An Interview with Glenn Branca
A few nights after his sixty-fifth birthday, the composer Glenn Branca is standing on a street corner in downtown Manhattan, trying to find a reasonably quiet place where we can talk and smoke and drink Sambuca. Despite the warm weather, he’s dressed in his customary outfit: black shirt, black slacks, sweeping black coat with a half dozen pens in the top pocket. His voice is coarse, his teeth chipped; he looks and sounds like a relic from Ed Koch’s New York. “We could go to the Manhole,” he says wryly. “It’s the filthiest, most disgusting gay bar in the whole city. It’s been there for, like, forty years. I’ve never been, but I had a friend who used to go. He got hepatitis B there.”
Branca’s oeuvre lies at the juncture of classical and punk. Theoretical Girls, his late-’70s experimental rock band, was a crucial part of the then-burgeoning “no wave” scene. His record label, Neutral, released early albums by Sonic Youth and the Swans, both of which included members who had performed in his group the Glenn Branca Ensemble, a rock group with a phalanx of guitarists. Over a four-decades-long career, he has written for customized instruments and traditional orchestras, but it is for his guitar symphonies—including, most famously, Symphony no. 13 (“Hallucination City”), which was written for one hundred guitars and performed at the base of the World Trade Center in June of 2001—that he will most likely be remembered. His aesthetic is by now well established: strange tunings, extreme volume, and relentless dissonance that culminates in a sustained climax that is often unsettling, hypnotic, and, somehow, gorgeous. While many of his contemporaries have blazed out or disappeared, Branca has kept working, carving out a reputation as an icon of New York’s avant-garde music scene.
Despite his distinguished career, Branca cuts the figure of a beleaguered man. Burned bridges bar him from gigs. His landlord is desperate to give him the boot to free up the rent-stabilized apartment in which he has lived for the last decade. He is struggling to find a publisher for his forthcoming autobiography, tentatively titled Running Through the World Like an Open Razor. “I’ve known a lot of writers,” he says, drawing on a cigarette, “and they’re competitive and always broke. Nobody will help you. I used to help everybody, but I’m through with that. Every single person I’ve ever helped has screwed me.”
We settle for a Thai restaurant that has neither Sambuca nor a garden in which to smoke but that is at least relatively quiet. He orders a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks. When the waiter botches my order and brings me a ginger martini, Branca offers to switch, and drinks the unwanted cocktail like a good sport. I have a few questions about his work and worldview. Though pugnacious and suspicious of the press, he seems in the mood to talk.
I. REAL CREATIVE ART IN THE FLESH
THE BELIEVER: I noticed on your webpage that you have about a dozen projects in progress. What are you working on at the moment?
GLENN BRANCA: I got so much shit I have to do it’s ridiculous. Actually, it’s pissing me off because it distracts me from my autobiography.
BLVR: Is the idea for the book something you’ve been walking around with for a while?
GB: Actually, yes, it is. Minimum ten years. It seems odd that when I was only fifty-five I was thinking about writing an autobiography. I had actually started a novel about that time. I had already written six or seven plays, so I already knew I could write. I had written a lot of poetry as well. I’ve been thinking about doing it for a few years, and now I’ve had some time to actually sit down and start doing it. So now I’m well into it. The book is going to be utterly wild, totally obscene, vicious, violent…
BLVR: It sounds like you’ve already written the jacket copy.
GB: I’m going to be crucified for this book. Much more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. You have to realize, I’ve known just about everybody in New York at this point. The only people I don’t know are those who have come up in the last ten years, and who’s come up in the last ten years?
BLVR: Are there any autobiographies you’ve found useful as a model?
GB: The closest I’ve come is Mark Twain’s. At the time it was published, it was considered to be extremely unconventional. And mine is going to be extremely unconventional.
BLVR: Will it be arranged chronologically, or will it jump around in time?
GB: No, I’m doing it chronologically, but I’m introducing what I call an intermezzo every few chapters, which will be in context but won’t necessarily be what is conventionally thought of as autobiographical. Some of it will be fictional, some of it will be semi-fictional. There’s one intermezzo I’ve written called “Sax in Hairssperg”—that’s where I’m from, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a scene of two kids having sex in the back of a car, and then on her mother’s living-room floor.
