Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) (1983 / 2016)
Over the last few years, as the vinyl resurgence has gathered steam, and with it a growing focus on reissues, I’ve increasingly found myself puzzled. The (reissue) market has become polarized. On one hand you have major labels trying to get in on the action, flooding shops with albums that already clog second hand bins. On the other you have independent labels run by enthusiasts (and thus often diggers) who dedicate much of their focus to obscure lost albums from the depths of history, particularity those which have a great narrative associated with them – he walked into the desert and was never heard from again, this album is his only artifact (as in the case of Jim Sullivan). I doubt I have to explain my sentiments toward the major label industry, or my deep appreciation for the hard work which the independents commit to bringing their treasures into our lives, but there has been a consequence.
We all have a dream reissue list – those albums which, through expense or obscurity, have eluded us over the years. Many of the records on my own list were reasonably obscure at the time of their original issue (thus few copies exist in the market), but have since become seminal in the eyes of fans. I assumed they would be reissued promptly as the market gathered steam. People want them, but few can find them. To my surprise they’ve been slow to appear – if at all. Because people are aware of them, labels tend to pass them over. They lack the great marketing pitch of obscurity and discovery, yet are not well known or accessible enough to be designated as “essential”. They fall between the cracks of our current climate. One such case is Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus). Though I’ve owned a copy of the original cassette issue for many years, I’ve dreamed of owning it on LP for nearly as long. It was pressed on vinyl in France during the early 90’s, but has eluded me thus far.
Glenn Branca’s Ensemble (including Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Michael Gira, and Barbara Ess) performing at BAM in January 1983 Photo: Tom Caravaglia
Many of us within the experimental music community trace our beginnings to Punk. It was where we learned of the power of the collective and self-determination. It is where we learned to be challenged, to expect more from music, and of its potential as an art-form and social mechanism. Despite carrying the spirit of Punk with us through the years, it would be foolish not to acknowledge the great distance between (most) Punk and explicitly avant-garde and experimental gestures. We often needed to be guided and coaxed toward the realms of sound which we came to embrace – usually through the work of a very small number of figures. Of these, at least within my own life, there is no one more important than Glenn Branca.
People tend to discover Branca as an extension of their affection for Sonic Youth. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore met while playing in his ensemble, and as a result (for better or worse) he has been bound to their legacy. Despite owning a few of their albums in my early teens, and having seen them a number of times over the years, I’ve never been a huge Sonic Youth fan. They operated within an important cultural middle ground – accessible enough to draw uninitiated listeners in, ambitious enough to push them toward more challenging territories of sound – figures like Branca, but they always sounded flat to my ears. I discovered Branca somewhat by chance. I was working my way through the catalog of the seminal No-Wave label 99 Records, which housed his first two solo releases – The Ascension and Lesson No. 1. Both rapidly became my favorite documents of that scene, remaining in my constant listening cycle for many years. They’re still never far from hand.
Looking back, you could argue that Branca was the definitive artist of the 80’s. He bridged Punk, avant-garde Classical music, and the art world. He was perfectly calibrated to the creative zeitgeist of that era. His work also has the rare feature of being timeless. All of it sounds as ambitious, challenging, and fresh as it did the day it was composed (whenever that might have been). The Ascension and Lesson No. 1 are well recognized. They fall into the “essential” category for any fan of Post-Punk or No-Wave, and have been reissued a number of times – first on CD and more recently on vinyl. Sadly few people venture further.
I came across Branca’s symphonies sometime in the late 90’s. This was before the resurgence of interest in No-Wave, before the internet carried information about it, and the swell of books on the subject. As someone who came of age in the early to mid 90’s, at the time I viewed most 80’s “art-music” as pretentious and suspect. My generation inherited its legacies, and saw much of the decade’s output as deeply problematic and self-indulgent. When I saw the word Symphony (No. 6) poking from a record store bin, I intuitively bristled. As a fan, my desire to hear more of Branca’s work won out. Filled with skepticism, I took it to the turntable and let the needle fall. I was shocked. Not only did it sidestep all of the 80’s cliches, it was unlike any symphony I had ever heard. A world opened.
Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1981 (the year following The Ascension), marking the beginning of a fascinating conceptual transition in Branca’s career, and for avant-garde music at large – one that continues to this day (Symphony No. 13 was released earlier this year, and three more have yet to be recorded). In retrospect (as with many great creative leaps) Branca’s conceits were remarkably simple. He heard the obvious. Others did not. During the early 80’s there were a number of key transitions happening within avant-garde music. Punk had overtaken the counterculture. The previous generation of practitioners – Minimalists like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Terry Riley, had exited the underground and were pursuing institutional recognition and projects of grand scale for the entertainment of society’s elite, increasingly at the expense of the work itself (particularly in the case of Glass). There was a new generation of composers attempting to push the idiom further (Phill Niblock, Ellen Fullman, Arnold Dreyblatt, Arthur Russell, Julius Eastman, etc), all of whom were remarkable, but worked as a direct extension of a generation who had sacrificed their relationship with larger counter-cultural conceits – and thus wide reaching relevance, position, and comment. Unlike most of the composers who were his peers, Branca seemed to understand Minimalism’s former social proximity, and that Punk operated within the same realm. Rather than look for new compositional or contextual structures, he simply combined the two.
Because of the way Minimalism has come to be historically understood (as institutionalized Classical Music), Niblock, Fullman, Dreyblatt, Russell, Eastman, and others (who are viewed more formally as composers) are generally recognized as its inheritors and continuum. Though I will never detract from the importance of each of these figures, the truth is that Branca best illustrates the continuation of Minimalism’s avant-garde legacy. The work of Glass, Riley, Reich, Young, Conrad, Flynt, etc, began within the counterculture, and as such in direct discourse with the larger cultural concerns of their era. Branca’s relationship to Punk culture, and his embracing of its energy and tonality within his symphonies, places him within this important proximity. He is the first of his generation, and one of only a few, to occupy it.
As strange as it might seem, despite 40 years of incredible work behind him, I am yet to see Branca receive the recognition he deserves. Very few people acknowledge the character of his contribution, or the proximity within which it operates. If he’s mentioned at all, it’s within the history of Punk and No-Wave, or as an aggregator of other people’s careers and ideas – as is the case with Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Michael Gira, Z’ev, and Rhys Chatham.
Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) was originally issued by ROIR (the iconic Punk, Reggae, and No-Wave label founded by Neil Cooper – husband of gallerist and longtime avant-garde music patron Paula Cooper) in 1983. The recording (which features Moore and Ranaldo – for interested parties) dates to the middle of 1981. In my view, whether or not you are aware of Branca’s remarkable 99 releases, or his efforts in The Static, and Theoretical Girls, it is the perfect place to begin to explore the body of work to which he has dedicated his life. As I mentioned, Branca’s conceit was relatively simple. He adopted the ideas of tonal constraint, duration, sustain, and repetitive rhythm from his Minimalist predecessors – infusing them with the raw energy and atonality of Punk. Despite the great leap he made, and the fact that his work sometimes appears to bear greater proximity to Punk than it does to Minimalist Classical music, his work is far closer to the later. It’s distinction often comes down to the tones he chose, rather than their structural relationships.
In order to understand Branca’s work it’s helpful to revisit the generation of composers that proceeded him. The sonic and social territory of Minimalism was (partially) a reaction to the dominance of Serialism (Twelve-tone / Dodecaphony) within Western Classical music, and its resulting dissonances (we’ll leave its relationship to Cage for another time). Beyond utilizing structural simplicity, Minimalism’s major contribution was the adoption of Just-Intonation, which has extended scales divided by mathematical intervals, allowing for more complex harmonic relationships than a Twelve-Tone system. These composers tended to favor great constraint – thus they widened the scale, while using it more selectively (pure intervals of perfect thirds and fifths). Though not all Minimalists utilized Just-Intonation, most were drawn to the kinds of harmonic relationships that it enabled or eluded to. Serialism often pushed audiences toward points of discomfort (by avoiding intervallic harmonics), something that Minimalism rejected. Its major figures favored relationships that were pleasing to the ear (thirds and fifths) – toward ecstatic, spiritual, or intellectual idealism. By the middle of the 1970’s, the kind of idealism that had been embraced by the 60’s generation had collapsed. The world became a darker place for nearly everyone not insulated by wealth. Punk was the sonic realization of society’s growing disillusionment.
In this light it could be argued that the immediate cultural relevance enjoyed by the first generation of Minimalists began to decline in the mid-70’s, and as a result their music became geared toward an audience who could afford to keep the wool pulled over their eyes. As the existential dissonances of Serialism had dominated the stark realities during the Second World War, and the years of reconciliation following them, Punk (and subsequently Branca) returned music to the realism of dissonance.
