Branca's radical music is claimed by two camps -- rock and classical
Glenn Branca is the most radical musician to come down the pike in quite a while. Composed mostly for electric guitars and amplified drums, his music is an inspired mix of texture and rhythm, with little concern for melody or harmony.
It's a unique approach, and it's attracting a lot of attention. In fact, Branca's work is being claimed by musical factions that normally have little to do with each other. To rock fans, it's a logical extension of longtime rock-and-roll conventions. To adventurous classical listeners, it's another step into the ''new music'' that lies outside traditional categories.
In any case, Branca's star is on the rise. His latest work -- Symphony No. 2, subtitled ''The Peak of the Sacred'' -- was cheered during its recent New York premiere. His newest record, ''The Ascension,'' has been released on the 99 label to good reviews. He has completed a video collaboration with Twyla Tharp. And the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has introduced a splendid dance called ''Pigs and Fishes,'' choreographed by Elisa Monte to Branca's music. Performed by an all-woman cast, it has a sleek and thumping energy that marvelously mirrors the ecstatic energy of its score.
Branca will tour extensively during June, appearing in a series of arts festivals presented by the Kitchen Center in nine American and Canadian cities. (The premiere is June 1 on the Staten Island ferry.) His third symphony will premiere this fall in the ''Next Wave'' series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And he has been commissioned to compose an opera in collaboration with a respected ''performance artist.''
As they say about some movies, Branca's music is not for the squeamish. It is very loud. Such works as ''The Ascension'' and his first symphony, ''Tonal Plexus,'' feature a whole platoon of guitar players, all plugged into massive amplifiers. Escalating the effect even further, Branca has now invented his own brand of guitar: a table covered with strings that can be strummed or struck by a single musician. This figures in his latest symphony, which also includes three drummers whacking away with all their might. In terms of sheer volume, it's an awesome experience.
Volume is not Branca's only concern, though. In fact, his new symphony begins softly, with a shimmering texture that's downright delicate at times. It builds slowly, but avoids the mightiest crescendos until well into the second half of its 100-minute length. In structure, this is almost a traditional approach - some of his fellow radicals have criticized Branca for being too romantic - but it works brilliantly. Other parts of the work also achieve an unexpected subtlety, despite the massiveness of Branca's means.
The limiting factor in Branca's work so far is its reliance on specialized instrumentation. Judging from the recent evidence, there's just so much you can do with a squadron of electric guitars and a bevy of drummers; even Branca's inventiveness doesn't seem to have come up with a wide-ranging vocabulary for them to use.
The second part of ''The Peak of the Sacred'' suggests one escape route. It's a sort of concerto for a soloist named Zev, who plays ''found percussion'' -- that is, he flings around large pieces of metal. Zev is possibly the world's most peculiar musician, and apparently he is delighted with this image. By introducing him as a colorful guest star, Branca has opened up a new world of theater, as well as sound, to work with and explore.
Yet one wonders if collaboration with other highly specialized musicians will remain a satisfactory solution for this utterly individualistic artist. Perhaps his music has built-in limitations that will never be resolved, such as the inability of recordings to capture the overwhelming presence his band has in live performance. Branca is one of a kind, and ingeniously so. It remains to be seen if his musical inventiveness can keep pace with his ambition.