Glenn Branca died on Monday at age 69. In tributes from august publications like The Guardian and The New York Times, the guitarist and composer’s name is mentioned by and alongside minimalist luminaries like Steve Reich and John Cage. Branca himself cited composers like Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti as influences. He belongs in the company of these avant-garde pioneers, but many who might recognize their names may not have heard the name Glenn Branca.
Branca worked in a much more anarchic milieu, namely the downtown New York noise rock scene that came to be called No Wave. “My real influence was punk,” he told Pitchfork in 2016. “I must have listened to the first Patti Smith album 300 times.” In turn, the composer influenced the next generation of underground New York artists, nurturing the talents of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, who honed their art-rock chops—the drone notes, odd tunings, etc.—in the early ‘80s while playing in one of Branca’s notoriously noisy guitar ensembles.
Branca released Sonic Youth’s first two albums on his record label, tutored abrasive noise pioneers Swans’ guitarist Norman Westberg, and inspired essential downtown figures like Lounge Lizards’ John Lurie, who described seeing the composer’s band Theoretical Girls in 1979 as a life-changing event. Minimalist post-rock masterminds like Godspeed You! Black Emperor owe much to Branca’s innovations. Given that he occupied such a seminal place at such a key musical moment, giving birth to such seminal bands, why isn’t Branca’s work better known?
Perhaps this is because, while he drew from classical avant-garde, jazz, and punk rock, he refused to settle comfortably into any particular camp or to clearly define the boundaries of his work. Branca created a template all his own. Reich described him as “an absolute original,” which made him a very inspirational figure, but a difficult one to slot into a genre bin.
His treatment of rock instruments in orchestral settings made for intense, and for some unlistenable, music that thoroughly defied the conventions of rock and orchestral music, with ensembles of up to 100 electric guitars playing at once. (John Cage objected to Branca’s overwhelming performances on “political” grounds, saying they “resembled fascism.”)
But while Branca’s music has never had mass appeal, the few who love it, love it passionately. Of his classic 1981 album The Ascension (hear the title track at the top), Allmusic’s Brian Olewnick writes, “if one chooses to categorize the music on this recording as ‘rock,’ this is surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made.” One hears in The Ascension and Branca’s work in general the genesis of a muscular, noisy, orchestral post-rock sound now familiar in, say, the soundtrack work of artists like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Despite his contention, as he told the NYT, that “I don’t change,” his work has evolved over time, developing new depths and complexity. In the Spotify playlist further up, hear Branca’s development as a composer in 66 tracks (or 12 hours) of symphonic experimental noise rock, and in the interview just above with the Louisiana Channel, see Branca describe (and demonstrate) his unusual guitar techniques and his breadth of musical influences.