Avant-Garde Composer Glenn Branca Recounts His Cacophonic Symphonies One-By-One
Tony Cenicola Branca's wife and musician counterpart, Reg and Glenn (far left)
Call Glenn Branca the "guitar guy" and see how fast the spiky-haired composer swears, sneers, or stalks out of the room. Though his retuned axes gave conceptual inspiration (and sidemen gigs) to Sonic Youth, and have often been the bedrocks of his pieces for 30 years, Branca's 15 symphonies have included microtonal harpsichords, homebuilt mallet guitars, overturned trash cans, and traditional European orchestras.
His latest, Running Through the World Like An Open Razor, premieres Saturday at Le Poisson Rouge, and--palette-wise--is easily his most ambitious yet. It features over 100 different instruments including shrutis, a swangsarum, and (possibly) his good ol' steel wire harmonics guitars. "I want to hear something that sounds like it came from another planet, which is something I've wanted to hear since I was a kid," says Branca. He recently recounted the history of his symphonies.
Symphony No. 1: Total Plexus (1981)
For: guitars, keyboards, brass, and percussion
The #1 came after I had been doing a lot of pieces for multiple guitars, on records like The Ascension and Lesson No. 1. I did a piece for 10 guitars. I thought that a symphony could be approached as a theater piece, like the long form of music, a full evening-length piece of music. The idea of doing a symphony made sense. I did incorporate a few orchestral instruments into that piece. It was one of the only times I did that with a guitar piece. And I did a lot of stuff with tunings. In some cases, I used non-conventional guitar strings, like untempered steel wire that you'd buy in a hardware store.
Symphony No. 2: The Peak of the Sacred (1982)
For: eight mallet guitars, taped harmonic guitars, bass drums, metal percussion, and drums
Almost all the instruments were built specifically for the piece. There wasn't a single actual guitar in the piece, except for bass. There were 13 or 14 musicians, including Z'ev, who played his own kit with very noisy metallic stuff. The instruments I built were what I called mallet guitars. I liked the open string sound of guitars, it had a richer more harmonic sound than when you're dampening the harmonics by putting your finger on the frets. I called them "staircase guitars." They were sort of like a zither. I didn't have any money at all in those days. They were built with screws, and two-by-fours. I could afford to buy tuning pegs.
Symphony No. 3: Gloria (Music For the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series) (1983)
For: modified harpsichords, bass, drums
At the time, this was 1981, there were no instruments designed for [microtonality] that I knew of. I wanted to use keyboard instruments, like an early piano-forte. I approached an instrument builder, a real genius this guy, and he said, "Why don't you harpsichords instead? It'd be much easier to get the equipment." I also used the third bridge system and guitar pick-ups, and was able to tune each note entirely separately. The first grant I got was an instrument-building grant, which I used to pay for them. I used them for two more symphonies after that.
Symphony No. 4: Physics (1983)
For: modified harpsichords, bass, drums
The only one we toured extensively. In Europe, ironically. We did a 15-city tour. It was massive. We had to hire a truck and roadies. This was stuff I'd never had to do before, to drag all these instruments all over Europe. It was a killer. The budget was massive, and I ended up losing a bunch of money. When I got on that plane, I knew I was going to lose $12,000 that I didn't have, because I still had promised the musicians they'd get paid, which I tried to always do, since I started paying musicians. In the early days, everybody played for free, like they do nowadays.
Symphony No. 5: Describing Planes of An Expanding Hypersphere (1984)
For: mallet guitar, guitar, harmonics guitar, modified harpsichord, keyboard, violin, bass, drums
Probably the noisiest piece I've ever written. With all of the guitars and the harmonic series keyboards and the incredible kind of cluster sounds I could get, you could get all this acoustic phenomena in a good acoustic space, which would sound like voices and choirs and violins and trumpets, just coming out of these guitars and harpsichords. A lot of that doesn't get on the records. It's an aural hallucination kind of thing that's going on. It's really strange. You can't identify with it at all, so your mind is going through its filing cabinet trying to identify its sound.
1st Movement, live at the Kitchen
Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (1987)
For: drums, bass, keyboard, and between eight and ten guitars
The harmonic series was getting to be an obsession. I was getting interested it in more than a musical way. Without going into it deeply, it has philosophical and mathematical implications that are incredibly interesting. I found myself being drawn into this system of music where I was paying more attention to the harmonic series than I was to the music. I did a whole show of drawings based on the harmonic series [included in the liner notes to Symphony No. 5]. That was the point that I decided that I'd go crazy with this, that I'd end up writing theoretical papers and doing drawings. I decided to go back to the equal temperament system. [Symphony #6] was a straight on, straight out guitar piece. I wanted to concentrate more on composition. There was still a lot more I wanted to learn about composing music.
Symphony No. 7: Graz (1989)
I started getting some people who were asking me to write music for [traditional] orchestra. This was something I was very interested in. My music was becoming more complex. The guitars and the electric instruments couldn't really hold the complexity of it, the sound was too muddy. I couldn't use the kind of chords I wanted to use, I couldn't use the fast counterpoints and rhythms I wanted to use, because sometimes it would just turn into mud. And I don't like playing electric guitars soft. That's just out, as far as I'm concerned. I didn't try to do anything special with it, as far as tunings or stringings or anything. It's conventional orchestra. I would hope the music isn't entirely conventional. I basically wanted to hear what the orchestra would sound like and to write a symphony for it.