Hear a 12-Hour Playlist of Experimental Symphonic Noise Rock by Avant-Garde Guitarist and Composer Glenn Branca (RIP)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Steve Reich’s Min­i­mal­ist Com­po­si­tions in a 28-Hour Playlist: A Jour­ney Through His Influ­en­tial Record­ings

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

Son­ic Youth Gui­tarist Thurston Moore Teach­es a Poet­ry Work­shop at Naropa Uni­ver­si­ty: See His Class Notes (2011)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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