Today's act once mused "I'll sell out anytime anybody wants me to, but there are no buyers." This accords with the artist's perennial position on that fringe between the edgier end of art music and the artsier end of rock. An admirer of Young, Glass, and Reich, and a mentor to members of Sonic Youth, Helmet, and the Swans, he helped pollinate the downtown New York scene in the 1980s and '90s and infused experimental rock with minimalist ideas. While he earned his reputation with a series of high-volume, microtonal works for multiple electric guitars, his oeuvre also includes works for traditional orchestral forces. In the face of his eclectic output and rather ambiguous aesthetic, the label "crossover" is at once convenient and clumsy. ....N'joy !
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Branca was born in 1948 in Harrisburg, PA, he started playing the guitar at age 15. He also created a number of tape sound art collage pieces for his own amusement. After attending York College in 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 College in Boston. In 1973, he moved from Boston to London with 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 theater group called Bastard Theatre in 1975. Working out of a loft on Massachusetts Avenue they wrote and produced the music/theater piece Anthropophagoi for a two-week run. The lead actor, John Keiser, was chosen in The Boston Phoenix as one of the best performances of the year. In 1976, The Bastard Theatre's second production was What Actually Happened at 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 Phoenix and The Boston Globe. All music for Bastard Theatre productions were original compositions by Branca or Rehberger and were performed live by the actor/musicians.
Branca moved to New York in 1976. His first encounter with the NYC music scene was with the N. Dodo Band whom he observed many times at Phil Demise's Gegenschein Vaudeville Placenter. This is where he first met Jeffrey Lohn who at the time played electric violin with the N. Dodo Band.
Branca formed two bands in the late 1970s: Theoretical Girls in 1977 with composer/guitarist Jeffrey Lohn and The Static with photographer/musician Barbara Ess. He also recorded Ess's band Y Pants for their debut release on 99 Records and performed with Rhys Chatham's Guitar Trio in 1977, a noise music experience 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 rockers Sonic 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 Ascension appeared on his second same titled solo album in 1981, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses was released no earlier than 2008 on CD.
Soon after these two compositions, he began composing symphonies for orchestras of electric guitars and percussion, which blended droning industrial cacophony and microtonality with quasi-mysticism and advanced mathematics. Starting 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.
He also built several electrically amplified instruments of his own invention, expanding his ensemble beyond the guitar. A few of these instruments were third bridge zithers he called "harmonic guitars". He also built instruments with many strings that he called "mallet guitars" because they were percussion instruments played with drumsticks and monotone electric cymbaloms with an additional third bridge on resonating positions. Early members of his group included Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Page Hamilton of Helmet, Phil Kline of The Del-Byzanteens, and several members of Swans including Michael Gira and Dan Braun
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 Festival in Denmark. The ceremony took place in the Musikhuset Opera House, and in the audience were the Queen of Denmark, the mayor of Aarhus and other dignitaries. After receiving more than 25 major commissions since 1981, Branca's music has finally begun to receive academic attention. Some scholars, most prominently Kyle Gann, consider him (and Rhys Chatham) to be a member of the totalist school of post-minimalism.
Beginning with Symphony No. 7, Branca began composing for traditional orchestra, although he never abandoned the electric guitar. Branca also plays duets for excessively amplified guitars with his wife, and conducted his 13th symphony for 100 electric guitars at the base of the World Trade Center in 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 Home" premiered in St. Louis performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson on 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 Arts Grants to Artists Award as well as a CAPS[disambiguation needed] grant in 1983, an award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988 and a NYSCA grant in 1998, all for music composition. In 2010, Fortissimo Records re-released Branca's 1981 album The Ascension as 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 Festival 2011 and Villette Sonique 2011.
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This is a collection of eight pieces from the three years before Branca's monumental album, The Ascension, wherein the listener can hear him laying the groundwork for his later concentration on massed electric guitars and overtones. Two bands are represented: the Static, a trio including Barbara Ess and Christine Hahn; and Theoretical Girls, a quartet with Jeffrey Lohn, Margaret DeWys, and Wharton Tiers. The two songs by the Static, both from 1979, point most clearly to Branca's future direction. Largely instrumental, with intensely strummed guitar riding over a pounding rhythm, they're only a step or two from compositions like "Light Field (In Consonance)" from The Ascension. Their sound may be likened to some of the so-called no-wave bands from the period (such as DNA), but Branca already showed a far greater preoccupation with a relatively strict structural framework and a special fascination with the overtones produced by oddly tuned guitars.
The earlier pieces, under the Theoretical Girls byline, are a mixed bunch. More ragged and more overtly adhering to a rock format, they fit into the noisy, punk milieu of the time as inhabited by the Contortions but, in songs like "You," they also show the possible influence of English art rock bands like Henry Cow. Happily, Branca discarded vocals within a few years, as his singing leaves something to be desired and his lyrics might best be described as "unfortunate."
For admirers of his later symphonies, this collection is certainly valuable for providing a glimpse of the environment from which he grew as well as several of his ideas in nascent form. Taken on their own, several of the pieces offer rewarding listening while others are of only historical value.
