Attitude Problem 2: Glenn Branca at the Roundhouse

Thursday 18 October 2007

“Given the laws of probability,” a friend of mine said afterward, “I suppose it was inevitable that any selection of a hundred guitarists would contain at least one wanker. But that guy up in the back row, he was one in a million.”

Glenn Branca was in London making the usual noises he makes, both on-stage and off. First there were his usual interviews where he says “kick ass” a lot and tells you how totally freakin’ loud his music is. The Rambler found links to a couple of them:

“I am the most pretentious person on the face of the Earth,” he declares, “but I’ve always tried to make powerful artistic statements, confronting the audience in what I thought of as a Brechtian way – that idea of the alienation effect.

“My music isn’t for everybody; it’s not pop music by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve always done things that I would like to go and see. I like things that are going to challenge me, things that are going to f*** [sic] with my perception. As it turned out, in New York and elsewhere, I’ve met a hell of a lot more people who are like me.”

It’s Branca’s “Barnum thing”, as one commenter on The Rambler’s site said, adding “the real show is watching people who show up to see if anything is going to happen.”

I showed up at the Roundhouse in Camden, slightly woozy after a few too many Chimay Rouges at the Belgian bar down the road, to see what would happen when Branca presented a performance of his notorious Symphony No.13: Hallucination City for 100 electric guitars. I had two good reasons for doing this (going to the concert, I mean – I don’t need a reason to drink Chimay): despite his macho posturing, I quite enjoy Branca’s music. Sure, it has a few too many flat spots, and the drumming is usually a bit Spinal Tappish but, as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for microtonal music.

The real appeal of Branca’s music, outside of the visceral thrill of dozens of loud electric guitars hammering away, is his use of the harmonic series. All the guitars are carefully retuned to overtones of a common base frequency. At first, the guitars sound exotically out of tune, until the combination of sonorities causes beautifully pure harmonies to float up over the crashing din, and then the small shifts in pitch create aural hallucinations of one harmony melting into another.

The other good reason I went is for comparison. About fifteen years ago I went to a performance of Rhys Chatham’s piece for 100 electric guitars, An Angel Moves Too Fast To See. (Branca and Chatham seem to have been in a pissing contest over who can get the most microtonally-tuned guitars into one piece: Chatham has since written a piece for 400 guitarists.) It’s the only piece of Chatham’s I’ve heard, and I found it underwhelming: I remember lots of steady-rocking chords that quickly got tedious, interspersed with some interesting passages of glissandi that swept back and forth across the orchestra. There was also the distraction of some of the more extroverted guitarists roped in for the concert – this is where the anecdote at the start comes from. All in all, it felt like the music existed solely for the sake of the idea of having so many guitarists on stage. Other people have told me I should give Chatham another chance.

The first encouraging sign at the Branca gig was that there were only about 80 guitarists on stage, and not 100 as promised. This was good, it suggested the Symphony was about the music, not the logistics. The music was typical of Branca’s work, but thankfully typical of his better work: insistent, pounding rhythms of dense chords that moved from one eerie tonal region to the next, balancing the harmonic complexity with the overall noise and sensation just about enough to keep anything from getting too dull.

The drums were as big and dumb as usual, but the interplay between the conductor and the drummer (who plays without a score) in setting the tempo for the pickup orchestra gave them a purpose not usually obvious on record. All four movements were pretty much fast. Added theatrical interest, besides observing the different guitarists’ behaviours, was provided by Branca himself skulking around backstage, occasionally wandering amongst the instruments to check how things were progressing.

Special mention goes to the guitarist who needed to rush off for a toilet break between movements. Many of us in the audience were feeling for you. This Symphony goes for over an hour and, after those Chimays and a £3.50 pint of Kronenbourg I’d brought into the theatre for succor, as soon as the applause died down I was racing for the nearest toilets. As were half the crowd, who were queuing down the corridor for both the ladies and the mens. Never seen that before.

During that final movement, there was no sight as gladdening as the conductor turning to the final page of the score, nor a sight as heartbreaking as when he then turned back a few pages for a dal segno.

Tom Hughes in The Guardian has written about his experience as one of the volunteer guitarists appearing in the piece (and quickly learning to read music along the way).