BLVR: And this is not autobiographical?
GB: Not even slightly. I don’t think I even had sex with anybody when I was in Harrisburg. I was very, very shy, which is something most people would find difficult to believe.
BLVR: But you were an actor, no?
GB: Yes, but you’ll find that many actors are very shy. My shyness in my private life has nothing to do with my performance onstage. I’ve been performing since I was eleven years old—that’s fifty-four years.
BLVR: Tell me more about your experience in theater.
GB: I went to school for acting at Emerson, in Boston. But very quickly I decided I wanted to start directing, mainly because I had a teacher who was an absolute genius director. His name was Dr. Tom Haas. He was a young phenom from Yale. He had gotten his doctorate when he was, like, twenty-three, and basically took over the department at Emerson. I worked with him on a number of productions. He changed my life. I had never seen real creative art in the flesh. Being from Harrisburg, I didn’t know that much about what was going on in the art world, or in pretty much anything. Harrisburg was—at least at that time, in the ’60s—a wasteland. The only thing I wanted to do was get the hell out of the place.
I read every play I could get my hands on, and this included some very obscure European experimental plays—people like [Stanisław] Witkiewicz, [Fernando] Arrabal, [Václav] Havel. I read everything. I saw very soon that there was more I wanted to do than just act, but I couldn’t find anything I wanted to direct. I had lots of ideas about what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to take a play and twist it around into my idea; that’s really not what you’re supposed to do. So I decided, OK, I guess I should start writing my own plays. So that’s what I did.
BLVR: Is theater something you’re actively working in?
GB: No, I haven’t done theater since the mid-’70s. But I have considered it. For instance, there is a chamber ensemble piece that would also be a theater piece, in which the musicians would be performing music and a piece of theater at the same time. It would be a very, very strange piece. The musicians would be just kind of talking to each other casually during breaks in the music; you wouldn’t even know it’s written. And other various strange things would be happening. For instance, there would be a set with a barrel that would be on fire. There would be a guillotine—well, not a guillotine, but something that sounded like a guillotine—that would every once in a while be chopping a cantaloupe, and that would sound like people getting their heads cut off. The piece would have certain political connotations.
BLVR: When did you begin focusing on music?
GB: I had my theater group, the Bastard Theater, which I wrote a lot of music for; all of the actors performed the music. I was a record collector. I was really into rock music, which started to evolve into an interest in jazz music, then an interest in contemporary classical music. This all happened very early in my life. But I never thought of myself as a musician. I never imagined that I would pursue music as a career, although I liked the idea of starting a rock band.
BLVR: With your background, I find it surprising that there aren’t any words in your music.
GB: You’re just not hallucinating hard enough. It’s funny, because I’m not a bad writer, but I don’t write good lyrics. I would say that right up front. And the kind of music I listen to is almost entirely instrumental. I was a gigantic rock fan when I was young. But to me, what Miles Davis was doing in the ’60s with his quintet was astounding. The [quintet] with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter— I don’t know who was playing the drums…
BLVR: Tony Williams.
GB: Yeah. He’s the one guy I didn’t pay attention to. He always does the same thing [does a theatrical drum riff]—that doesn’t interest me. I want to listen to the music. I would do music without any percussion entirely if I thought I could get away with it and anyone would bother to listen to it.
BLVR: Is a drummer necessary to keep the large ensembles together?
GB: In the case of my guitar music, yes. In the case of orchestral music, I didn’t use percussion. I used a lot of what are called “percussion instruments” in classical music— the marimba, the vibes, the glockenspiel, even the piano is considered a percussion instrument—but I didn’t use drums. To tell you the truth, I thought I could take it somewhere else. I found out, after writing hours and hours and hours of this music, that I couldn’t. The orchestra is what it is. Yeah, you can introduce some new, interesting instrument into it, but you need to use the whole orchestra. So in my most recent orchestral piece, which is the first movement of my Symphony no. 14, I use the drums like fucking crazy. And it sounds fantastic.
