Glenn Branca

Glenn Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pa. 1948 to John and Dee Branca.
As a child his interests were acting at the Hbg. Community Theater, reading, the Philadelphia Phillies and Broadway musicals. As a teenager his interests extended to rock music. He started playing the guitar at age 15. He also created a number of tape collage pieces for his own amusement.
After attending York College in 1966-1967 he started the short-lived cover band The Crystal Ship with Al Whiteside and Dave Speece in the summer of 1967. From 1967-1971 he attended Emerson College in Boston, majoring in Dramatic Arts: directing. His productions included: "Leonce and Lena" by George Buchner, "Suddenly Last Summer" by Tennessee Williams and "Escurial" by Michael de Ghelderode". These productions where known for their prodigious and eclectic use of music including: jazz, rock, contemporary-classical, ancient, “ethnic” and on occasion original. After his junior year he was chosen as the only undergraduate to take the graduate directing course. Also at Emerson Branca worked with Dr. Tom Haas and Bob Ginn who were both important influences. After college his interests extended to playwriting. His first play, "Club Limbo" w/Thomas Joseph in 1972 was never produced. In 1973 he moved from Boston to London with his then girlfriend Meg English. His second play "Scratching The Surface" had a two week run at The Boltons on Earl's Court produced by Gavin Douglas and Moloch Productions with Meg in a leading role. Both of these plays were absurdist farces.

After moving back to Boston in 1974 he met John Rehberger. With common interests in music, theater and art they started The Bastard Theater in 1975. Working out of a loft on Mass. Ave. they wrote and produced the music/theater piece "Anthropophagoi" for a 2 week run. The lead actor John Keiser was chosen in The Boston Phoenix as one of the best performances of the year. In 1976 The Bastard Theater's second production was "What Actually Happened" at a new loft in Central Square, Cambridge and later at The Boston Arts Group. Considering the unconventional and sometimes confrontational nature of the productions the shows still received interested reviews from the Phoenix and The Boston Globe. All music for Bastard Theater productions were original compositions by Branca or Rehberger and were performed live by the actor/musicians. The Phoenix described the music by saying that "it makes John Cage sound like Victor Herbert". Branca and Rehberger also wrote and performed as the new music group The Dubious Music Ensemble out of the loft on Central Square. Although their instruments were respectively guitar and saxophone Branca and Rehberger wrote for a wide variety of instrumentation including, acoustic, electric, electro-acoustic, electronic and homemade. An instrument list for a given production would usually number up to 25 or 26 different instruments.

In 1976 Branca moved to NYC to continue The Bastard Theater and produce his new solo piece "Shivering Tongue Finge rs Air". In 1977 he met Jeff Lohn and started working with Jeff at his loft on Thompson St. in Soho. Jeff was also a composer, playwright and artist. They were preparing to create a theater space in the loft for the purpose of housing The Bastard Theater and Jeff's "No Theater" when they decided to start a rock band that would become Theoretical Girls. They borrowed the N Dodo Band's drummer Mike for their first gig at Franklin Furnace in November 1977 on the program with a performance art piece by Dan Graham who had invited the group to play as part of his show. They quickly wrote a number of skewed punk songs and played a couple loft shows but soon saw the potential to use the band to develop some of their more serious ideas. In January 1978 they did their first show under the name Theoretical Girls at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. This was the first concert of the final lineup that included Margaret Dewys on bass and keys and Wharton Tiers on drums.
This experimental rock band would soon be labeled a No Wave band and was considered by many to be the "5th" band on Eno's No New York compilation.
Around this time Branca had started a relationship with visual artist and musician Barbara Ess. In the spring he joined her new band Daily Life as a side guitarist. But he continued his full time work with the T-Girls as well. That summer Jeff decided that he wanted to concentrate on his solo work and wouldn't do T-Girls on a full time basis. Branca now needed another outlet for his work. In the fall 1978 he premiered his new band The Static (and the introduction of his 3 octave guitar tuning) at Franklin Furnace. This show also included the premiere of "Cognitive Dissonance" his 6th and last play (with the exception of "Twisting In Space" which went into development for Joe Papp's Public Theater in 1984 but was never produced). The Static, which featured only Branca's music, came in the wake of the breakup of Daily Life and included Barbara on bass and Christine Hahn on drums as well as Chip Dyke on 2nd guitar. Soon after, Chip would leave and the band continued on as a trio until the end of 1979 when Christine left for Berlin. With recording being prohibitively expensive at that time both the T-Girls and The Static never released more than one single each.
In the spring of 1979 Branca premiered his first multi-guitar piece "Instrumental for Six Guitars" at Max's Kansas City Easter Festival. The piece was an immediate success and led to series of extended instrumental pieces written over the next one and a half years: "The Spectacular Commodity", "Dissonance", "Lesson No. 1", "The Ascension", "Light Field" and "Mambo Diabolique", each piece defining a different approach to writing for loud guitars. This music was
labeled by the press as "rock minimalism" and in some cases "maximalism".
Branca would eventually form a band to tour and record this music. Sometimes thought of as "The Ascension Band" the group included: Lee Ranaldo, Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom and Branca on guitars, Jeffery Glenn on bass and Stephen Wischerth on drums (later Thurston Moore would join on guitar). It was with this music that Branca introduced his newest octave and unison tunings in which the guitars were divided into soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. By the start of 1980 Branca was desperate to release a recording of his new extended instrumental work. Singles were no longer possible with pieces running from 8 to 12 minutes.
He approached Ed Bahlman who had a small record store in the Village and suggested that he consider starting a record company with Branca's music as the first record. Drawing from Branca's experience with producing,
manufacturing and distributing records Balhman started 99 Records. The EP LESSON NO. 1 came out soon after, with the album THE ASCENSION following a year later.

