LIVE REVIEW: The Glenn Branca Ensemble @ St. Vitus

glenn branca wearing glasses

Glenn Branca didn’t want people to dance to his music. “I want them to sit there and be blown away,” he once said in an interview. No one was seated at Brooklyn’s St. Vitus Bar on Sunday, where the Glenn Branca Ensemble played in tribute to the late composer, who died last year after a battle with throat cancer. But you’d be incorrect to call the crowd’s movement “dancing.” Dancing is not always an act of free-will, but it is fueled by more intention than involuntary spasms. Looking around, there was no way any of us were moving this way on purpose.

Having the ability to stand at the Glenn Branca Ensemble’s performance of The Third Ascension allowed for an entirely new interaction with Branca’s music. The event was held in conjunction with Branca’s final work—a 2016 live recording of The Third Ascension was released on Systems Neutralizers two days prior. The concert was held on what would have been Branca’s 71st birthday. Like the new record, it was made possible by his wife and longtime collaborator Reg Bloor, who has played guitar in Branca’s ensemble for years.

I’d only ever experienced Branca’s ensemble concerts sitting down. The chair felt like a safety seat on a rollercoaster, and it would have made sense if it was equipped with a metal bar to pull against your chest. Even sitting down, the music felt dangerous enough to eject you from your seat. Without this precaution, what might we be capable of? I feared (and maybe hoped) that the crowd would be whipped into a frenzy of id and alcohol, rushing the stage like a pack of feral animals.

This did not happen, likely because Glenn Branca was not conducting, and because it is no longer the 1970s. But what was particularly exciting was the potential energy threatening that it could happen at any moment. Seeing Branca’s work live is far more of a physical experience than just a sonic one. The music seems to reach from the speakers and slap you in the face, punch you in the gut, and pull out your still-beating heart Temple of Doom-style. It’s not just loud, it’s emotionally exhausting. After every song I drew a deep breath, sucking in oxygen and blasting out a big sigh. Each piece made me feel like I’d just had a long, drawn-out argument with my husband, and I don’t even have a husband.

Branca’s work, especially when played live at such extreme volumes, can at times sound like the mind tearing itself apart. There is a beautiful dissonance between the performers, very diligently reading their sheet music, and the unraveling effect their playing has on the psyche. Conductor Brendon Randall-Myers gave a spirited interpretation of Branca’s work that could be measured in ounces of sweat. The remaining ensemble followed suit, smiling widely when they weren’t grimacing from overexertion. In addition to playing The Third Ascension in its entirety, Randall-Myers led them through Branca’s 2016 Bowie eulogy “The Light (for David).” 

There was almost no talking between songs, save for logistical exchanges with the sound technician during tuning breaks. It was in those minutes that Branca’s presence was especially missed. These were the moments when you could really get a glimpse of Branca as a person—a wry, mischievous, and deeply funny human being who still loved what he was doing in a way that radiated through the room. “The only reason I even bother to pay the slightest attention to this fucking world, is because I love music,” Branca once said. “I love to write music, and I want people to hear the music. Otherwise, this fucking world is an utter waste of time.” Even in his absence, that love is still palpable. 

ONLY NOISE: Glenn Branca’s Final Ascension

I wound up at the Kitchen sort of by mistake. It was a Tuesday – February 23rd, 2016 to be precise. It had been a year since the worst week of my life, and sitting at my desk after a long day of designing women’s underwear, I longed for a little culture that evening, a little date with myself. So I scrolled through concert listings on Oh My Rockness, hoping for a name to leap out at me. February is not the most happening time for live music in the city, and my backup plan involved a movie and/or overpriced meal for one. But the backup plan wasn’t necessary; as I scanned through the concert listings, a name did leap out at me, and though I wasn’t positive why I recognized that name, I bought a ticket without hesitation.

That name was Glenn Branca, and in the days since his death last week, headlines, tweets, and obituaries can all agree on one thing: if you weren’t familiar with Branca’s music, there’s no way you have escaped the music he’s influenced. His brash guitar symphonies were loved by the likes of David Bowie, and imitated by Sonic Youth. He was a pioneer of the No Wave movement alongside John Zorn and James Chance, and he pushed the boundaries of music, noise, and everything in between. His first two solo records, 1980’s Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension from the following year demolished and restructured the contemporary approach to the electric guitar, rock’n’roll, and classical composition. Branca’s work was loud, dangerous, and so cutting edge that it moved legendary avant garde composer John Cage to feel “disturbed” by it.

