I remember feeling absolutely free. I recall the sensation of joy.
I first saw Glenn Branca at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. in 1982. I came away from that concert wondering how it was that I, having spent so much of my life listening to music, had simply never thought about music simply as noise, perhaps somewhat organized, to varying degrees, but noise nonetheless. Branca, who died this past Sunday, gave me what may have been the loudest noise I’d ever heard that night, give or take a jackhammer or a jet engine, familiar sounds from growing up in Queens, New York.
I am a bit fuzzy today, trying to picture the setup Glenn had at that 9:30 Club show. I can remember what felt like a lot of guitars, maybe seven of them. There were music stands, something unfamiliar in a rock club. What I recall though, is the feeling of pulse and vibration; not the sort of bottom-heavy stuff you hear at clubs these days – sound systems at the time weren’t as powerful as they are now, and in fact most of the sound in the old 9:30 Club came directly from the guitar amps on the stage. But the way Glenn composed music for guitars, and the way he generated sound, filled the small club with a shower of harmonics that hung and hummed in the air in waves, the aural equivalent of a rainbow. The guitar sounds were were oddly tuned — I’d almost say out of tune — but these odd tunings had purpose, taking somewhat punky rhythms and making them feel woozy, off kilter and therefore interesting, with a repetition that was entrancing.
In 1982 I was an electronic musician. I had built a modular synthesizer and I owned an ARP Odyssey, and had until recently been in a psychedelic dance band called Tiny Desk Unit. I was composing music for theater and conceiving a work called Whiz Bang with the Impossible Theater that imagined the history of sound from the beginning of time to the end of time. One of the inspirations for the work was a book by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer called The Tuning of the World, which traced the changes in Earth’s soundscape from the primordial to the industrial ages. He wrote about how sound defined a community, how the reach of a church bell’s sound could define the boundaries of a village - -if you couldn’t hear it any longer, you’d left town. He wrote about industrialization and noise pollution, about how sound in the era after the industrial revolution became dislocated from its source thanks to radios and sound recordings. I was living in downtown D.C., and became hyper-aware of the constant hum of the city, of the ever-present sounds to which I had unconsciously turned a deaf ear.
That was the moment Glenn Branca came into my life. What he did with his music was to dismiss familiar song form and present drone and noise itself as music. It was ear-opening, enlightening, liberating. In using the familiar sound of the guitar, he made it approachable, and it was inexpensive to witness firsthand. The music he performed that night at the 9:30 Club came from an album that he’d put out a handful of months earlier called The Ascension. I quite liked it, but didn’t really connect with the intent of the record until I heard it amped up. In an era of an independent music scene birthed in part by punk half a dozen years before, stumbling upon his music was an awakening.
Glenn’s dedication to his art was immutable. I remember meeting him in his hotel room a few years later while I was on tour with my theater company. We were sharing a double bill with him in the Opera Tomorrow Festival in Minneapolis-St.Paul, and he was on a rant about commercialism and music. He insisted that artists should stop giving or selling their music for commercial purposes – it would be better for all artists to boycott and stop making art. These days, most musicians will take income anywhere they can find it, and the idea of selling out has long since been cast aside. But the idea of music as noise — and noise as music — is pretty much a part of our soundscape these days. Sampling helped that along, but so did aural visionaries like Glenn Branca.