Many artists have had their music described as a wall of sound, but few have deserved it as much as New York composer/guitarist Glenn Branca. One of the first to realize that a classical-rock fusion need not involve technique-crazed keyboardists soloing away to the accompaniment of rehashed Brahms or Stravinsky, Branca writes music of orchestral richness that retains — intact — all of rock’s danger, urgency and impact.Rock’s impact on Branca’s music is clear, but the reverse is equally obvious. It’s easy to hear the influence of Branca’s cacophonous but transcendent electric guitar chorales on bands like Sonic Youth and Helmet (both of whom include alumni of Branca’s ensemble) and, by extension, their myriad progeny.
Branca’s power-classical makes an art of the phenomenon of overtones, wherein combined frequencies produce phantom tones. Although the effect is much more dramatic live and at concert volume, Branca has also managed to make some thrilling records with the overpowering, monolithic grandeur of a Richard Serra sculpture, as if the crescendo of “A Day in the Life” were extended into full-length symphonies.
With his roots in the downtown no-wave movement of the late ’70s, Branca’s Lesson No. 1 was the first release on the influential 99 label. Slow, repetitive harmonic changes and hidden sub-motifs invite comparisons to minimalists like Philip Glass, but Branca’s music is more dissonant, primitive and — above all — loud.
The Ascension is the closest he’s ever come to an out-and-out rock album. Atop pulverizing bass/drum combinations, Branca and three other guitarists build a thick, layered mass of shifting textures, sometimes all on one chord, sometimes in a dense cacophony of six-string clusters. Suffice to say, it packs quite a wallop.
Branca’s side of the joint disc with poet John Giorno is music commissioned for a dance piece (Bad Smells) by Twyla Tharp. Except for very brief sections of quiet, most of it is resembles The Ascension.
Played by large ensembles, Branca’s symphonies incorporate a plethora of amplified instruments of his own design (primarily dulcimer-like things strung with steel wire and hammered with mallets) in addition to guitars, horns and a battery of percussion. He builds intense drones and ear-shattering crescendos while exploring the sonic possibilities of large tonal clusters and the resultant overtones. Symphony No. 1 alternates between one relentless, thundering chord and primal rhythmic pounding. As instrumental layers build, overtones clash to produce melodies of their own, and can even trick the listener into hearing instruments that aren’t there. Symphony No. 3 adds homemade keyboards, giving an orchestral and almost Oriental sound to the piece — delicacy amidst the thunder. Both recordings are hindered in that it is impossible to capture the full effect of his live performances, where the volume generally runs around wake-the-dead level.
After a long recording hiatus, Branca’s Symphony No. 6 (subtitled Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven) was released in 1989. Maybe an ear specialist suggested he turn things down a notch; several of the old ideas are in effect, but volume levels, compositional techniques and textures are much more varied than on previous works. No fewer than ten guitarists, ranging from Swans/Of Cabbages and Kings bassist Algis Kizys to conservatory-trained classicists, plug away at a million and one riffs, leaving space for fairly prominent keyboard parts. Branca doesn’t renounce volume, but he arrives at it by way of crescendos rather than instant deafness.
Symphony No. 8 (The Mystery) is as brilliant as Branca gets. With the composer conducting a ten-piece guitar orchestra, the first movement (“The Passion”) runs through teeming, vertiginous scales, producing a downright Hitchcockian sense of high anxiety. The second movement (“Spiritual Anarchy”) unleashes the full arsenal — illusions of heavenly choirs, French horns, tuned gongs, strings and other sonic mirages all emerge from Branca’s colossal tone clusters, combining with Virgil Moorefield’s pounding drums to reach one unimaginably intense plateau after another. You’ve already got your money’s worth but then there’s Symphony No. 10 (The Mystery Pt. 2). Densely packed with massive black storm clouds of electric discord, like heavy metal Penderecki, the first movement (“The Final Problem”) is exultantly malevolent, while the second (“The Horror”) seethes with relentless, frenetic clangor.
Perhaps to save his hearing, perhaps to woo the classical establishment, perhaps to investigate different timbral realms, Branca abandoned the electric guitar and began writing music for traditional classical instruments and even voice. And yet the master’s harmonic fingerprint is all over the rapturous World Upside Down, a seven-movement work for symphony orchestra. The stunning piece marks a crucial stylistic leap, especially in the slowly swirling, oceanic first, fifth and final movements; here Branca unveils a new harmonic palette, new rhythms and a clear affinity for unalloyed beauty.
A symphony for orchestra and wordless choir in one 47-minute movement, Symphony No. 9 (L’eve Future) continues Branca’s exploration of non-linear composition, a collage of sensations rather than a narrative. The tones are softer (although no less intense), the solemn, almost ambient mood inviting critical comparisons to Gòrecki. A cryptic liner note reference to a post- apocalyptic theme seems almost redundant, given the piece’s overwhelmingly vivid sense of hope and fear. In what amounts to a bonus track, the vibrant eleven- minute “Freeform” could almost be a missing allegro movement from the symphony, its relatively hectic pace only underscoring the great strides Branca has made.