Today provided yet another reminder of why I am reluctant to subscribe to The New York Times in either a print or an online version. Glenn Branca died on May 13, yet it was only through an article that came through my “NYT > Arts” RSS feed this morning that I became aware of the news. The article was by Seth Colter Walls, and it was apparently classified as a “pop music story,” which is a category that I tend to avoid. The piece was a “top ten tracks” affair with a passing reference that a “full obituary of Mr. Branca will follow.”
Personally, I feel that Branca deserves far more than the usual “pop treatment.” Many, if not most, of his albums deserve to be treated as a coherent whole, even if listing to that whole in its entirety could border on the unbearable. My own “first contact” with Branca came through choreographer Twyla Tharp when I saw a performance of “Bad Smells” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Branca wrote the music explicitly for the choreography, and the performance provided me with one of my most memorable encounters of unrelenting dissonance that was both auditory and visual. Thanks to Tharp, Branca’s name became firmly planted in my long-term memory.
Over subsequent years I began to follow up by collecting full albums, first on vinyl and subsequently on CD. The first of those albums was his third symphony, whose full text title was Gloria: Music for the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series. (Those who have followed this site for some time can probably figure out why the title appealed to me.) The album was a recording of a performance made at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 16, 1983; so the venue itself had a positive disposition. What appealed to me was the intense discipline required to perform this music, whose dissonant stance departed significantly from the approach taken for “Bad Smells.”
On the other hand I was becoming braced for the sterner stuff. I arrived at that point when I went back to the first symphony, whose full title is Tonal Plexus: Music in Four Movements for Multiple Guitars, Keyboards, Brass and Percussion. This was one of those pieces that could never be given a satisfactory account through recording, simply because the intensity of it all would blow out just about any audio equipment intended for home use. As one of my old friends put it, this was “music to melt the wax in your ears.” Quite honestly, I doubt that I would have the stamina to sit through this music being performed; but, even at the “distance” imposed by recording, I could appreciate the intensity and the rhetorical stance that took one to the brink of unrelenting violence.
I would later learn that Branca’s approach may have been one of the few performance experiences that turned out to be too much for John Cage. Thus, the release of the album Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses came with a booklet including text entitled “Cage’s Folly;” and a recording of Cage in conversation with Wim Mertons. Whether Branca really came too close to the brink of fascism (or crossed it), as Cage suggested, in some of his performances may be debated for some time. These days I suspect that many would find what he did relatively mild compared to more recent disruptive approaches to performance. What is most important, however, is that there was always a solid foundation of music behind the surface structures of intense amplitude and rhetoric.
It is probably time for me to go back to review the Branca corpus, not as isolated tracks but as the well-conceived architectures that the composer had in mind.