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Glenn Branca: punk composer who turned minimalism maximal

The Guardian logo The Guardian 15/05/2018 Geeta Dayal

The experimental guitarist and composer Glenn Branca died on Sunday at age 69, leaving a weighty and singular legacy. Branca helped define New York cool. Even among the many underground artists, musicians and misfits who populated downtown Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s, he stood out as one of the weirdest. His music – with its stark sheets of minimalism and overwhelming guitar-oriented symphonies – filtered into rock and noise, and it’s hard to imagine bands such as Sonic Youth and Swans without him. Originally trained in theatre, with no formal musical education, he brought intense drama to experimental music.

Branca’s sound was “the most radical, intelligent response to punk and the avant garde I’ve ever seen”, says Lee Ranaldo, who played with Branca many times, including on his essential early albums Symphony No 1 (Tonal Plexus) and The Ascension. “He could sneer better than anyone,” recalls Ned Sublette, who also played on those records.

Branca – with his shock of unruly hair, upturned collar and theatrical presence – cut a distinct figure on the streets of Manhattan. “He was the archetypal downtown character. He was like what you would imagine New York was supposed to be like,” says Dan Selzer, whose label Acute Records reissued several of Branca’s albums, including those of his earlier group Theoretical Girls.

Branca’s sound was heavier and louder than many of his contemporaries. “‘New music’ had this John Cage, Zen-like minimalism, as well as this sort of static pattern minimalism of the next generation of composers who got called minimalists, for better or worse,” says Sublette. “It was almost anti-dramatic – there was an emphasis on Buddhism, meditation – but Glenn was all about sturm und drang and climax, and how long can you prolong that climax. It was very dramatic music.”

The Ascension, released in 1981, still stands as Branca’s best work, but the recording doesn’t quite replicate the immensely powerful sound Branca and his bandmates experienced when it was made. “No one has heard The Ascension really the way we heard it,” says Sublette. “We recorded it at the Power Station, the great studio in New York, where Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards [of Chic] were working regularly, where Bruce Springsteen recorded.” Branca and his co-conspirators managed to get the studio on the cheap during the overnight shift, and carefully set up in the space, getting all the amp settings just right.

Sublette explains a typical example of Branca’s approach at that time. “All the strings on every guitar would be tuned to E,” he says. “If everybody plays an E – you get four people with four guitars playing 24 different E’s at once – you get this choral sound. It’s not like any other E.”

The composer Rhys Chatham also emerged with some similar ideas at around the same time, crafting guitar symphonies, but Chatham and Branca each had a very distinct sound and approach.

“This was a sound that no one in the world had ever heard,” laughs Sublette, about his time recording with Branca at the Power Station. “As we played it, there was a guy standing in the back listening, and it was Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople, standing there listening with his mouth open.”

Though Branca achieved a level of mainstream success in his later years – performing at big festivals such as Primavera Sound in Barcelona and upscale venues such as the Philharmonie de Paris – he remained defiantly underground. “He definitely had this ‘no sellout’ vibe,” says Selzer. At a Branca show I once witnessed in a grungy basement in the East Village, Branca played to an audience of maybe a dozen people. It was an overpoweringly loud and intense experience – and utterly surreal to see a legend like Branca performing in a dive bar, melting people’s minds.

Related: Glenn Branca: guitarist and composer dies at age 69

He wrote numerous symphonies over his life, inspiring musicians across many genres. “I think he had an ambition with the first symphony to be perceived not as noise from a New York rock’n’roll guy, but as legitimate new classical music,” says Selzer. “Branca’s music and approach changed what I thought was possible with writing music for the guitar,” says guitarist William Tyler. “Before him I didn’t think you could really ‘compose’ for that instrument, and he blew it wide open. Somewhere between prog rock cadences, the liberty of punk and the droning attack of the great minimalists, he proved the electric guitar is just as versatile of a concert instrument as the piano or cello.”

Branca’s death is a major loss, but that electric guitar will ring on.

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