what’s wrong with Branca?

I picked up this book for the John Cage interview. Not that the offer of some kind of vicarious intercourse with Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Five, count ’em, Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, didn’t arouse my innerest. No.

And William Duckworth got to talking with John Cage and I heard him say “divine influences,” as in “the sobering and quieting of the mind making it susceptible to divine influences,” or words to that effect, a few more times than I could tolerate and I clicked forward – a sound I was making with my tongue – to Laurie.

She, like John, then like Philip, told me nothing I didn’t already know; which doesn’t mean I don’t recommend you read William Duckworth’s interviews. No.

Then I, out of distraction, leafed through until I struck Glenn Branca, who, having started, in New York, as an artist, in theatre, had things like this to say:

About Boston:

In the theatre, Ionesco and Beckett were about as far as you could go into the avant-garde. We’re talking about the early seventies, and that’s the avant-garde of the fifties. The idea of Richard Foreman, A Living Theatre, Mabou Mines, or Robert Wilson was completely impossible to get a taste of up there.

About his first NY band:

It was an incredibly wild thing. I was into a very anagonistic stage at that point. My work is still considered to be antagonistic, but that was meant to be solely antagonistic – solely meant to throw people off balance, and upset them, and even to piss them off. To go against the grain in every possible way: do everything wrong as much as possible, as often as possible.

To which:

Duckworth: What made you think that taking a stance like that would be successful?

Branca: Because I’m unbelievably optimistic, and because most of what I heard was garbage.

On Theoretical Girls:

No matter how badly we played the song (we didn’t really have to play the right chords!), it sounded incredible.

This was at a flux in the art-world period. It was also at a time when everyone had finally come to New York, because of all the excitement about the pop thing, but the bands were gone – they were all on major labels touring the world. You could only see Patti Smith or the Ramones occasionally.


Duckworth: Do you listen to rock anymore?

Branca: All the time. That’s the only thing that I listen to. I listen to the pop music stations and I think it’s become so sophisticated now that it’s incredible. As far as modern music is concerned, without a doubt, it is the most sophisticated music that’s happening today. Period.

Duckworth: What makes it sophisticated?

Branca: Manipulation of actual technique, plus the development of the song form itself. … Some of the new stuff that’s being done with rap music could have been so-called avant-garde music in 1971 and people wouldn’t have known the difference! I’ve been into rock for so many years that I don’t even think about it most of the time. You know how it is: “They suck; they’re great.” You just know what’s good and what’s not. So that’s the level I’m on with rock.

On his tunings for Instrumental for Six Guitars and ‘acoustic phenomena’:

I first started calling it ‘field of sound.’ I had been using a kind of double strumming technique to get a very fluid, continuous sound out of the instrument. This was the kind of sound I had been working with even in the Bastard Theatre – the rich field of changing colours. Subtle changes, where you’re not really noticing chord change or key change. The ideal was to figure out a way for sound to change without it being perceptible. That goes through all of my work. I completely succeeded in this piece, except I also succeeded in some other things, too. What I later called ‘acoustic phenomena’ was occurring. You could hear voices and choruses and horns and strings. All of this happening completely separately from anything I had written, conceived, or even knew was there. I became obsessed with that immediately.

‘Sound fields’:

Working with extreme harmonic density; massive cluster groups moving around in a variety of ways.


music spiraling in on itself. That’s certainly what it sounded like it was doing, that’s for sure. … there was no physical explanation to describe what was happening. …

It’s a kind of an interpenetration of chords that then results in this acoustic phenomena of hearing voices, strings, choirs brass, and all of that. To simply hear these thing is not interesting, because I can go to the Philharmonic and hear that. It was the way that it was superimposing on top of itself to create an incredibly frenetic but, at the same time, seemingly homogeneous field. … It had an incredibly beautiful sound


It was by accident that I saw that when I changed the dynamics I could get the pot boiling a little harder.

By this name shall you be known:

Branca: So it was calling the things symphonies…

Duckworth: … that caused you to become known?

Branca: Right. Immediately. It was ridiculous.

Rock or serious music:

I wasn’t trying to make a change or a transition at that time; I was still trying to say that this was rock. I didn’t want to say that this was a rock symphony; that was the last thing in the world I wanted it to be. I was saying, “This is a symphony, but it’s also rock.”