Branca is generally thought of as a composer for multiple guitars, but I’m not aware of an instance where he composed exclusively for them – as Rhys Chatham came to. His ensembles and works are characterized by multiple guitarist (up to 100) accented and augmented by percussion and other instruments. Symphony No. 1, though sharing many characteristics with Branca’s earlier efforts, is effectively the beginning of this project. The work features an ensemble made up of 9 guitarists, a number of percussionists and keyboard players, French Horn, Saxophone, Baritone Horn, and Trumpet. Its sounds are incredibly singular. There is no mistaking it for anyone but Branca. For the first three minutes of the Movement 1 his relationship to his Minimalist predecessors is strikingly apparent, almost as though he’s offering a clue. The ensemble is constrained to repetitive guitars generating the kind of overtone harmonics that Young and Riley are so noted for. Around the 3:30 mark their pulsing rhythms are underscored by a driving beat accompanied by cycling horns, which then escalate toward the throbbing frenzy which stretches over the remainder of the movement (I recommend listening to John Cale and Terry Riley’s The Protege from Church of Anthrax, Tony Conrad and Faust’s Outside The Dream Syndicate for insight and contrast). The first section of Symphony No. 1 is something of foil. It’s a kind of concise distillation of the territories explored within The Ascension and Lesson No. 1, and as such the perfect entry point for anyone accustomed to Branca’s previous efforts. Whatever comfort and familiarity it offers quickly evaporates at the outset of Movement 2. As the work progresses over the second, third, and fourth movements, the character of composer’s project becomes increasingly clear and explicitly avant-garde. They are rhythmic, grinding, dissonant, complex, and stunningly beautiful. As I mentioned, despite his works being unlike anything else you’ll ever hear, Branca didn’t make as radical a departure from his predecessors as it first appears. Most of the structural hallmarks of Minimalism are present – duration, sustain, repetition, and constraint. The crucial departure, and point of distinction, is found through tonal and harmonic relationships. Even here there are similarities. Punk, like Serialism, tended to form its dissonances by undermining the itervalic relationships of a Twelve Tone System. Branca seems to favor working within harmonic series’ to determine his tonal structures (Just-Intonation is one of many of harmonic series’). Thus his intervallic systems are similar to the one used by the Minimalists. The difference is found in where they begin and end, and how he chose to force them to relate. There are no ear tickling thirds and fifths. Branca’s world is one of carefully calibrated relationships, forced into rigorous structures. He did something that no other composer has done as well. He took the kind of dissonances that were favored by Serialism, and later embraced by Punk, recognized their topical character, stripped them of elitism, expanded them (well beyond twelve tones), and forced them into the structures laid out by the generation of composers that proceeded him. Though this might seem like a small leap, Branca effectively combined nearly every important music development (with the exception of Free-Improvisation, and Indeterminacy) of the Twentieth Century into a sonic and structural pallet that had never been heard before.
In my view Symphony No. 1 is one of the most important works composed in the last half century. The strange neglect that the work and its composer have suffered is a mixed blessing. Because they have never truly been accepted within the architectures of canonical Classical music, both have been allowed to remain where they belong – where all avant-garde music belongs, as mechanisms of the counterculture. This is not a symphony that sets out to please or meet expectations. This is not a work for those with the wool pulled over their eyes. It is intellectually challenging, abrasive, and a sonic realization of an ever darkening world. As I said, the work sounds as ambitious, challenging, and fresh as it did the day it was composed, which if viewed topically, implies that our world is as dark, or darker than it was in 1981. Even if this awareness were all it enabled (and it brings a great deal more), it would be proof of the greatness of art, and its resounding cultural worth.
It’s rare to see the original labels involved with reissues (most haven’t lasted, or moved on). Because of this we focus on discovery and sometimes forget those who originally worked to bring these great records into the world. When I noticed that Symphony No. 1 was being reissued by ROIR, I was thrilled. The label was incredibly important to me during my youth, and Niel Cooper (who sadly passed away in 2001, leaving the label to his son Lucas) was the kind of wild maverick who took risks, and had faith in his artists, that’s rare in any era. It’s nice to finally get a chance to shine some light in their direction. The label has been part of my life for 25 years, it’s about time. Symphony No. 1 is one of those records I’ve been waiting to see reemerge on vinyl for well over a decade. The last year has been pretty incredible for Minimalist and avant-garde reissues, but I doubt the remainder of 2016 will bring anything that tops this one. It is a stunning piece of work. You can listen to it below, and pick it directly from ROIR. I can’t recommend it enough. I hope it is merely the beginning of your explorations of this remarkable composer.
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), Movement 1 (1983 / 2016)
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), Movement 2 (1983 / 2016)
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), Movement 3 (1983 / 2016)
Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), Movement 4 (1983 / 2016)