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.
"Later, I moved to New York, and in 1977, a year after I arrived, I met Jeffrey Lohn, a composer, performance artist and musician -- one of the more brilliant people I'd ever known. He had a 2,500-foot ground-floor loft in Soho. Now it's a Japanese restaurant, but at the time we painted the whole thing black, and were going to form the Bastard Theater. That's all we talked about and all we thought about. There was very little music.
"Then, one day, I just couldn't hold back my desire to start a rock band. Both of us were over 30 at the time, so neither of us had any delusions. We weren't interested in becoming rock stars. We liked the punk ideal. We would write anything we wanted to whether people liked it or not. It's hard for people to understand now, but this was before hardcore. This was like the Rod Stewart era. Yet for some reason, the more absurd we became, the bigger our audience. At first we were just the local art band. There was a lot of interest in the young female conceptual artists -- Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger -- and when someone threw out the name The Theoretical Girls, that's who we became. But I also loved the idea of being part of a movement, and in 1978, No Wave began. There were a bunch of exciting gigs, where all of these noise bands were on the same bill together: Mars, the Contortions, DNA.
"Then Brian Eno moved to New York. Very quickly he heard about this scene, and convinced Virgin to release a record. The problem was, he only picked four of the bands when, in fact, there were about 10. Bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks convinced him they were the real thing. They were East Village, we were the Soho art fags. That pretty much ended it. No Wave was done by '79. For me, those two years were like 10. Every day there was something new -- a new song, a new idea. I was out there presenting the most evil, vile stuff I could think of, and people were at the edge of the stage licking it up."
ALL I WANT TO DO IS PUT LITTLE DOTS ON LITTLE PIECES OF PAPER
"I lost interest in being in a rock band. I was having ideas for pieces three or four musicians couldn't handle. I was invited to participate in a festival Max's Kansas City had during Easter, and wrote a monster piece called Instrumentals for Six Guitars. During the first rehearsals, it sounded so gorgeous that I literally broke down and started to cry. Eventually I wrote The Ascension. The first time I played it at a rock club, there was utter silence. The place was packed to the gills, but there was no applause. The audience were shocked out of their fucking minds. People thought I was insane, but I realized this was the sound I had to work with.
"The first time I got to write a piece for an orchestra, I sat down over two months and learned how to write standard staff notation. I learned in three days. A quarter note here, a half note there. When I found out that people made such a big deal out of this thing . . . I mean, learning Spanish is harder than this!
"Since then, people have said I've disappeared or that I'm a hermit. I am an obsessive. I have invested massive amounts of time, and now know a lot more about the fundamentals of harmony than most people with doctorates in music. But the thing is, I'm not independently wealthy, and I'm not on a major label. If I don't get commissioned, I can't put things together. Why didn't Wagner write any music for 16 years? It's because no one was commissioning his music! If King Ludwig didn't come along, you wouldn't have your Ring series, your Parsifal. People say I'm re-emerging, but that's not true. I've been on the computer and phone with every kind of producer, funder and businessman. All I ever do or want to do is sit in my room, put little dots on little pieces of paper with a pencil and write music.
"Hallucination City came about because my agent in Europe had an idea of doing a gig for 2,000 guitars for the year 2000. I told her, ‘Do you know how much money it takes to feed that many people?' As each piece of the bureaucracy got their piece of the pie, the budget went up -- from $250,000 to $500,000 to almost a million. Then the massive millennium celebrations turned into a big fart. No one gave a damn about the millennium. A performance didn't come together until 2001, when I got a call from [public-art organization] Creative Time. They were curating this festival downtown, and wanted the theme to involve New York City. They liked the idea of 100 guitars.
"How do I describe the piece? Well, I wouldn't talk in terms of dissonance but in terms of clusters -- large, almost architectural blocks of sound that move around each other, inside of each other, on top of each other. In a way I almost see my music as a kind of structured collage. Collage got written off because of the way [John] Cage used it, but I like that sound. That's what I liked about Mahler. I like the way music sucks you in, and takes you somewhere solely for the purpose of turning back on you, and hitting you in the head."
Glenn Branca's Hallucination City, Symphony No. 13 for 100 Guitars, will be performed on Wednesday, March 29, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 850-2000. For this special performance, all seats will be priced at $10.