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Glenn Branca: Remembering the Guitar Hero Who Linked the Symphony to Punk Rock

The New York composer and No Wave player, who died at age 69, created overtones that still shimmer across generations of noise-rockers

American composer and guitarist Glenn Branca performs live on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 2nd February 1988.

Glenn Branca performs in Amsterdam in 1988.

Frans Schellekens/Getty Images

In 1979, barely into his thirties, Glenn Branca heard his calling. Rushing to prepare for a last-minute gig at New York mainstay Max’s Kansas City, he dashed off “Instrumental for Six Guitars,” using repeated chords to unlock mesmerizing overtones that blew past his own expectations. “I remember one rehearsal where I actually had to stop and cry,” he recalled years later. “I could not believe that I was getting this sound.”

Branca parlayed that discovery into four decades of massive, groundbreaking composition. Devoted to the radical idea that serious symphonies could be written for electric guitar, he crafted extended works that have been performed worldwide by orchestras, rock bands and dance ensembles. He continually mined the limitless effects that loudly amplified strings – usually accompanied by a pounding rock & roll beat – could have on the human ear. His pieces grew so large in sound and scope – including two pieces for 100 guitars – that it felt like his ringing chords could go on forever. That’s why his death from cancer at age 69 comes as a shock: In the world of Glenn Branca, silence seems impossible.

The noise began when Branca moved to New York in 1976, after a post-college stint in Boston writing plays with atonal scores for his troupe Bastard Theater. He originally planned to further his dramatic work, but soon decided the real avant-garde was happening in post-punk music. “I wanted to make art, and it was so cool that you could make art in rock clubs,” he said. “You can’t imagine how exciting that was.” With artist Jeffrey Lohn, Branca formed Theoretical Girls, who – like many of their fellow groups in the rules-blasting No Wave scene – made a mark on NYC post-punk despite recording just a few songs and lasting barely over a year.

Soon, Branca swerved toward his singular brand of classical-leaning composition. But he always grounded it in his lifelong passion for rock & roll, favoring guts and intuition over cerebral theory. “I still thought there was so much more that I could do with rock,” he said. “You could still take the guitar and make it more without using any digital delay, any reverb, any effects. You could still take it exactly as it was used in 1958 and go somewhere else with it.”

Convincing record store owner Ed Bahlman to start a label, 99 Records, Branca inaugurated the imprint with his first solo work, 1980’s nervously vibrant, cathartically discordant “Lesson #1” 12-inch. A year later, his first full-length, The Ascension, stretched cacophony into more complicated structures, predicting both the math rock and post-rock that would blossom in the Nineties. He then embarked on a long-term series of symphonies, abandoning guitar to become a full-on conductor – albeit in a style that was more about rock-hero stances than staid direction.

Branca’s rock sensibility also spawned DIY methods. In 1980, he turned an invitation to play a museum in Minneapolis into a full-fledged tour by buying cheap, unlimited-travel airline tickets and flying from gig to gig. His group then included future Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who would blend what he learned from Branca into his later group’s pioneering noise-rock. Branca released the first Sonic Youth record on his own label, Neutral, later doing the same for Swans. Such seed-planting spread Branca’s innovations across indie rock for decades (as did his inclusion of younger guitarists in his orchestras), and any group that relies on guitar dissonance owes something to him. Sonic Youth, Swans and Helmet all had members who spent time in Branca’s early ensembles. His 2001 piece for 100 guitars, played at the World Trade Center months before the attacks, featured players from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Battles and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.

That musical debt is likely something Branca himself openly claimed. He could be ferociously defensive of his musical innovations, and tales of his irascibility were not uncommon. But his stubbornness helped continually move his music forward. Ironically, he circled back on his final studio album, 2010’s Ascension: The Sequel, recorded in the same studio with the same producer as the original. That look back may seem contradictory, but it fit his cyclical music, which gained as much from repetition as volume and dissonance. “You go so far in something, and then it comes back to zero again,” he once said. “My opinion is this: Everything is right and everything is wrong; everything is yes and everything is no; everything is continuous and everything is not – all at once.”

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