During these years after college Branca worked at a wide variety of subsistence jobs including: dishwasher and busboy, furniture mover, xeroxer, chicken cook, wall painter, sales clerk (various), plumber's assistant (to Jeff Lohn), janitor, carpenter, warehouse clerk and posterer (for the Kitchen). But since 1981 Branca has made his living solely as a musician and composer.

There is some question about Branca's involvement with Rhys Chatham during this time. Glenn first worked with Rhys in 1978 when Jeff invited Rhys to play bass on one of his songs for Theoretical Girls. Rhys agreed and played in one or two shows with the band. Sometime later, as a courtesy to Rhys, Glenn agreed to play guitar in two concerts of his "Guitar Trio" as a last minute substitute. When after these concerts Rhys invited Glenn to be a member of his band Glenn declined.
Then later In 1979 Rhys offered to make a good recording of some Static songs with the equipment available to him at the Kitchen. The recording was made but never released. That same year Glenn wrote a short article about Rhys' music for NY Rocker. It appeared on the same page as a piece about The Static and was written as a favor to Rhys. In January 1980 Rhys returned the favor by playing guitar in a performance at the Kitchen of Branca's "Instrumental for Six Guitars". This constitutes the complete history of any working relationship that existed between them. Any other account that may be in circulation is pure fiction. It should be noted that Chatham's work ethic at the time was somewhat questionable. As John Rockwell described it in a Times review of Rhys' one chord "Guitar Trio": during his concert at Max's "Mr. Chatham had some difficulty maintaining a vertical position."

In early 1981 on a plane returning from a European tour Branca conceived the idea of writing a full evening length piece of m usic as a musical analog for a full- length theater piece. Being a serious fan of Mahler and Bruckner the idea of calling it a symphony was obvious if risky.
" Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) premiered at the Performing Garage that summer. It was Branca's largest piece yet employing 16 musicians including, horn, trumpet, sax, keyboards and in one movement a large oil drum played with a 2x4, as well as some guitars strung with untempered steel wire from a hardware store, and Branca's usual complement of octave tuned guitars sometimes stroked with drumsticks. The crude sound of the piece was thought of as a kind of punk rock noise music. Just two months later he would premiere another new piece "Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses" at Art on the Beach in lower Manhattan. This piece, for 10 guitars and drums, would become one of his most controversial when performed at The New Music America Festival 1982 in Chicago. Although the 35 minute piece had been a success John Cage had intensely disliked it and created a furor at the festival and in the press. A recording of Cage's inflammatory remarks has been released on Atavistic along with the first recording of the piece (which had gone unreleased for 25 years).
Branca's next symphony was "The Peak Of The Sacred", a longer and more ambitious piece than the first. Branca's desire to work with a new sound he had developed caused him to design and build most of the instruments for the piece. Calling them "mallet guitars" he had created a dulcimer like instrument which when played resonated with a sustained fluid timbre.
Although the instruments used guitar strings and guitar pickups the only actual conventional guitar used in the piece was a bass. Luckily Branca's musicians were willing to learn how to play these "guitars" which sat on tables and were played with sticks. This was also one of the few pieces in which Branca also used tape electronics. Although the piece had a rich resonant sound it was difficult to capture in a recording, a problem that Branca has had throughout his career. A studio recording was never made and the only document that exists is a crude live recording. This had also been the case with Symphony No. 1. Although Branca's audience had grown quite large by this time record labels saw no commercial potential for this sort of thing. And the cost of professionally recording these larger pieces would have been beyond the scope of what a small label could hope to recoup. By this time the music could no longer be seen as rock at the same time that it couldn't be embraced as classical music. And after having been rejected by Cage even "new music" was no longer an entirely safe haven. Luckily it happened that the music did appeal to modern dancers and in 1982 Branca got his first major commission from the Twyla Tharp Co. This would be one of many in a string of commissions from dance and later experimental theater companies.
Th roughout these early years Glenn had never received a single grant or even a credit card and all of the work was done with little or no money. His reliance on cheap used guitars had been a matter of necessity not choice.

By the way the pronunciation of Glenn's name is "Brang-ka" not "Bron-ka".

Glenn Branca also played at...