Branca was the man that conducted serrated, unnerving orchestras with 100 electric guitars, slapped punk rock into something more upright and threatening with his early band Theoretical Girls, and released early music by Swans and Sonic Youth on his record label, Neutral. His legacy coincides with the explosive art movement in ‘70s and ‘80s New York, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Branca never lost a scrap of relevancein fact, his mystique and ability to stun an audience only seemed to intensify with age. It must have been some peripheral knowledge of all these accomplishments that congealed in my gut when I saw Branca’s name on the concert listings for the evening. Perhaps it was the faint memory of an interview with him I’d read in a copy of The Believer’s 2014 music issue. Either way, I am glad I trusted my gut.

When I entered the Kitchen in Chelsea, the staff was passing out earplugs as guests took their seats. I remember thinking that I’d never been encouraged to wear ear protection at a venue with bleacher seating and a median age of 58, but I figured they knew best. I sat down with my packet of foam plugs and leafed through the pamphlet I’d been handed, which gave the whole event a whiff of the fine art or theater world. I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into. And then Branca and his six-musician ensemble crawled out onto the sunken stage.

It was rapturous. Branca, who had stopped playing guitar years prior during Symphony #1, was a dedicated conductor until the end of his life, though his methods of conducting were unconventional to say the least. He used his entire body to communicate with his ensemble, who that night included one drummer, one bassist, and four electric guitarists (one of whom was Reg Bloor, his widow). That evening’s rendition of the Third Ascension was marked by Branca’s spasmodic movements: flits of the wrist, flicks of his hips, and general shimmying that somehow effectively communicated volume, rhythm, and attitude to his performers. It was in fact loud, and so dissonant that it was blissful, like the moment pain becomes cathartic. I remembered a quote from that Believer interview I’d read two years prior, during which Branca said, “If you don’t like loud music, don’t bother with my music.” This, I learned, was a characteristic thing for Branca to say. He was a fabulous curmudgeon, who wore the same black outfit every day, his blazer pocket crammed full of pens like soldiers standing at attention. His teeth were chipped, and he looked like a more brawny, attractive older brother to Shane MacGowan.

In between songs at the Kitchen, while his group fiddled with odd tunings, Branca felt obligated to talk the crowd. His raspy voice and mischievous demeanor felt instantly familiar, perhaps because he seemed a kindred spirit to Tom Waits, or perhaps because he was simply the embodiment of the crotchety old man I hope to become one day. In an attempt to fill the silence, Branca told the audience, apropos of nothing, about the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. It was on a hoagie roll, not a bun. He talked some trash about John Zorn, and introduced his wife Reg Bloor, who seemed delightfully peeved by his antics.

I left the kitchen that night with my mind completely blown open, a side effect of the shrapnel storm Branca’s ensemble hurled toward the bleachers. Walking to the train I felt like I was floating, or maybe vibrating like a struck tuning fork. It was the same feeling of intoxication I had only experienced once or twice before: watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time; seeing Diamanda Galas live at a temple on Halloween. Considering the weight of my experience at the Kitchen, I checked weekly to see if Branca and his ensemble was playing in town. I did this in 2017, when they performed at BRIC, and I remember feeling particularly lucky to live in a city where one minute I could be sat at my bedroom desk reading, and the next I walking to see one of the most original and exciting musical performances in existence.

The week before Glenn Branca died, I typed his name into Oh My Rockness’ search bar to see if he had any upcoming gigs. I didn’t know he had throat cancer, but I wasn’t surprised by the news when I found out. Upon hearing about his death, I felt both devastated that I’d never experience his music live again, and immensely grateful that I got to experience it at all. Glenn Branca was a New York treasure you had to really dig for, if not allow yourself to stumble upon, and like all of the best things New York has to offer, he was liable to disappear at any time. Sadly, that day has comebut while the man is no longer with us, his work will be obliterating musical norms for decades to come.