Glenn Branca

[Composer/Guitarist]

“If You Don’t Like Loud Music, Don’t Bother with My Music.”
In the ’70s, New York was:
Where you had to come if you were doing experimental work of any kind
Where the audience was
Filled with nothing but artists and musicians and actors and directors and writers

A few nights after his sixty-fifth birthday, the composer Glenn Branca is standing on a street corner in downtown Manhattan, trying to find a reasonably quiet place where we can talk and smoke and drink Sambuca. Despite the warm weather, he’s dressed in his customary outfit: black shirt, black slacks, sweeping black coat with a half dozen pens in the top pocket. His voice is coarse, his teeth chipped; he looks and sounds like a relic from Ed Koch’s New York. “We could go to the Manhole,” he says wryly. “It’s the filthiest, most disgusting gay bar in the whole city. It’s been there for, like, forty years. I’ve never been, but I had a friend who used to go. He got hepatitis B there.”

Branca’s oeuvre lies at the juncture of classical and punk. Theoretical Girls, his late-’70s experimental rock band, was a crucial part of the then-burgeoning “no wave” scene. His record label, Neutral, released early albums by Sonic Youth and the Swans, both of which included members who had performed in his group the Glenn Branca Ensemble, a rock group with a phalanx of guitarists. Over a four-decades-long career, he has written for customized instruments and traditional orchestras, but it is for his guitar symphonies—including, most famously, Symphony no. 13 (“Hallucination City”), which was written for one hundred guitars and performed at the base of the World Trade Center in June of 2001—that he will most likely be remembered. His aesthetic is by now well established: strange tunings, extreme volume, and relentless dissonance that culminates in a sustained climax that is often unsettling, hypnotic, and, somehow, gorgeous. While many of his contemporaries have blazed out or disappeared, Branca has kept working, carving out a reputation as an icon of New York’s avant-garde music scene.

Despite his distinguished career, Branca cuts the figure of a beleaguered man. Burned bridges bar him from gigs. His landlord is desperate to give him the boot to free up the rent-stabilized apartment in which he has lived for the last decade. He is struggling to find a publisher for his forthcoming autobiography, tentatively titled Running Through the World Like an Open Razor. “I’ve known a lot of writers,” he says, drawing on a cigarette, “and they’re competitive and always broke. Nobody will help you. I used to help everybody, but I’m through with that. Every single person I’ve ever helped has screwed me.”

We settle for a Thai restaurant that has neither Sambuca nor a garden in which to smoke but that is at least relatively quiet. He orders a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks. When the waiter botches my order and brings me a ginger martini, Branca offers to switch, and drinks the unwanted cocktail like a good sport. I have a few questions about his work and worldview. Though pugnacious and suspicious of the press, he seems in the mood to talk.

—Joseph Neighbor

I. REAL CREATIVE ART IN THE FLESH

THE BELIEVER: I noticed on your webpage that you have about a dozen projects in progress. What are you working on at the moment?

GLENN BRANCA: I got so much shit I have to do it’s ridiculous. Actually, it’s pissing me off because it distracts me from my autobiography.

BLVR: Is the idea for the book something you’ve been walking around with for a while?

GB: Actually, yes, it is. Minimum ten years. It seems odd that when I was only fifty-five I was thinking about writing an autobiography. I had actually started a novel about that time. I had already written six or seven plays, so I already knew I could write. I had written a lot of poetry as well. I’ve been thinking about doing it for a few years, and now I’ve had some time to actually sit down and start doing it. So now I’m well into it. The book is going to be utterly wild, totally obscene, vicious, violent…

BLVR: It sounds like you’ve already written the jacket copy.

GB: I’m going to be crucified for this book. Much more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. You have to realize, I’ve known just about everybody in New York at this point. The only people I don’t know are those who have come up in the last ten years, and who’s come up in the last ten years?

Joseph Neighbor is a Brooklyn-based writer from the treacherous swamps of Florida.

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