I actually began this project to somehow derive a compositional system based on natural growth itself [e.g. the harmonic series]. That’s when I started studying physics and mathematics. I was looking for mathematical descriptions of natural growth. That’s when the problems started with my own work, because that slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. …

It was all meant to return to music in the end, but I saw that it didn’t return. What had happened was that I had written three symphonies based on the harmonic series, and in none of them did I come anywhere near where I was trying to get.


I understand the vertical chord relation as well as you could possibly understand it. Now I’ve got to get the horizontal down. … Music is linear; I’ve finally reconciled myself to that. There’s no way out of it. I was one of those fools who tried to get out of it, but you can’t.

What to do when your music is fascist:

Duckworth: Were you surprised when John Cage called the piece you performed at New Music America in Chicago fascist music?

Branca: Yes …

But what am I supposed to do, slit my wrists? So it puts me in a problematic situation. I happen to like Cage’s work …

His music, it is becoming clear to me, is not about music at all. …

… it is the most vague, ambiguous work that anyone’s ever done. Period. On that level, my work is the antithesis of what he’s doing. I can see that He would have a problem with my work, because everything that his generation tried to do – everything they tried to tear down – me and a bunch of other people are trying to build back up again. …

From their point of view we are just reconstructing the orchestra all over again; reconstructing the tonal system all over again; reconstructing fascistic, despotic, centralised-oriented music. It’s antihumanistic music, you might say. Antiholistic. It’s appealing to the most base instincts in the human being. Reactionary … political on every level. …

Basically, we’re saying that … we’ve got to take the word to the people instead of sitting in our ivory tower. It’s not as though we are going to pander to the masses, but we like rock music. too. And we also like Beethoven. What’s wrong with Beethoven? It’s like saying, “We not only understand what you’re doing, Mr. Cage, and we not only agree with it, but we also no longer have to feel defensive about it. We can be strong; we know what we’re doing.” … I’ve always been very political, but I’m not going to pick up a gun, run for office, or start a religion. My approach is to show by doing, by being. And I think that’s the strongest way to do it. That’s what Cage did, too.

Scary things:

My music was scary back in the days of the Bastard Theatre and I didn’t realise it until a friend of mine who heard a tape I was playing (and enjoying) said she couldn’t stand to listen to it. Not because she didn’t like it, but because it scared her.

Volume, simplicity and fucking:

I saw at high volumes that it was absolutely necessary to keep certain ideas, if you want to have certain kind of impact. Consonant things have to make a very clear statement of a certain kind of chord; they have to be written as simply as possible. … I imagined them [my pieces] at a club packed with hot people who wanted to get off. I knew what was going to do that – the most exciting possible music. It was theatre, really. I was writing the most densely dissonant stuff I could possibly imagine and every single bit of it sounded absolutely consonant and transparent to me. I guess I’ve listened to this guitar stuff too long, but it sounded like silk!

Duckworth: Do you think that you have to listen to loud music differently? Must your listeners bring a different kind of ear to your performances?

Branca: You have to go to the concert and be ready to have sex with the fucking music!

– all quotes from William Duckworth’s Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, Schirmer Books, New York, 1995, pp. 420-443

Branca in The New York Times, Thursday, June 5, 2008:

or, April 3, 2007, 9:07 pm [http://thescore.blogs.nytimes.com/author/gbranca/]

The 25 Questions

By Glenn Branca

I got the idea for this piece from mathematician David Hilbert’s well-known list of 23 “Paris Problems” (1900) that he hoped to see solved in the new century. Of course there is not the slightest connection between Hilbert’s list of problems and this list of questions. Not to mention the fact that many of these questions contain the answers simply in the asking.

1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?

2. Can there be truly objective criteria for judging a work of art?

3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?

6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?

7. Is the symphony orchestra still relevant or is it just a museum?

8. Is micro-tonality a viable compositional tool or a burned out modernist concept?

9. In an orchestra of 80 to 100 musicians does the use of improvisation make any sense?

10. What is the dichotomy between dissonance and. tonality and where should the line be drawn?

11. Can the music that sooths the savage beast be savage?

12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?

14. If Bach were alive today would he be writing in the baroque style?

15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?

17. Can harmony be non-linear?

18. Was Cage’s “4:33” a good piece of music?

19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?
Audio Excerpt from “Freeform” (1989) performed by The New York Chamber Sinfonia conducted by Glen Cortese. (mp3)

20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?

21. Can the orchestra be replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-sampling programs and recording techniques, at least as far as recordings are concerned?

22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive?
And does it matter?

23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?