New York avant-garde composer/conductor and guitarist with No Wave groups the Static and Theoretical Girls Glenn Branca passed away May 13 from throat cancer. He was 69. A major influence on the international noise-rock scene (along with Rhys Chatham, for whom Branca played on his Guitar Trio album), Branca's massive guitar-centric works inspired artists like Sonic Youth, Swans, Polvo, Live Skull, Sunn O))), Helmet, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tone, and many others striving to find new methods to rejuvenate rock's tired tropes through alternate guitar tunings, towering drones, and hypnotic repetition.
Branca harnessed hard rock's zeal for extreme volume and power chords to a rigorous minimalist-maximalist compositional approach that favored huge blocks of sound shifting almost imperceptibly yet inexorably toward a cataclysmic climax. It is will-to-power music par excellence, music for people who find Iannis Xenakis too genteel. Were he born 120 years later, fickle Wagner fanboy Friedrich Nietzsche would probably dig Branca's diabolical symphonies.
I had the good fortune to see Branca's orchestra perform in Detroit circa 1982-83. It was, by far, the most powerful experience—musical or otherwise—in my life. Onstage there were perhaps 12 musicians arranged in a semi-circle and a conductor—Miriam Sussman, a woman who attended my high school while I was a student there, oddly enough. If I recall correctly, her conducting consisted of her entire body spasming as if demonically possessed for the duration of the piece. It was one of the most amazing feats of physical exertion I've ever witnessed.
As for the music, it felt as if a freight train were running through my head. Instantly, my body shifted into panic mode. Such was the loudness and intensity of the music, I genuinely feared the building was going to crumble and I was going to explode. I didn't have earplugs, so for a minute I felt an urge to bolt for the door. Thankfully, though, irrationality prevailed, and I stayed for the entire concert. It prepared me well for those extended noise breaks during live renditions of My Bloody Valentine's "You Made Me Realise," which, in retrospect, seem like tranquil interludes compared to Branca and company's total destruction of time and space on that auspicious day 36 years ago.
Whatever hearing I lost then was more than compensated for by the extraordinary feelings Branca's creation triggered in me: a sense of being annihilated over and over, of having your mind tabula rasa'd, of submitting to a greater force that gangbanged your sensorium until you smelled the light. RIP, Glenn Branca.