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The avant hard
Glenn Branca on CD and DVD

The cover of the recent reissue of Glenn Branca’s The Ascension (Acute) — just as it was on its 1982 release on the NYC label 99 Records — is one of Robert Longo’s black-and-white renderings of well-coiffed, sharp-suited young professionals under unexplained duress. The drawing is as iconic of a certain kind of postmodern art-world cool as a Cindy Sherman film still, and it date-stamps the milieu from which Branca emerged. Otherwise, Longo’s imagery is all wrong. There’s nothing tidy, controlled, or distantly ironic about the music (barely) contained here; you’d come closer to its atmosphere of roiling chaos with a Schnabel-ful of crushed crockery.

Like many an East Villager, Branca began his visible career with stints leading "rock" bands in the usual sense, though both Theoretical Girls and the Static drew more from "serious" minimalism than from the funk and disco of many of his no-wave scenemates. (Another Acute reissue compiles these recordings, previously released and otherwise.) Then in 1981, he reimagined himself as a composer/conductor, dropping lyrics, vocals, and song-sized formal structures while holding on to guitar-bass-drums instrumentation — and massive doses of amplification.

With rare orchestral exceptions, Branca has worked in a self-invented form — the guitar "symphony" — ever since. These compositions comprise multiple movements scored for drums, a couple of basses, and alternately tuned electric six-strings. The 2001 piece "Hallucination City," as yet unrecorded, calls for 100 guitarists. The Ascension has only four — though when these include the unclassifiable Ned Sublette (now a scholar of Cuban music) and a pre–Sonic Youth Lee Ranaldo, four is plenty. (Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore also played with Branca in this period; Ranaldo supplies the reissue’s vivid liner notes, which peg the leader’s conducting style as "Bruno-Walter-on-peyote.")

What’s fascinating about this example of Branca’s still-developing style is hearing him and his players discover which elements of a band dynamic are necessary to their aims and which are blocking the road to the sonic sublime. The bass-heavy "Lesson No. 2" could have been executed by innumerable avant-rockers, past and present (a Bush Tetra, if not a Rogers Sister, might start singing at any moment); the title cut veers toward sheer, swarming sound, especially in long drumless stretches. "The Spectacular Commodity" alights between these poles. Guitars chime as often as they crash, unfamiliar tunings still evoke graspable harmonic content, and single-note passages emerge and fade, unhampered by any process as dull as finding one’s way back to a chorus. At 12 minutes long, it feels like a single, suspended moment.

As Ranaldo notes, what The Ascension isn’t is notably well-recorded; like any Sonic Youth record pre–Daydream Nation, it’s a half-legible document of a music that’s all about presence. Then again, the disc’s tinny harshness may be part of its strength: since the music was too big to be captured by available means, you’re free to imagine that it was infinite. That’s not as easy to do with Symphony Nos. 8 and 10 (Atavistic/MVD), a live DVD of two later pieces taped at venerable New York performance space the Kitchen in 1995, in Dolby Surround 5.1. (If you’re intending to play this through lap-top speakers, don’t waste your money.) By this point, Branca’s ensemble had grown to eight guitars, two basses, and ex-Swans drummer Virgil Moorefield. There’s little structural handholding in these pieces, which often involve four or more interlocking parts; they’re difficult to follow, but they’re supposed to be. The movement titles leave no doubt as to the composer’s expressive aims: "The Passion," "Spiritual Anarchy," "The Final Problem," and "The Horror." This is noise, meant to be experienced in terms of the conventional associations it had before anyone thought to tame it as "art": dark, confusing, violent, even cathartic. You can accept the music on these terms or reject it, but you can’t accuse Branca of hedging his bets.

By comparison, the disc’s straightforwardly shot performance/video component is less than satisfying. (No director is credited.) It’s fun to watch Branca conduct, and that’s part of the problem — Ranaldo’s description turns out to be dead-on, and Branca’s overall appearance recalls one of Longo’s figures after he’d neglected his dry-cleaning bill. (The ensemble also includes a youthful guitarist who appears to be auditioning for the Thurston Moore role in a cable bio-pic.) Branca’s gravity and passion can’t be taken all that seriously while you watch him act it out. But look away and at once the music expands and improves. As a movie, this is a great album.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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