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"My feelings were disturbed ... I found in myself a willingness to connect the music with evil and with power. I don't want such a power in my life. If it was something political it would resemble fascism" (John Cage, 1982).
The scene is the New Music America festival in Chicago, and Cage, the best known and most respected forefather of the American experimental music scene, is talking about Glenn Branca's Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses. That John Cage could so completely misunderstand what he was hearing is surprising, although polarised reactions to Branca's music have been common. When his Fourth Symphony was performed in Holland in 1983, several members of the orchestra that came on stage next, to perform Wagner, felt compelled to stand up and denounce what they had just heard, it rattled them so much. Inevitably, most of his audiences are extremely appreciative, they know what to expect and it's usually delivered by the lorry-load.
Branca's earliest music, from 1975, consists of his work on music-drama pieces with John Rehberger, with whom he co-founded the Bastard Theatre in Boston. Branca also founded the Dubious Music Ensemble, for whom he compose five short pieces. With Jeff Lohn in New York he formed the group Theoretical Girls, and as well as playing with Daily Life went on to form The Static with film-maker Barbara Ess. The Static combined No-Wave rock instrumentals with occasional very minimal vocal interjections showing the theatre / performance art background. Even at this stage, with his music still identifiably "rock", there are traces of Branca's later interests: sudden dynamic changes, repetitive riffs, huge chords.
It wasn't until the beginning of the 80s when Branca began to find his feet as a composer, with the release of seven works on an EP and LP from 99 Records. Like the later Bad Smells, these rest on an uneasy cusp between the rock elements and the pure harmonics of later compositions, with the energy and excitement of the former preventing the latter from developing far. In some ways, they come across better on record than the later Symphonies, because the less complex timbres and harmonies are compromised less by the recording process. However, compositions like The Spectacular Commodity and The Ascension already show the intensity and beauty that would make later works so memorable.
Branca's First Symphony was premiered in 1981, and it began a series of works for his extended guitar ensemble that culminated in 1988's Symphony #6 - Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven. This period was also kicked off by Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, the one that gave John Cage problems and reputedly one of Branca's great "lost" works, in that it has never had a successful recording. Cage's main objection to the music is the way in which the band of musicians are required rigorously to follow the will of the composer / conductor (Branca) in order to produce music which appears to consist of a sustained climax, an overwhelming statement of pure, awesome power, which the audience can only submit themselves to. His objection ignores the whole point of Indeterminate Activity, which lies in the unpredictable sonic side-effects that the dense mass of guitars produces, and in the potential both for active participation by the listeners in identifying these sounds and for more straightforward entrancement.
The sustained hypnotic quality of Branca's music places it firmly in the minimalist tradition, and Branca is full of admiration for Glass, Reich, La Monte Young and others. But while it shares their taste for simple processes, his music often possesses a beauty that eludes the likes of Reich. This trend in his music for simplicity and purity culminates, for me, in the second movement of Symphony #6, one of those rare recordings that I have had to turn off because it was just too much, too affectingly intense. Since 1986 Branca has been working more and more with conventional instrumentation, particularly the orchestra. His contribution to Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect soundtrack was orchestral, as was his Symphony #7. His Ninth also employed the orchestra, but this time adding a chorus, although in places the voices are almost indistinguishable from the instruments. While he was in London for the premiere of Symphony #10, I asked Glenn if this was the first time he had composed for voice.
"I wrote a choral piece called Gates of Heaven six years ago, which was only the chorus, and actually I didn't like the sound of just the chorus. I realised I really did want to have instruments there. Recently, about a year and a half ago I wrote an opera, which I think of mainly as a choral opera. I loved the sound of the chorus, I like that kind of resonance. I don't really like highly articulated solo voice, the traditional operatic voice. I like a more church-like quality".
Although most of his audience admires Branca for the guitar ensemble works, these are areas that the composer is definitely leaving behind. "I believe that the symphonic orchestra is the most beautiful instrument yet conceived by any culture. At any time that it becomes possible to use it then I will ... The guitar has great attack and crunch, but the orchestra has depth, transparency and fluidity. A simple triad when played by a loudly amplified instrument can almost become a cluster at times. A cluster becomes a sheet of sheer white noise - there is no room for anything else.
"It can and will be a more powerful sound but the orchestra has far more potential for expressive power. When I hear a great rock band it can make me feel alive, but when I hear a great orchestra it can make me feel human."
As time has gone by, Branca has also felt a need to dilute the simplicity of his music in favour of more dynamism, more change, and this applies both to his orchestral and guitar ensemble works.
