Live: Glenn Branca And Philip Glass Reward The Patient At The Bang On A Can Marathon

Stephanie Berger
Glenn Branca

Bang On A Can Marathon: Philip Glass, Sun Ra Arkestra, Glenn Branca, Asphalt Orchestra, Talea Ensemble, BOAC All-Stars, JACK Quartet (and many more)
Winter Garden, World Financial Center
Sunday, June 19

Better than: Any 13-hour stretch of the Northside Festival.

It's not uncommon for a composer to introduce some colleague or another as one of history's greats. And so it was on Sunday night at the finale of 2011's 13-hour-long Bang On A Can Marathon, an annual festival celebrating music that "falls between the cracks" (as one is often told) of classical, rock, world, jazz and other genre definitions.

Just before 11 p.m., festival co-founder Michael Gordon testified to the crowd at the World Financial Center's indoor Winter Garden how Glenn Branca—the pioneering guitar symphonist who taught Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore how to de-tune and rock out in his bands dating from the late '70s—was one of his "favorite composers of all time." A few people whistled in agreement. But it was also late for many marathoners; even the most die-hard fans of "new music" get tired after half a day of sitting still and concentrating on sound while situated in the middle of a spacious, echoing mall expanse.

Branca decided the room needed a hype man.

"I think Michael Gordon is one of the greatest composers of all time," the composer bellowed, once he got a microphone that worked. And, in a nod to the pro forma nature of the mutual admiration society, he added: "We're gonna scratch each other's backs, here, but it's the fuckin' truth."

His word choice woke a few people up. (Bang On A Can's mission statement is aggressive in myriad ways, but casual use of profanity isn't one of its pillars.) And Branca wasn't even finished with his "fucks" yet.

"We are the Bang On A Can Marathon," he continued, pulling out a scrap of paper. "Described by The New York Times as ... '13 consecutive hours of experimental and avant-garde noodling,'" Branca said, letting the last word drip with all its "my five-year-old could do that" condescension. The crowd howled, newly awake. In a suit of smudgy black that matched the granular texture of salt-and-pepper hair brushing his jaw, Branca turned toward his four guitarists, bassist and drummer, and added, "I mean: What The Fuck?"

Thrusting his right arm skyward and his hips in the direction of Elvis, while also setting his left knee to bouncing in the caffeinated rhythm of early Jerry Lee Lewis, Branca signaled his sextet to kick into the furious opening gear of "The Tone Row That Ruled the World." There was nothing noodle-esque about it.

This pummeling, three-minute introduction to "Ascension: The Sequel"—a 2010 Branca composition after his original "Ascension," from 1981—prefigures the basic tonal elements of the hour to follow: a narrow range of pitches, which are passed back in forth in tempo relationships that crash into one another like carnival bumper cars possessed of their own rationale. This stretching and contracting and eventual collision—as in all Branca pieces—is exquisitely mapped out, however, so as to create mysterious overtones and choir-like capabilities that make the whole thing more than a mere exercise in din-maintenance. (Such complex careening, however, mostly excludes the drummer, who is required to keep steady beats motoring throughout each of the six movements.)

While the beginning of the fourth section (titled, confusingly, "Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)") begins with a guitar part seemingly out of the early No Wave playbook, you can hear how it gets around to an approximation of Reich's early style. The at-first easy-to-distinguish angularity of each guitar line is gradually phased and futzed with to the point where the whole thing becomes a gloriously complex wash. Branca's fist-pumping, bicep-clenched conducting pointed it, on Sunday, to a percussion-less penultimate section that finally resolved into a recapitulation of the opening chord—though this time, in unison, among the guitars. And they even let the drummer get some, too.

Here's some cell phone video of that last bit, taken by an audience member. (Also: this is how more people should conduct their music.)

The only time I have ever heard cries of "encore" at the end of a Bang On A Can Marathon came at the close of Branca's work on Sunday night. After a half-day of works that tried to break new ground, Branca's piece discovered the road to vitality that exists on the other side of utter exhaustion.

It was also just one hour out of 13.

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