Branca said of his early ensembles. “One of the ideas I had was to do a piece with a lot of guitars using unusual guitar tunings. The sound was just so awe-inspiring. It was ridiculous to be fooling around with this little rock band when I could get this tremendous orchestral sound.”
His works for expanded rock configurations occupied him exclusively for a decade. But as they grew increasingly complex, he became drawn to writing for orchestral instruments.
But what did not change was the spirit of his music; it retained the drive and power of his earlier works. And, as it turned out, the orchestral experience led him to expand his rock ensemble to symphonic dimensions. With his Symphony No.13 (“Hallucination City,” 2001), he began writing for ensembles of 100 guitars and percussion, a layout he also used in his Symphony No. 16 (“Orgasm,” 2016).
While working on the first of his 100-guitar symphonies, Branca met Bloor, who had moved to New York in 1999 after completing her studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Though she went on to build her own career, her first jobs in New York were duo concerts with him, and she continued to perform in his larger ensembles, often helping to assemble the musicians. She is his only immediate survivor.
In his later years, Branca often said that he rarely listened to other people’s music, and that he found both classical music and rock fairly static. But he continued to be inspired by the musicians he loved in his younger years, including David Bowie, whose death in 2016 led him to write a tribute piece, “The Light,” which had its premiere at Roulette in Brooklyn the same year. Oddly, but not atypically for Branca, who could be contrarian on principal, he refused to acknowledge that his music had grown more complex and varied over the years.
“I don’t change,” he told The Times in 2016. “This is something critics always talk about, but has no relation to the way I work. I don’t move on. I do new things, but I don’t leave the old ones behind. I’m simply adding to my repertoire of ideas.
“At any time, I may decide that I want to continue the development of one of the earlier threads,” he continued. “I’ve written visceral and complex music from the very beginning.”