Glenn Branca, an avant-garde composer, experimental guitarist and integral figure in the New York No Wave scene, died Sunday after a battle with lung cancer. He was 69.
Branca’s wife Reg Bloor announced Granca’s death on social media. “I feel grateful to have been able to live and work with such an amazing source of ideas and creativity for the past 18 1/2 years. His musical output was a fraction of the ideas he had in a given day. His influence on the music world is incalculable,” Bloor wrote.
“Despite his gruff exterior, he was a deeply caring and fiercely loyal man. We lived in our own little world together. I love him so much. I’m absolutely devastated. He lived a very full life and had no regrets.”
Branca is best known for his 1982 album The Ascension, which highlighted his experimental approach to the guitar: Alternative tunings, a cacophonous assembly of guitars and roaring crescendos. “I consider volume to be one of the compositional elements in my work,” Branca once told The Quietus.
David Bowie, who ranked The Ascension among his favorite LPs, wrote of the album, “What at first sounds like dissonance is soon assimilated as a play on the possibilities of overtones from massed guitars… Branca uses the overtones produced by the vibrations of a guitar string. Amplified and reproduced by many guitars simultaneously, you have an effect akin to the drone of Tibetan Buddhist monks but much, much, much louder.”
Branca was also instrumental in fostering the careers of Sonic Youth, Swans and Helmet; in each case, members of those noise rock bands played under Branca’s tutelage. Branca’s label Neutral Records also initially released Sonic Youth’s debut self-titled EP and first album Confusion Is Sex.
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who also played on The Ascension, wrote on Instagram Monday following news of Branca’s death, “The beginning of my time in New York, 1979-1980, would have been nothing without the genius work that Glenn Branca was doing at that time. The most radical, intelligent response to punk and the avant garde I’d ever seen. Sad to hear of his passing today.”
Despite the acclaim for Branca in the early Eighties, the legendary experimental composer John Cage became an unlikely critic of Branca’s work, saying in an infamous interview that the guitarist’s music “resembled fascism.”
“I really didn’t like the experience,” Cage said of seeing a Branca performance in 1982. “The Branca is an example of sheer determination, of one person to be followed by the others. Even if you couldn’t hear, you could see the situation. That is not a shepherd taking care of the sheep, but a leader insisting people agree with him, giving them no freedom whatsoever. The only fresh air that comes is when the technology crashes; the amplifier broke.”
Branca later included Cage’s 18-minute interview criticizing the guitarist on the compact disc release of his 1982 composition Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses.
In 2009, Branca penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The End of Music.” “We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility,” Branca wrote.
“For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new?”