In the 1980s, avant-garde composer, guitarist Glenn Branca began writing symphonies for electric guitars — dozens of them, all playing at once, creating unprecedented psychoacoustic effects — sometimes beautiful harmony, sometimes unsettling dissonance — that reduced Branca himself to tears. “I remember one rehearsal where I actually had to stop and cry,” he once said. “I could not believe that I was getting this sound.” Branca brought together hundreds of electric guitarists and percussionists, but he never realized his ambition of bringing together 2,000 guitarists at once in Paris for celebrations of the year 2000, settling for 100.
These numbers pale next to the largest guitar ensemble on record, 6,346 people in Poland in 2009. In 2018, the year of Branca’s death, another record attempt saw 457 guitarists come together in Canberra, Australia to play AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Not exactly Branca’s cup of tea, but he probably had some hand in the inspiration, if only indirectly. Standing amidst those hundreds of ringing guitars while they banged out the song’s famed opening chords surely made many an Angus Young devotee cry that day.
What, then, would it feel like to stand amidst the cacophony of 1000 musicians — drummers, guitarists, bassists, and singers — bashing out a cover of Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly”? Assembled in 2015 in Italy, the Rockin’1000 was originally intended as a one-off project to accomplish “four miracles,” notes the project’s site: “find one thousand musicians, get them to play simultaneously of the biggest Rock show ever, collect enough money to make it real, convince the Foo Fighters to play a gig in Cesena.” (You can see their impassioned plea to Dave Grohl at the video’s end.)
After accomplishing their goals “with a bang” (the Foo Fighters later played a 3-hour concert dedicated to the project), the core team decided to get “the biggest Rock Band on Earth” back together for an entire concert the following year: “17 songs played all together at Manuzzi Stadium.” The full show has been released on CD and vinyl, but I’d hazard that music written for four people and played by 1000 doesn’t sound quite as interesting on record as in person, where the sheer massiveness might make listeners weep. As the bandleaders themselves admit, “without an audience, who’s been a part of the whole process, Rockin’1000 wouldn’t make sense.”
They’ve performed for audiences, in various configurations, every year since their founding until 2020. See them here play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” If you sing or play a rock instrument, you can sign up to be a part of Rockin’1000’s next gig, in Paris, in May 2022, here.
With a band composed of 1000 people, the musicians are also the audience, and the musicians can be anyone. What separates Rockin’1000 from some other celebrations of popular music is that it does position itself as a road to fame and fortune or a way to meet celebrities. “No rankings, no prizes, no winners, no losers,” they write: “everyone can be part of this, either an audience or a member of ‘the biggest Rock Band on Earth.’ No barriers here, all emotions are equal, same intensity.” But what emotions do we experience as a virtual audience of the Biggest Band on Earth?