By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In late 2004, composer Glenn Branca made his first effort to record Hallucination City, a.k.a. Symphony No. 13, at Queens’ Kaufman Astoria Studios. Written for 100 electric guitars, it is his definitive work. Kaufman Astoria Studios, longtime home to such television programs as The Cosby Show and Sesame Street, had never housed a gathering quite like this. One hundred white guys grasped their Rickenbackers and Gibsons, Fender Stratocasters and Ibanezes, beginner instruments like the Squier Silver Bullet and ostentatious models like the Epiphone Flying V. When the music kicked in, it sounded like sequential swarms of well-regimented insects, mosquitoes overtaken by crickets overtaken by locusts. Unforgettable yet hard to describe, its effect on the ears was comparable to that on your eyes if you stare into the sun too long — an exquisite sensation that could cause permanent damage. Branca brings Hallucination City and his 100 guitarists to Disney Hall on ?March 29.
In Queens, Branca was dressed like a gothic academic. He wore black, save for cuffed blue jeans. An ill-fitting sports coat hung loosely over his button-down shirt. A pair of severe glasses was slung low on his nose. His hair hovered several inches above his head in a distinctive salt-and-pepper pompadour. At 57, he was considerably older than most of his players. They were volunteers, mostly young dudes in their 20s and 30s who hoped some of the composer’s greatness might rub off. (Previous members of Branca’s ensembles have gone on to lead popular bands like Helmet and Sonic Youth.) They were giddy at the prospect of playing so loud; few anticipated Branca’s maniac discipline. During breaks in the action, if the guitarists chatted or indulged in a tasty riff, the composer hunted them down like cockroaches in a microchip factory: “Who is that? No noodling! No feedback, ever!”
By the end of the afternoon, Branca was haggard from hours of wild gesticulations, yelled instructions, frequent smoking breaks and earsplitting beauty. His pompadour had collapsed in on itself like a failed soufflé. A few weeks later, unsatisfied with the results of the KAS session, he scrapped the entire project — days of work, months of preparation.
Branca fits squarely in the tradition of American composers like Charles Ives and John Cage. He’s a true outsider — eccentric, inimitable and inexplicable. A few weeks after the KAS session, he agreed to sit down over margaritas at a crappy Mexican place near his Chelsea apartment. Throughout the interview, Branca was intense, his conversational style performative. He steamrolled over most questions. And I listened. What follows is all Branca:
THIS IS WHAT MUSIC COULD BE
“The only music that excited me when I was young was something I remember hearing on PBS when I was 16. It was Olivier Messiaen, though I had no idea at the time. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, you didn’t hear anything from the 20th century, except maybe Aaron Copland. No [Krzysztof] Penderecki, no [György] Ligeti. Nothing.
“So, around ’66, ’67, I started getting really interested in rock, mainly hard rock. At first I was attracted to the non-commercial bands. But then glitter came along. Even though it was quite commercial, it was the one place good music could be heard — like Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death or Killer. Then I moved to Boston to go to school. At one point I stumbled into a theater, and there was a band playing. I thought it was Alice Cooper doing some kind of pre-tour practice gig. Instead, it turned out it was a band called Aerosmith. This was before they had a record out, and — whatever you’re going to say about their later pop shit — as far as straight-out hard rock is concerned, they were state-of-the-art.
“At the time I was also working at a record store in Copley Square. As anyone that’s ever worked in a record store knows, after a few months, you’ve listened to all the rock you’d ever want to hear, so I asked another guy in the store, what am I supposed to listen to? What could he recommend? My tastes developed. I became a serious fan of Miles Davis and pretty much anyone that played in Miles’ band — Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, and jazz fusion. Weather Report was my favorite band for at least six months. I also listened to contemporary classical music. When I finally heard Philip Glass and Steve Reich, it was like I’m home. Then, one day, I heard Messiaen again. To my ears, it sounded like a guy bashing the fucking keyboard in an entirely spontaneous way, but not in a way like jazz musicians, you know? It was just totally outside. It was beyond the realm. I didn’t realize that music could go so far out, that you could play so many wrong notes, that you could play so many off-rhythms, that this is what music could be!”
THE MOST EVIL, VILE STUFF I COULD THINK OF
“Since age 11, I was planning on being in theater. My parents would buy me these old tape recorders for Christmas and birthdays, and I’d sit there, really immersed, and make these tape collages. But I’d never play them for anyone. I always loved rock music desperately, but for many years, theater is what I lived and dreamed about 24 hours a day. Eventually, that’s what I went to school for at Emerson College. I wasn’t interested in creating plots or writing characters, though. I liked large forces — playing with huge numbers of people and sound and lights and imagery. I was interested in spaces where magical things might happen. The closest influence was Dada. The pieces were about whatever the fuck I wanted them to be about. I wanted to fuck with people’s heads. I was concerned with Richard Wagner’s idea of total theater. Richard Foreman was my hero.