Composer And Leading Avant-Garde Guitarist Glenn Branca Has Died At 69

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 9:54 am

Glenn Branca, the guitarist and composer who merged noise and art music and who influenced a generation of New York artists, has died at age 69. His wife, the guitarist Reg Bloor, posted an announcement of his death on Monday afternoon, writing that Branca had died in his sleep of throat cancer on May 13.

Branca's work oversaturated audiences and players alike with walls of sheer sound, and he experimented with the harmonic series and alternative tunings to visceral effect. Uptown critics didn't always understand what Branca was after; in 1983, a New York Times reviewer called one of his symphonies "dull, brutal murk ... diffuse and shapeless." Regardless, his music influenced a huge range of other artists, and his collaborators included David Bowie, Kronos Quartet and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Born Oct. 6, 1948, in Harrisburg, Pa., Branca first fell in love with musicals as a kid, but as a teenager was intrigued by both The Kinks and Olivier Messiaen — a dichotomy that could well describe the rest of his musical life. He began experimenting with reel-to-reel machines to create his own musique concrète ("concrete music") — collages of manipulated tape. He began attending college at York College, but soon moved to Boston to study theater at Emerson College, and then lived briefly in London. Upon returning to Boston in 1974, he founded an experimental theater group called Bastard Theater, where he focused on creating sound works to be performed live by the actors and musicians.

In 1976, Branca moved to New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. There, he began collaborating with Jeffrey Lohn a project that built upon his theater experimentation before becoming the band Theoretical Girls, in which the pair were later joined by drummer Wharton Tiers and keyboardist Margaret De Wys. Theoretical Girls began playing at the intersection of the worlds of visual art, performance art, rock and punk, at foundational New York City performance venues like Franklin Furnace and the Kitchen as well rock clubs like CBGB, and became an integral force in the city's fertile No Wave scene.

By the late '70s, Branca had turned his attention more fully to the guitar, both solo and in deafening ensembles, in works that eventually encompassed a huge range of sonics and textures. His output included symphonies and chamber pieces for both electric and acoustic ensembles, an opera, a ballet, works for chorus, pieces for newly created instruments — like harmonic guitars with three bridges and percussive "mallet guitars" — and massively scaled works for electric guitars, including 2001's Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City), scored for 100 instruments.

In a 2016 interview with Pitchfork, Branca succinctly described the many musical streams that fed him beyond classical and rock. "I had been listening to people like Penderecki and Messiaen and Ligeti as well as the jazz music of the '60s, especially what Miles was doing," he said. "And I wanted to take all of that and put it into the context of rock music. There were a lot of people doing new and interesting things with rock. But I wanted to take it farther than that. My real influence was punk. I must have listened to the first Patti Smith album 300 times."

In turn — deliberately or not — Branca helped nourish a new generation of musicians, both punk-inflected and arty-classical. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo played in Branca's guitar ensemble in the early '80s, and Branca put out Sonic Youth's earliest albums, Sonic Youth and Confusion Is Sex, on his own label, Neutral. Notably, he did the same for composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon, releasing The Michael Gordon Philharmonic in 1987.

At some level, Branca kept his musical universes divided in his head and in conversation — almost code-switching between the two, as the composer and critic Kyle Gann observed in a 1994 Village Voice interview that was republished in the book Music Downtown: "Branca keeps his worlds almost schizophrenically separate. To rock critics he'll talk Aerosmith, the Ramones, the Dolls, Henry Cow and Orchestra Luna... With me he uses a different set of references, equally obscure: Kryzsztof Penderecki, Dane Rudhyar, Hans Keyser."

"I feel grateful to have been able to live and work with such an amazing source of ideas and creativity for the past 18 1/2 years," Bloor wrote in the post announcing Branca's death. "His musical output was a fraction of the ideas he had in a given day. His influence on the music world is incalculable. Despite his gruff exterior, he was a deeply caring and fiercely loyal man. We lived in our own little world together. I love him so much. I'm absolutely devastated. He lived a very full life and had no regrets. Thank you to all the fans and all of the musicians whose support made that possible."

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