After nearly a century of being ritually smashed, set on fire, and wielded as a phallus, the electric guitar has lost some of its subtle mystery. The notes had seemingly all been played. Yet, on a certain high-school evening, some Thurston Moore–loving, prog-rock-leaning friends introduced me—a child reared on guitar heroes of all varieties and learned in the various show-off techniques of butt rock and bebop—to Glenn Branca's guitar symphonies, and the mystery was forcefully, harshly restored.
Somewhere between the scathing din of Wolf Eyes and textural composers like Ligeti is Glenn Branca. His guitar symphonies stand as some the most evocative expressions of organized chaos in any art form, and, in most cases, they sound nothing like guitars. As a part of New York's no-wave sound, he redefined the instrument's scope for all the '90s noise rockers to reap (Sonic Youth, for one, was birthed from Branca's experimental loins).
So, when the Experience Music Project posted a call for musicians to perform Hallucination City: Symphony 13 for 100 Guitars in Seattle, I offered my services as a music- reading guitar player. Branca's wife and right-hand concertmistress, Regina Bloor, e-mailed me the sheet music for Hallucination City, a 70-minute monster that premiered back in 2001 at the base of the World Trade Center. Bloor also sent a comprehensive list of notes describing how I'd be modifying the way I play, tune, string the guitar, and read notation. In order for his music to work, Branca wants performers to unlearn their hot licks, their tasty riffs, their Black Sabbath bar chords, and relearn that mystery of strings plus wood plus electricity.
The first rehearsal was in the acoustically beautiful EMP Sky Church, the second in the bleak cafeteria of the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Organized like a chorale, the orchestra sat according to sections: alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. I, along with three others, made up the swarm-of-bees sound of alto 7. The guy on my left told me he had played in six other Hallucination City performances, including ones in Belgium, London, and Rome. Then he pointed out five other seasoned Brancanites who had all traveled here from faraway places. The alto on my right said, "I just read about it in the paper and wanted to play with a hundred guitarists."
It turned out that the count was more like 47—still an impressive number of guitarists willing to spend three 10-hour days playing a piece of avant-garde chamber music at a $175-to-$275-per-ticket Seattle Art Museum party for zero pay. The experience offered other rewards.
What happens when a Branca piece really gets going is a little like hypnosis. During one informal lunchtime discussion, he talked about listening to the sound of a pitch slowly bending over the course of an hour and how, if you listen to it loud enough, you will endure "hallucinations like you've never seen." Indirectly, I think he was giving us inspiration for his own music. Another time, he wandered into the room and told the (wonderfully fantastic) conductor, John Myers, "I don't know what you guys are doing in here, but I'm hearing voices in this music."
This was the type of praise that he consistently lavished upon us while hulking in and out of the room, unshaven, backpacked, and with gray hair just long enough to be called "wild." He must know that part of the reason performers show up is to bask in his Brancaness, and every few hours, just to satisfy us, he'd blurt out something like, "The name of this movement is 'Vengeance,' and while you're playing it I want you all to think about how you're going to feel on the second Tuesday of this coming November." Or: "You fucking nailed it!" He wasn't just being nice; over the course of two days, the amorphous cloud of sound that farted out of us in the first rehearsal was somehow sculpted into something that, even in the white-walled sobriety of the Exhibition Hall, was like a musical high.
The day of the show, at the Olympic Sculpture Park, was the first time Branca showed his teeth and brassy voice—not to the performers, but to the crew: "What the fuck is going on here? Where the fuck is the conductor going to stand? Here? On this? It should be half this size! I mean, come on!"
By the time the show began, anxieties were quelled. Everyone had ransacked the open bar and expensive-looking amenities at SAM's 75th anniversary party. Someone carved an ice sculpture of a guitar, a diamond-encrusted guitar was auctioned off, and remote-controlled wedding cakes zipped around the park. All of it was in utter contrast to the performance, because, to be honest, the caste of person who plays/listens to Branca probably isn't the type who drops a couple hundred bucks on a gala.
But the die-hards were there—huddled on the street, clinging to the outside of the fence—and when the piece began, the rowdiest applause came from those sidelines. The SAM benefactors, meanwhile, hid across the park in a "party tent," listening to Euro-dance-lite tracks, waiting out Branca's transcendent, mass hypnosis until the "headliner," a Neil Diamond cover band, took the stage. That was fine by us. And from what I could tell, it's the sort of response that only fuels Branca's inspiration—his MySpace page represents him with a photo of some conservative types covering their ears and wincing. After all these years, Branca's still the greatest iconoclast the guitar has ever seen, and that's exactly why we played our hearts out for him.