II. “NEW YORK WANTS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.”
BLVR: I’d like to hear a little bit more about your compositional technique.
GB: There’s a sound that I’ve heard in my music very early on in my career—in the late ’70s and early ’80s—when I was doing records like Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension. It is what I call “acoustic phenomena.” I was hearing things that I hadn’t written. I considered it to be aural hallucination. It’s the interaction of all of the elements of playing loud music. You get a tremendous amount of harmonics. I was working on creating a sound that would bring this out more and more. There was no question that people in the audience were hearing this, too, but what they were hearing was not necessarily what I was hearing. I started to see a way that I could take this sound and write it down.
BLVR: Was this when you began to focus more on alternative tunings?
GB: There was a certain evolution when I started using different kinds of tunings in the late ’70s with my band the Static. I eventually decided to use the harmonic series. I had a digital frequency counter that had been built by Bob Bielecki, who worked with Laurie Anderson. He was a technical genius. He had actually built this before pretty much any [other] digital device existed, except, like, a calculator. So it made it possible to use this system. It became very interesting to me. This was for symphonies number 3, 4, and 5. I actually had to have instruments built to play in this tuning, because it simply wasn’t possible for a conventional instrument to play in a tuning that had as many as 120 intervals to the octave.
BLVR: You built instruments yourself, didn’t you?
GB: I did make a lot of instruments early on. But when it came to this, no. I found an instrument builder in New Jersey who was absolutely brilliant. He mainly made organs, but I approached him about making instruments that were exactly like guitars, except they would be played as keyboards. I wanted to build a pianoforte—a piano without buffers, basically; the strings are hit by hammers. He suggested a harpsichord, which is even closer to a guitar because the strings are actually picked. He built these
tremendous keyboard instruments for me, which are still, to this day, referred to as guitars whenever any dumbass interviewer talks about it. Most reviewers and journalists are still under the impression that my Symphony no. 3 was played by guitars. There was not one single guitar in the entire piece, except for a bass guitar. That was it. And there were thirteen musicians onstage.
BLVR: You’ve spoken about what you call a psycho-acoustic effect. Does that come through on a record? Are you ever frustrated hearing your albums?
GB: All you have to do is take the record or CD or MP3 to your local rock club, plug it into the PA system, and turn it up loud as a rock band, and you will hear everything that you would hear if I was playing live. A lot of people don’t get it. They listen to it as if they were listening to Mitch Miller or something. You have to listen to it loud. If you don’t like loud music, don’t bother with my music, unless you’re listening to my orchestral music, which obviously isn’t loud.
BLVR: At what point did you decide that you had to move to New York?
GB: I had known that New York was the place for quite a while. This is where you had to come if you were doing experimental work of any kind, whether it was dance, visual art, theater, music, architecture, whatever—you had to eventually come to New York. This is where the audience was. This is where the interest was. I was shocked that when I started doing the kind of work that I wanted to do, people just flooded in. They loved it. They were immediately here, the whole city. You have to realize, the whole city was filled with nothing but artists and musicians and actors and directors and writers.
In 1965 the federal government started the National Endowment for the Arts, and New York handed SoHo over to artists, allowing them to live in commercial spaces for a flat rent. It was called Artists in Residence. It was set up mainly for the purpose of allowing artists who wanted to work with large canvases to have large spaces. But it very soon became a place where you could do performance art in your loft, theater in your loft. You must understand that the amount of money that was made available in the ’70s was still tiny compared to the money that was being spent in Europe at the time. But it was enough to at least give experimentalists something to work with. SoHo was very special in that it not only gave artists cheap places to live and work
but also was a small area where the artists and art spaces and galleries were within walking distance. Maybe like Montmartre in Paris during the nineteenth century.
It was everything I imagined New York to be, and much, much more. Now—whether people like it or not it’s the goddamn truth—just like Paris, the golden age is over. If New York is going to return as a meaningful scene for artists to actually be able to create, they are going to have to establish something else approximating a SoHo. But it’s not necessarily what the city wants. In very few cases do they want to see some drug-addled bohemians stumbling around on the street, which is how many young artists start out before their careers start to click in and all they think about is money. And then they can buy expensive drugs and have a whole loft to stumble around in instead of the streets. New York is over. It’s dead.