Glenn Branca - Songs 77-79 ( flac 183mb)
1 The Static - Don' Let Me Stop You 5:09
2 The Static - My Relationship 3:11
3 Theoretical Girls - You Got Me 3:52
4 Theoretical Girls - Jill 5:57
5 Theoretical Girls - Fuck Yourself 4:11
6 Theoretical Girls - TV Song 2:47
7 Theoretical Girls - You 5:00
8 Theoretical Girls - Glazened Idols 2:03
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If one chooses to categorize the music on this recording as "rock," this is surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made. But there's the rub. While sporting many of the trappings of the genre -- the instrumentation (electric guitars), the rhythms, the volume, and, most certainly, the attitude -- there is much about The Ascension that doesn't fit comfortably into the standard definition of the term. Not only does the structure of the compositions appear to owe more to certain classical traditions, including Romanticism, than the rock song form, but Branca's overarching concern is with the pure sound produced, particularly of the overtones created by massed, "out of tune," excited strings and the ecstatic quality that sound can engender in the listener. Though his prior performing experience was with post-punk, no-wave groups like the Static and Theoretical Girls, it could be argued that the true source of much of the music here lies in the sonic experimentation of deep-drone pioneers like La Monte Young and Phil Niblock.
Happily, the music is accessible enough that one can jump right in, regardless of one's direction of approach. Branca's band, unlike some of his later enormous ensembles, is relatively modest (four guitars, bass guitar, and drums), so the sound is comparatively clear and each member's contributions may be easily discerned. The chiming notes that begin "The Spectacular Commodity" are allowed to hover in the air, awash in overtones, before being subsumed into a rolling groove that picks up more and more intensity as guitar chords cascade one atop another, threatening to, but never succeeding in, toppling the whole affair. "Structure" plays with sonic torque, whipsawing between two differently stressed voicings of the same theme, pulling them back and forth like taffy.
But the title track is both the consummation of the record and the surest indication of Branca's direction in later years. It begins with a marvelously dense haze of ringing guitars, feedback, and percussion, with a foreboding bassline contributing to the strong sense of disorientation. Midway through, it abruptly shifts to harsh blocks of sound over a rapid rhythm, the blocks differing in texture but played in alternating sections, smacking into each other and further heightening the tension. These disparate sounds eventually coalesce into a pure, ringing tone that, over the last minute of the piece, explodes into a spectacular cacophony, a seism of bell tones, microtonal eruptions, and near orgasmic guitar bliss. An absolutely stunning, jaw-dropping performance.
Branca's music has served as a major inspiration to many alternative rock bands that surfaced in the '80s and '90s, notably Sonic Youth; both Lee Ranaldo (who plays on this recording) and Thurston Moore were regularly members of his early ensembles. The Ascension, in addition to being an utterly superb album on its own merits, uniquely invites listening from both adventurous rock fans and aficionados of experimental electronic music. For years, the vinyl release on 99 Records, with its stunning cover illustration by Robert Longo, was a highly sought-after collector's item. It was finally issued to compact disc in 1999 by New Tone.
Glenn Branca - The Ascension (flac 277mb)
01 Lesson No. 2 4:55
02 The Spectacular Commodity (For Eiko And Koma) 12:38
03 Structure 3:09
04 Light Field (In Consonance) 8:18
05 The Ascension 13:10
Solo 1978 2:00
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Branca subtitled this work as "music for the first 127 intervals of the harmonic series," and one can certainly sense a more arcane, less overtly rockish approach here than on previous releases such as The Ascension. This may also be due to the fact that, by this time, his musicians were for the most part no longer utilizing traditional (though retuned) electric guitars. Instead, homemade instruments had been created, wherein guitar strings and pickups were attached to two-by-fours that were laid in banks horizontally and played with small sticks or mallets. In performance, one interesting effect of this technique was that, through amplification, an enormous volume of sound was capable of being produced by very slight and gentle tapping of the strings.
Symphony No. 3 begins with airy, sustained chords, making their way in calm fashion through the harmonic series Branca described. They are allowed to simply hang in time -- each complex, each very beautiful on its own. After about ten minutes, high bell-like tones are introduced, the initial chords now serving as a solid ground for additional activities. Soon (one might say, inevitably), Stefan Wischerth's drums begin pounding out an insistent tattoo that evolves into a full-fledged, driving rock rhythm. As opposed to earlier works, however, the guitars maintain their cloudy harmonic attack and the result is a splendid tension. The third quarter of the composition involves the interplay of harsher, slashing chords with more turbulent and unfixed rhythms, and sets the stage beautifully for the closing section. Here, Branca returns somewhat to the form of the opening moments, but the chords now possess a dramatic respiratory quality as though the guitar orchestra itself is deeply breathing in and out. The effect is quite beautiful and brings a reflective close to one of Branca's more introspective works.
Glenn Branca - Symphony No. 3 (Gloria) (flac 238mb)
01 First Movement 22:19
02 Second Movement 18:10
03 Third Movement 5:02
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