Last week’s performance by Glenn Branca and his ensemble which closed the Bang On A Can Marathon was a spectacular musical event that has been continuing to resonate with me for the past week. Titled Ascension 3, the work performed was an American premiere played by 5 guitarists and a drummer, conducted by the composer. There were five movements, each distinctly different harmonically and rhythmically. “German Expressionism” was atonal and rather delicate for Branca, with a pointillistic counterpoint that developed gradually. “The Smoke” featured a virtuoso solo part played by Arad Evans, who also performed in my group in the early 1990’s and appears on my 1992 Torchtower CD. “Cold Thing” was comprised of ascending melodic lines played in tremolo style, a very characteristic sound in both Branca and Rhys Chatham’s music. In the closing “Twisting in Space” Branca elicited massive swelling crescendos from the ensemble that literally felt like they were shaking the foundations of the building. Throughout the piece drummer Owen Weaver played pounding, visceral 4/4 beats with creative fills and variations. Branca’s conducting style used to be more animated and reminiscent of punk rock dancing; in this performance he staggered at first, seemingly about to fall off of the stage, but then settled down to a vocabulary that ranged from punching and stabbing the air to more expressive gestures. Branca reinvents the role of the conductor from that of a formalist monarch ruling the orchestra like a stately king to a wild, shamanistic leader of a Dionysian ritual who incites the participants to intense ecstatic states.
It’s been a few years since I’ve heard Branca’s ensemble live, I believe the last time was at the Brooklyn Anchorage in 2000. That show was also an amazing musical event that I never forgot. In a world flooded with musical content and ideas that makes it very difficult for anything to distinguish itself, Branca’s music reaches out and grabs you physically, and then proceeds to make connections with wide ranging musical ideas. The oversized romanticism of Berlioz and Wagner is in effect here along with a contemporary atonal harmonic vocabulary and a strong dose of La Monte Young-style minimalism. However, the viscerality of this music is what makes it feel so absolutely contemporary. It was in stark contrast to the other works I heard at the BOAC Marathon in that regard.
I have known Glenn Branca for over 20 years, his studio used to be a half a block away from my SoHo loft and we occasionally talked on the street or at the bar of The Cooler back in the 1990’s. I presented his ensemble for 5 nights at The Kitchen in 1994 when I was Music Curator there. When I first arrived in New York in the early 1980’s I met Rhys Chatham through my mentor Jon Hassell and began playing in his guitar and brass ensembles. I was aware of Branca’s work as well, but didn’t get a chance to hear it until a few years later. Chatham and Branca were both exploring the intersection of punk rock energy with contemporary classical ideas at that time, and I followed a similar path in my own work using a slightly different set of materials. It seemed to me inevitable that this would be the future of what we knew as contemporary classical music, “downtown” music, or “new music”. However, it seems as though the breakdown of high and low musical forms did not take place as quickly as I might have thought it would 30 years ago. It turns out the old divisions of genre and style die hard, particularly in institutions with long histories invested in traditional modes of expression and presentation.
I remember thinking when I heard Branca’s group in the Anchorage 15 years ago that if this could be called classical music, it was the only thing I’d heard in years that made that term come alive and be meaningful. That sentiment hit me again last week, and it added to the impact of Branca’s performance. The merging of the viscerality of popular music with more intellectually focused art musical ideas can be found in plenty of popular culture genres and venues, but in classical music it is still something that is not widely accepted. If classical music is to have any kind of meaningful future I think it needs to start with Glenn Branca. Bravo to Bang On A Can for programming him, but understandably as the closing act of the day long marathon concert. He’s a tough act to follow…