BLVR: In regards to music, isn’t it possible that it’s not New York that has changed so much but the entire industry? I can now make and distribute a record for essentially nothing, from anywhere. Doesn’t this break the monopoly that New York once held?
GB: Yes, that’s exactly what has happened. It has become decentralized. It’s about diversity now. Any eleven-year-old kid can put an album up on the internet. But who’s going to hear it? There’s no reach. There’s no way of sifting through all this. The bands don’t tour. In fact, most of them aren’t even bands. It’s just stuff that some kid has done on a computer in his basement.
BLVR: These are some of the things you touched on in your “End of Music” op-ed for the New York Times.
GB: The “End of Music” piece was completely misinterpreted. And I don’t blame people for misinterpreting it, because I had only a short amount of space, a short number of words to use. I have to admit, I didn’t explain myself. It was something I wrote in one sitting. It was one of those nights when you’re just inspired. That’s what happened. It upset a lot of people. I don’t think the Times had the slightest problem with that.
BLVR: What do you think your place is in today’s New York music scene?
GB: New York wants absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing. Familiarity breeds contempt. I have so many enemies in this city.
BLVR: Promoters? Club owners?
GB: You name it. Musicians… [composer/saxophonist] John Zorn, for example. Zorn was sitting on a grand panel for an opera that I had written. I was working with a librettist named Matthew Maguire—quite a well-known actor, director, playwright. It was an absolutely brilliant piece. As it happened, Maguire had a very good friend who knew someone who actually sat on the panel. We were asking for money to produce the opera itself. Every single person on the panel voted to fund it—except Zorn. And not only that: Zorn stood up—and I mean, this really is very firsthand, this isn’t rumor—and said, “If you fund this piece, I’m walking out right now.” The great and good John Zorn. Of course, they couldn’t allow that to happen. So this piece has never been funded. It’s an opera that’s an hour and a half long that has been sitting on my shelf unproduced for twenty years. And not only that: it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written, and is also extremely relevant today because it’s about the Middle East, as well as about a lot of other things. It’s also about a crazy lady who’s having hallucinations. It’s based on the Tower of Babel. So one of the best things I’ve ever written, an hour and a half of music, is just sitting there solely because of John Zorn.
BLVR: I’d like to hear more about the New York music scene you came up in.
GB: Even in the so-called golden age of the no wave, art-rock period, the vast majority of bands were just imitating other bands. The record companies just treated you like you were some kind of fucking king if they had decided that you were going to be the one. Because you have to realize that out of all those great bands that came out of the punk scene, the only two that made it were the Talking Heads and Blondie. That was it. They were the two most commercial ones. As much as I liked Debbie Harry, and as good as I think [Blondie] actually was, it was still super commercial. You didn’t come to New York to do commercial music. If you want to do commercial shit, go to LA, man. What do you come here for? You fuck our world up.
BLVR: Did the punks and no wave bands see themselves as part of the same scene at the same time?
GB: It was a transition. The main band that was the transition was Mars, which was basically people who were not musicians but loved Patti Smith. And if you listen to the early Mars stuff, which is pretty much the only Mars that exists, you’ll hear that they were basically attempting to do an imitation of Patti Smith, but because they couldn’t really play their instrument, it sounded weird. Movements are never the result of a single person doing something that is then imitated. Movements are the result of ten or eleven or twelve people who all happen for some reason, out of the blue, to have the same idea about what they want to do with music, all at the same time. It took a while for some journalist to come up with the term no wave, to, like, smush us all together. Every single one of those bands was entirely different. But when Brain Eno made the No New York record, he wanted to give the impression that this was not just a scene, not just an umbrella name that was put on all these bands that were doing experimental rock. Eno purposely produced all four of those bands [Mars, DNA, the Contortions, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks] exactly the same way to make them sound as similar as possible. If you listen to the Contortions and Teenage Jesus—one is this noise funk band, and the other is this minimalist noise band. I mean, [saxophonist] James [Chance] is doing this perverted James Brown, and [vocalist] Lydia [Lunch]—I don’t know what the hell she was doing other than showing off her tits. Teenage Jesus was one of my favorite bands. She was doing something that was just so totally personal, and her own. And again, she wasn’t really a musician. See, that’s really what made these bands art bands: they weren’t really musicians. It when the musicians came along that they fucked things up.
