In 1980, School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal went with a bunch of friends to check out a new music festival in Chicago. He thinks composer John Cage was there. Possibly David Van Tieghem and Patrick Gleeson.
Most of the performances kind of blurred into a general impression of “interesting,” Sabal said. Only one act stood out: Glenn Branca.
“It was one of these events in your life that you never forget,” Sabal said of Branca’s “guitar army” performance. “I was transformed by it.”
Branca, who attended Emerson College nearly 50 years ago before going on to become an entirely original and groundbreaking avant-garde composer, died Sunday, May 13, in New York City. He was 69.
Branca came to Emerson to study theater, according to his obituary in The New York Times. While in Boston, he co-founded the experimental troupe, Bastard Theater, and worked at a record store where he devoured works by Miles Davis, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Mahler, Beethoven, and his (possible) 1980 bill mate, John Cage, according to the Times.
In 1978, he moved to New York and formed first the Static, then Theoretical Girls, leading the “No Wave” movement, which fused punk noise and volume with experimental composition. He also started a record label, Neutral, which released early recordings by Sonic Youth, the Times reported.
Eventually, his “omnivorous musical curiosity” led him to create a complicated blend of genres – classical, rock, and experimental – that influenced a lot of contemporary crossover music, according to the Times.
Branca is known for composing works meant to be performed by “orchestras” of amplified guitars playing at different ranges.
“Many of his works are meant to be performed at high volumes,” the Times wrote, “partly so that the overtones of his amplified guitars would linger and pile up, creating a phantom layer of harmony beyond what the musicians were playing, and partly as a purely tactile element, meant to both envelop and physically shake his listeners.”
It was this effect that Sabal said blew him away in Chicago. The music in some ways had a “subtle, shifting, hypnotic” quality to it, similar to the phase music that composers like Stephen Reich were doing, but incredibly loud.
“Altogether the music created all of these shifting, ethereal sounds,” Sabal recalled. “It was incredibly visceral. It just pummeled your body with sound waves, [but was] incredibly subtle and kind of fine and fragile.
“It was so beautiful. I could not believe it,” he said.