"It's more difficult with the guitars because I just don't have as large a palette to work with. I don't have so many timbral qualities, I don't have enough transparency. For #10's two movements, I had to completely change the way I was thinking. I had written two major pieces for orchestra, and now I had to switch back to the guitars again, but I still wanted to work with the same ideas. I had to completely alter my mind-set.
"What I hope is that eventually, when I get command of the composition the way I want to and the way I've been working towards for the last seven years, then I can begin reincorporating things that were good about my music in the past. But I think it's necessary for me to learn to increase the number of things I can do with a piece of music. I had just got to a point where I couldn't write the kind of music I heard, I wanted to hear. I hadn't worked enough with composition. That pure sound is something very appealing, and very beautiful. To me it's more beautiful in contrast to the kind of music I'm writing now. When I was only writing that kind of music I was always yearning for this other sound. Now that I've made the other sound I can go back to that and enjoy it."
In addition to this new approach to his composition, Branca has consciously moved away from the euphoric sound of his earlier music. The earlier symphonies were broadly consistent in their aim to reach a state of climax as quickly as possible, and stay there as long as possible, and an positive, blissful state frequently resulted. The recent symphonies present more troubled waters.
"No doubt about it - I've written a lot of uplifting, euphoric music. I could do it again, it's actually pretty easy to do. With a certain type of mode that you use you can achieve that effect. I want to get something that isn't one or the other. The first movement of #10 is the closest I've come to getting the quality that isn't either down or up, it's just juicy, beautiful. I think the two movements of #10 are without a doubt the two best pieces of music I've ever written in my life. It's starting to happen, it's starting to come together. It's intense, it's powerful, it's beautiful, it's rich, it's got acoustic phenomena galore, it's all over the place. I think it's going to be too much for most people to deal with. You don't have a second to breathe in this, not a second. Really, we're talking three listenings minimum before you have even the vaguest idea that you're even listening to a piece of music. When you get into this shit, it's almost orgasmic. In at least three rehearsals of the first movement of #10, about four or five minutes into it I couldn't stand to hear it any more, and I knew it had to be rehearsed but I just wanted to stop it, and say, I've heard enough, how much more can I possibly take? ... It was all of this information, never repeating, but at the same time never changing. That's the way I see minimalism going."
Branca's enthusiasm is infectious, but when the Eighth and the Tenth were performed in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, I had mixed feelings. Perhaps he's right - perhaps it is impossible to judge this music on a first listening, but at times it was difficult to tell what was music and what was the distortion caused by mikes and speakers at the limit of their capacity. At times, the strength was obvious, with harmonies and intensity the equal of anything he has written before, but at times the density of the sound defied any ability to penetrate it.
Branca's new-found interest in complexity has meant that to some extend he's leaving behind the influence of the minimalists, although he still feels some kinship with their work.
"I love La Monte Young and I think what he's doing is incredibly important and his music will be listened to for hundreds of years. But he concentrated his energies completely on the tuning system and on demonstrating that system. It's very beautiful, but what I'm concentrating on is what I think of as rigorous composition. This is the point that I am selling, and that I try to get every young composer I meet to understand. Maybe the trend now is in that direction and doesn't need any more help from me. I don't think we've heard rigorous composition since the beginning of the century. It was dropped for effects, and for systems, and for processes - everything but composition. It's such hard work, and I'm certainly not patting myself on the back, I don't think I've come anywhere near to achieving it."
Branca's mention of tuning systems recalls a period when his interest in the harmonic series was almost obsessive. The series is based on very simple mathematical relationships, and simply refers to the series of higher-frequency overtones generated from a single fundamental tone. Most Western music ignores these overtones, as after the first two or three in a series, they no longer correspond to the standard Western notes, and occur at microtonal intervals. Branca's Symphony #3 deals extensively with the series, and with the effects that can arise when the instruments are tuned to suit the harmonic series, but for all his enthusiasm for the concept, it doesn't play such a dominant role in his music any more.
"I didn't feel any connection with the way La Monte Young was using the harmonic series - at least at the time I didn't. He was using it in the way Harry Partch did. He was using microtonal intervals and mathematical ratio relationships to create a 12-tone system, another system. I was interested in the entire harmonic series. Now, of course you can't use the entire harmonic series, but I was interested in what you could call an approximation of that system, and seeing what that sounded like. I wasn't particularly interested in, say, the specific relationship between 47 and 21, that didn't interest me. I was interested in what the series had to tell me about structure itself, because it is an organic structure which somehow emerges as a natural system, but at the same time contains all kinds of incredibly interesting structural ideas and patterns.