BLVR: So you would say amateurism was fundamental to no wave?
GB: New ideas tend to come from people who haven’t been indoctrinated by the establishment. The best example is German expressionism. Very few of these painters had ever painted before in their lives, but they had a vision about what painting could or should be and they knew that no one else was going to do it.
III. NO SYSTEM CAN BE AS POWERFUL AS THE MIND ITSELF
BLVR: You have some musical training, no?
GB: I mean, I could play the fucking guitar because I played it my whole life. But I never thought of myself as a musician. I never studied music in my whole life.
BLVR: How do you conduct a hundred guitars without written notation?
GB: Well, I learned. I got a book.
BLVR: When did you go through that process?
GB: That was my first orchestral piece, which I started writing in 1985. I wanted to write for the orchestra. I felt that the guitar was too limited for the kinds of ideas I wanted to do. And the orchestra has many more timbres, and what is called “transparency,” which means you can actually hear what’s going on. You’re not just hearing all this noise and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. I was never writing noise music. Ever. The only noise I may have done is that stupid video of me jumping around with my guitar in 1978. That was what I would call “expressionist music.” That was improvised.
BLVR: You mentioned that piece being improvised. Can you talk a little bit more about the role of improvisation in your music?
GB: There are ways to write structured improvisation that [make it sound] like it’s been written. I use that technique right to the present day. I use it even with orchestras.
BLVR: Are you talking about leaving space for the individual within the composition?
GB: No, no. Everybody thinks improvisation means free improvisation. It would be like if the Miles Davis quintet didn’t even bother to follow any chords, they just made a lot of noise. The improviser is actually following chords. I’ve got at least ten different types of structured improvisation I use. You can give the rhythm and you can give the mode, but you don’t give which notes are to be played at what time. My piece Lesson no. 1 is a structured improvisation, but that piece sounds exactly the same every time we play it. Exactly.
BLVR: This sounds a lot like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue modal jazz stuff.
GB: But it’s not fair to call it jazz, because it doesn’t give enough room to the musicians.
BLVR: You mentioned in previous interviews being obsessed with the harmonic series before. Is this still the case?
BLVR: Have you recovered?
GB: Yes, I very consciously recovered. You see, I had gotten so deeply into it that I had started studying mathematics, which is something I never thought I’d do. I actually started making drawings, very beautiful drawings that required meticulous measurements, because I was working with mathematical formulas. I was trying to visualize the harmonic series, and I was becoming too obsessed with the series itself. So I made a conscious decision that I wanted to stop. I’m not interested in being a mathematician. I’m not interested in being a philosopher. I’m a composer.
I also came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what tuning system you use. It doesn’t matter if you use a tuning system at all. You can create a piece of music from whatever sound devices are given to you. Music is a result of the imagination; it’s not a mathematical structure. Harmonics exist in everything. They are in my voice right now. They’re in the noise you’re making right now, cracking your knuckles. They’re in everything that makes sound. If you continue all the way up the scale of the harmonic series, you’re in the light spectrum. They’re in every part of nature. They’re part of your body; they’re part of your brain.
So I decided to concentrate on my mind and not on systems and theories and harmonics. No system can be as powerful as the mind itself. Now, I still use some of these things simply as techniques, the way you would use a fifth, the way you would use a triplet. But I’m no longer going to attempt to use the harmonic series as anything more than another way of approaching music.
BLVR: You were talking earlier about the subjective experience of someone in the audience hearing something entirely different from the way you hear it. It seems like there’s an interesting interaction going on between that and this mathematical, almost Platonic truth that you saw in the harmonic series. Was this why you took a conscious step toward subjectivity?
GB: Yes. I did dabble with objectivity for a few years. I don’t believe in objectivity. I don’t think it exists. I don’t think it’s humanly possible for all of us to know the same thing the same way all at the same time. I think it’s ridiculous to even consider such a thing.