Call Glenn Branca the “guitar guy” and see how fast the spiky-haired composer swears, sneers, or stalks out of the room. Though his retuned axes gave conceptual inspiration (and sidemen gigs) to Sonic Youth, and have often been the bedrocks of his pieces for 30 years, Branca’s 15 symphonies have included microtonal harpsichords, homebuilt mallet guitars, overturned trash cans, and traditional European orchestras.
His latest, Running Through the World Like An Open Razor, premieres Saturday at Le Poisson Rouge, and–palette-wise–is easily his most ambitious yet. It features over 100 different instruments including shrutis, a swangsarum, and (possibly) his good ol’ steel wire harmonics guitars. “I want to hear something that sounds like it came from another planet, which is something I’ve wanted to hear since I was a kid,” says Branca. He recently recounted the history of his symphonies.
Symphony No. 1: Total Plexus (1981)
For: guitars, keyboards, brass, and percussion
The #1 came after I had been doing a lot of pieces for multiple guitars, on records like The Ascension and Lesson No. 1. I did a piece for 10 guitars. I thought that a symphony could be approached as a theater piece, like the long form of music, a full evening-length piece of music. The idea of doing a symphony made sense. I did incorporate a few orchestral instruments into that piece. It was one of the only times I did that with a guitar piece. And I did a lot of stuff with tunings. In some cases, I used non-conventional guitar strings, like untempered steel wire that you’d buy in a hardware store.
Symphony No. 2: The Peak of the Sacred (1982)
For: eight mallet guitars, taped harmonic guitars, bass drums, metal percussion, and drums
Almost all the instruments were built specifically for the piece. There wasn’t a single actual guitar in the piece, except for bass. There were 13 or 14 musicians, including Z’ev, who played his own kit with very noisy metallic stuff. The instruments I built were what I called mallet guitars. I liked the open string sound of guitars, it had a richer more harmonic sound than when you’re dampening the harmonics by putting your finger on the frets. I called them “staircase guitars.” They were sort of like a zither. I didn’t have any money at all in those days. They were built with screws, and two-by-fours. I could afford to buy tuning pegs.
Symphony No. 3: Gloria (Music For the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series) (1983)
For: modified harpsichords, bass, drums
At the time, this was 1981, there were no instruments designed for [microtonality] that I knew of. I wanted to use keyboard instruments, like an early piano-forte. I approached an instrument builder, a real genius this guy, and he said, “Why don’t you harpsichords instead? It’d be much easier to get the equipment.” I also used the third bridge system and guitar pick-ups, and was able to tune each note entirely separately. The first grant I got was an instrument-building grant, which I used to pay for them. I used them for two more symphonies after that.
Symphony No. 4: Physics (1983)
For: modified harpsichords, bass, drums
The only one we toured extensively. In Europe, ironically. We did a 15-city tour. It was massive. We had to hire a truck and roadies. This was stuff I’d never had to do before, to drag all these instruments all over Europe. It was a killer. The budget was massive, and I ended up losing a bunch of money. When I got on that plane, I knew I was going to lose $12,000 that I didn’t have, because I still had promised the musicians they’d get paid, which I tried to always do, since I started paying musicians. In the early days, everybody played for free, like they do nowadays.
Symphony No. 5: Describing Planes of An Expanding Hypersphere (1984)
For: mallet guitar, guitar, harmonics guitar, modified harpsichord, keyboard, violin, bass, drums
Probably the noisiest piece I’ve ever written. With all of the guitars and the harmonic series keyboards and the incredible kind of cluster sounds I could get, you could get all this acoustic phenomena in a good acoustic space, which would sound like voices and choirs and violins and trumpets, just coming out of these guitars and harpsichords. A lot of that doesn’t get on the records. It’s an aural hallucination kind of thing that’s going on. It’s really strange. You can’t identify with it at all, so your mind is going through its filing cabinet trying to identify its sound.
Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (1987)
For: drums, bass, keyboard, and between eight and ten guitars
The harmonic series was getting to be an obsession. I was getting interested it in more than a musical way. Without going into it deeply, it has philosophical and mathematical implications that are incredibly interesting. I found myself being drawn into this system of music where I was paying more attention to the harmonic series than I was to the music. I did a whole show of drawings based on the harmonic series [included in the liner notes to Symphony No. 5]. That was the point that I decided that I’d go crazy with this, that I’d end up writing theoretical papers and doing drawings. I decided to go back to the equal temperament system. [Symphony #6] was a straight on, straight out guitar piece. I wanted to concentrate more on composition. There was still a lot more I wanted to learn about composing music.
Symphony No. 7: Graz (1989)
I started getting some people who were asking me to write music for [traditional] orchestra. This was something I was very interested in. My music was becoming more complex. The guitars and the electric instruments couldn’t really hold the complexity of it, the sound was too muddy. I couldn’t use the kind of chords I wanted to use, I couldn’t use the fast counterpoints and rhythms I wanted to use, because sometimes it would just turn into mud. And I don’t like playing electric guitars soft. That’s just out, as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t try to do anything special with it, as far as tunings or stringings or anything. It’s conventional orchestra. I would hope the music isn’t entirely conventional. I basically wanted to hear what the orchestra would sound like and to write a symphony for it.