"Humans love to find patterns in everything. For me, it was like opening up a treasure chest and seeing what was inside it. To me, you couldn't really see what was in that treasure chest if you didn't use the entire system. You couldn't just use a few of the ratios, you had to use them all. I had to stop working with that when I became too infatuated with the mathematical aspect of it. I had never been interested in mathematics before, but the harmonic series taught me what it was, and I realised that this was the deepest philosophy, the seed of all philosophy. This simplest system that we all learn when we're children, contains complexity beyond our comprehension at this point."
He gets more animated: "You see, it's a non-linear system, and because this system is also the vibration of a string, within the vibration of a string is the entire harmonic series. A string vibrates in at least 256 modes all at the same time. These modes, all vibrating at the same time, are inter-penetrating in a way that creates the sound that we hear. It's all of those sounds, ringing at the same time, that give what we perceive as a single sound, but we don't hear a single sound, we're hearing a resonance that is the result of multiple sounds, an interpenetration of non-linear vibration. It's fabulous stuff."
You'll have to excuse Glenn; it was the end of a long day of alcohol and interviews and he maybe got a little carried away ... However, I think there's something here that is fundamental to the power of his best music. The way in which simple mathematical systems produce complex results is a suitable analogy to the structure of his own compositions, which often have sonically unpredictable results, and Branca's awestruck view of mathematics, according a straightforward, scientific, precise system the virtues of something altogether more mystical, is a suitable way of describing the transcendence that his own music sometimes achieves.
"When you concentrate on the mathematics of it, then you're back to process, back to tone-row music in a certain sense. That's not the answer. We have to understand the fundamentals of it, we have to understand the reasons for it, not just using a little bit of the logic and saying 'well, here's a system that creates a piece of music, isn't that interesting?' That's not enough for the kind of music that I want to hear. I want to find out how it's possible to have so much interesting material going on without goind through obvious and overt dramatic change, but at the same time going through continuous, evolving change, drawing you deeper and deeper and deeper into it, without manipulating it. 99.9% of music we hear, no matter what kind of music it is, is a simple manipulation of our expectations, of what we're already used to hearing, that we've heard a hundred times before."
Even though Branca's current aim is to have more and more control over his compositional process, this doesn't mean that the unpredictable acoustic phenonmena of earlier works are a thing of the past.
"That is an absolutely necessary element - when I start ignoring that then I'm in trouble. I have to be surprised, or it absolutely does not become interesting to me. There's no way I'm going to be surprised if I simply retread something that I know is going to work. I may be able to grab them, and excite them, but there's no way I'm going to be able to give anybody anything new unless I go out on a limb and do something which does not have a predetermined result. There's plenty of that in the new symphonies. I can't hear it all myself yet. I have to be able to understand that I can listen to some of my own music and hear it as actually sounding bad. This is to me one of the most difficult things to do. I'm always looking for another way of going out on a limb and this is a really extreme way. I feel as though this is a new step ... if I expect that the audience might not be able to hear it the first time they listen to it, then I also expect that I might not be able to hear it the first time. We're physically not capable of hearing something that's new. There is no such thing as a good or a bad piece of music, we determine that 100%. I look at these reviews of Wagner from the 1880s - how could anyone possible have said that it's 'horrible noise - what is this screeching mess of primitive crap'? Now it almost sounds like muzak to us, and that was actually perceived at some point as horrible noise."
Branca seems to feel very much alone as a composer. He denies that there is any other musician out there who he feels is as on the edge as himself. He may just be a bit sheltered, or maybe just egotistical, but he's right about his own position. The dense, overpowering, seeming atonality of Symphony #10 has few parallels at the moment, although composers like Iannis Xenakis and Paul Dolden have approached similar areas from different perspectives.
"I very rarely listen to music any more. I almost never listen to rock, I listen to a few New York bands, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Swans. Those are really fine artists. And there are a few composers who I really like. Steve Martland; in New York, David Lang and Michael Gordon; and of course all of the people I idolised when I was younger - Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Gorecki, Messiaen, the list goes on. But now I find it very difficult to find someone who is going so far out on a limb with their music. I really like rigorous music. I would much rather go to a concert where the music doesn't work but it's clear the composer is trying to do something, than to see someone who's very nicely playing out the same old scenario one more time and doing it very well. You have to realise I'm about as jaded as jaded can get. I've just spent my life doing nothing but thinking about this stuff. Can you imagine how perverted my sensibility must be? And you poor guys have to listen to probably the most condensed extract of music - there is so much going on per measure, for my perverse ears, because I write music totally for myself."
Interview by and (c) Brian Duguid.