April 3, 2003

Ed's Underground

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Experimental composer Glenn Branca was perhaps the most intriguing and enduring figure to emerge from the brief New York “no wave” scene of the early ’80s. After playing with a number of short-lived groups from that era, Branca struck out on his own, and his solo music is a brilliant synthesis of rock instrumentation and attitude with classical composition. On these two symphonies, Branca gave early warning of the tremendous impact his solo career would have.

His first symphony, Tonal Plexus, is also one of his most intimidating: a dedication to chaos and noise in four movements. The piece starts calmly enough with a long sustained note on horns and keyboards, then explodes once the drums enter. For the remainder of the composition, the arrangements just keep building and building until it seems like your ears will implode under the pressure. The guitars (as many as nine of them) are unrelentingly loud, but the interactions of the different instruments — many of which were custom-designed by Branca — are surprisingly subtle. The second movement’s exotic bell-like guitars reach a minimal serenity that recalls Steve Reich, while the third movement is a soaring opus of guitar distortion.

Branca’s third symphony, Gloria, is a much more restrained affair, though no less fantastic. The echoing, orchestral warm-up of the first movement slowly gains speed as it goes along, whipping up a frenzy of rhythmic drumming and roaring guitar noise. The difference in Branca’s compositional style by this time, not too long after his first, was striking. In the time between the two pieces he’d developed his “pure tuning” system (a refinement of La Monte Young’s similar “Just Intonation” method of piano tuning), and the instruments he built to utilize his system have an utterly unique sound. This symphony is alternately lovely and intense, never quite reaching the brain-shattering volume of the first, but preferring to bend minds more subtly.

Archived article by Ed Howard

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