Symphony No. 8: The Mystery (1992)
For: guitars, bass, drums
I was back at the guitars again. I’m basically at the mercy of what people want me to do. There are times when I can make a suggestion and say, “this is what I want do,” but there are other times when I can’t. If I get a call for a commission, and they ask for something specific, I have to give it to them. And that was the case with Symphony No. 8.
Symphony No. 9: L’eve Future (1993)
For: orchestra and chorus
That was a piece for a full symphony orchestra. It was in Berlin, and they hired a cheap Czech orchestra. This was right after the Wall came down and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so you could get really, really good Eastern European orchestras really cheap. I know that sounds really terrible, but if you knew the price of getting a symphony orchestra in the United States, you’d see why. I was just incorporating vocals into the sound as if they were instruments. I wasn’t treating it as “orchestra here,” “chorus there,” like Beethoven. It was meant to be completely integrated, where instruments were doubling voices and voices were coming out of instruments with the same notes. I was really trying to intertwine them. Some of that comes across in the recording.
Symphony No. 10: The Mystery, part II (1994)
For: guitars, bass, drums
After I finished Symphony No. 8, I wanted to do more with that sound, but I got a commission to do Symphony No. 9. That was the point where I started doing a lot of rewriting. Practically everything since Symphony No. 6 has been rewritten in one way or another. I throw out movements, I rewrite other movements, I add new movements. That’s what I was doing there, a continuation.
Symphony No. 11: The Netherlands (Die Gegenfeld, part I) (1998)
Another orchestral commission, and that’s the one where I really got into microtonality. I got into a lot of process. I use process in everything I write. I think of myself as minimalist, though my music doesn’t sound anything like John Adams or Terry Riley or Philip Glass, but I use a lot of techniques that are very similar to the techniques they were using in the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. I didn’t get it from them, it was just the kind of thing I was attracted to, using symbolic logic to create different relationships between the sounds, and to make changes that are unusual. I don’t use modulations in a conventional sense.
Symphony No. 12: Tonal Sexus (1998)
For: seven guitars, bass, drums
The return to another guitar piece. That was the monster at the Anchorage. Supposedly, it was so loud that there was paint falling from the fucking ceiling. I’d like to tell anyone who was there that it was not intended to be that fucking loud. I had my soundman and my PA set up. They had three or four rooms, and they had speakers all over the place, and I didn’t realize that when we did my soundcheck with my soundman, who at the time was Wharton Tiers, with the PA system in the room. I didn’t know they had their own soundman who could override my soundman, who was in an entirely different room! I couldn’t believe this. It was so loud I couldn’t stand to listen to it. The funny thing is, people loved it, they were going nuts.
Symphony No. 13: Hallucination City (2001)
For: 100 guitars, drums
I had been commissioned by a French organization to write a piece for the Millennium Festival, and they wanted a piece for 2,000 guitars for the year 2000! And they wanted to give me a pile of money to do it! I told them, “This is ridiculous, this is completely unrealistic on so many levels, I can’t get into it,” and they were determined to commission this piece. They just couldn’t get it through their heads how long it would even take to feed 2,000 people during the lunch break! It would take up almost the entire rehearsal. It just turned into a gigantic fart. The performance didn’t happen, but the piece was written, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council had heard and suggested we do it for 200 guitars here in New York. I thought that was too many, so suggested we do it for 100. I wasn’t really into the hundred guitar thing. Especially since it was sort of Rhys Chatham’s baby, and I didn’t really want to step on his toes, but I had this piece, that I’d been paid a lot of money to write, and it seemed ridiculous not to perform it.
Symphony No. 14: The Harmonic Series (first movement, 2,000,000,000 Light Years From Home) (2008)
This was first movement of Symphony No. 14, which is actually called the Harmonic Series, but I figured out a way to get orchestral instruments tuned in the harmonic series tuning, which I will not attempt to explain here on the phone. The first movement is the only part that’s been written. I haven’t yet been commissioned to write any more.
Symphony No. 15: Running Through The World Like An Open Razor (Music for Strange Orchestra)
For: strange orchestra
It’s a technical nightmare, the outrageous number of instruments I’m using. I’m not just using guitars and orchestral instruments. I’m using every kind of instrument you can possibly imagine. There are a lot of Asian instruments in the piece. There’s a tambura, and a couple of shrutis. There’s a swarsangum. I’m using some of the harmonics guitars. Almost every movement is entirely different than the previous movement, and uses a different set of instruments. There are two movements specifically where I use practically all of them. There are a few guitar movements. They’re not entirely like the guitar stuff people might think I usually write.