Siding with Cage against Branca – click opera

It’s July 1982. Cage is attending the New Music America festival in Chicago. As he tells Mertens in a conversation taped the following day at the Navy Pier, he doesn’t listen to music at home at all, though he loves the ambient sound in his apartment. Festivals are his chance to hear what other composers are up to. The night before, he’s heard Branca’s ten-guitar piece Indeterminate Activity Of Resultant Masses (two of the guitarists are Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo). He’s hated it, and he tells Mertens so. Later accounts of this conversation (first issued on Les Disques du Crepuscule) say Cage calls Branca a fascist. He doesn’t, but he comes close.

“It wasn’t because it was so loud, because I can put up with the loudness,” Cage told Mertens. “But I felt negatively about what seemed to me to be the political implications. I wouldn’t want to live in a society like that, in which somebody would be requiring other people to do such an intense thing together. I really didn’t like the experience.”


Last night I downloaded and listened to the Branca piece myself, and Cage is right: it’s bombastic and oppressive, a din which gives the listener no space to breathe, no respite, and little pleasure. It made me feel slightly sick, on a purely physical level. The piece resembles Terry Riley’s In C on some levels, but completely lacks the light sense of quicksilver joy that flows through the Riley piece. It’s like Riley played by Laibach.

Glenn Branca passed away yesterday, aged 69. Most people probably haven’t heard of him, but his schtick was loud works with lots of electric guitars. Later in his life, he composed for a normal orchestra, but in the period mentioned in this article, his works were loud sonic assaults with lots of guitars.

His music wasn’t subtle; I found it oppressive and almost totalitarian, and I had essentially forgotten about Branca until yesterday, when I heard of his death, and when I saw a mention of this article on Twitter. To me, this is music that went down a dead end; once you’ve started playing these loud pieces with lots of guitars, where do you go? More guitars, of course. He eventually composed a few pieces for 100 guitars. I haven’t listened to his music since the 1980s, and don’t intend to. I find it interesting how he was embraced by a certain faction of downtown New York music fans and composers; his music was against the grain at the time, but maybe that was its attraction.

Source: Siding with Cage against Branca – click opera

8 thoughts on “Siding with Cage against Branca – click opera

  1. Well I just heard of Branca’s death. Too young; he was a great composer. I liked his music and while everyone is free to choose, WTF is with the critique while his body is still warm? I mean, I can’t stand Carter’s music but I never would have criticized his music right after he died. Cage was wrong, BTW just as he was wrong about Julius Eastman, improvisation and many other things, much as I love a lot of Cage’s work. But that is irrelevant. Branca had a huge impact on new music even if he might have stolen thunder from my friend Rhys Chatham. I doubt Rhys is saying anything bad about Branca right now, however. Just tired of all the negative whining on many sites these days.

    • The article I quote is from 2009, that is hardly recent. I had a thought about him in decades, honestly, coming across that article just confirmed what I always thought about his music.

    • And, David, you’re younger than I am, so you saw the beginnings of this music from a distance. I was there, in New York, at the time. You don’t know the context. There was some really dark shit going on in music, what with the no wave stuff and the like. Branca’s music was dark; it took music in a direction that didn’t seem healthy. As I said, I know nothing of what he did later, but that early stuff was something I did not want to hear. (I think I heard a piece of his live in a concert with a number of composers, then heard his first album; that was enough for me.)

      • Kirk, you are better than this. Lots of music by composers alive and dead I don’t like. But I can still respect what they composed even if I don’t like it. I was in Chicago when his first album came out and it still blows me away. Same with a lot of his other stuff. It had a good deal of influence on my own music. But all people ever mention is that stupid remark by John Cage (and I remember when it happened and couldn’t believe he made such an intolerant comment). You don’t have to like his music but at least then maybe stop with the snark. You haven’t heard his works since the 80’s. What exactly didn’t you like, specifically? Yes much of it is loud. So is Varese. Don’t like the instrumentation? That’s fair but “oppressive and totalitarian?” What does that even mean?

        Try listening to his first album (Lesson no. 1). It has quite an impact on me as a work of minimalism. Same with his second album, which had his masterpiece “The Ascension.” The first movement of his symphony #3 is amazing. Nothing fascistic about it at all, with all due respect to Cage.

  2. With all due respect to everybody, Branca’s music is wonderfully joyous and uplifting at times. Agreed that layering sound-upon-sound quickly gets tiresome, but there are nuances to Branca’s approach to noise that reveal subtlety and intelligence. Not all his work is of equal merit (very few composers rate such accolades), but his best compositions are as strong as anything within the genre.

    In any event, Branca’s legacy is traceable to cultural and musical influences that continue to permeate today’s landscape. Artists who claim to have been influenced by latter-day Sonic Youth/Swans can be linked to DNA/Ut/Bush Tetras, the No Wave scene that germinated the likes of Arthur Russell, Liquid Liquid, Lounge Lizards, Arto Lindsay, etc. and beyond. Not to mention the significance of female musicians picking up guitars and thrashing about in a largely male-dominated space. By bringing “symphonic” intentions to their compositions, folks like Chatham/Branca helped to legitimize an art form (and its participants) that might have otherwise had a very short shelf life.

    Side observation: assuming that the “Mertens” is Wim Mertens? Never thought we’d ever see Mertens mentioned in the same post as Glenn Branca (or John Cage, for that matter). FWIW, Wim Mertens’ work is equally amazing.

    • Wim Mertens did the interview with Cage at the 1982 thing in Chicago, and I think it was in part for his book American Minimal Music that came out the following year. (I love his work too, and have dozens of his albums. I’ve been a fan since I first heard his work around that period.)

      You see a lot of names linked to the no wave thing, but Lounge Lizards are miles away from the DNA-type stuff, and Arto Lindsay, even then, was a bit off the wall, but still within certain limits. If you look at the Wikipedia article about no wave, it mentions Material, which was a funk/jazz/dance band; I would hardly call them no wave. (I had all their early records at the time, and still love that music.) There a real difference between the no wave of some bands that was really drug-influenced – heroin was big at the time – and the ones that were more creative musically.

      • Loved early Material. Memory Serves was a personal favorite.

        Also have to give some credit to Brian Eno for championing No Wave while he was turning up all sorts of interesting and strange musical discoveries. There was a time during the late-1970’s when if Eno liked something, a lot of doors opened.

        Sort of agree that the reach of No Wave is somewhat overstated. Sonically, one could put Arto Lindsay’s guitar-scraping wrecking ball on anything and loosely classify it as having a No Wave-type of sound. Sort of like how anything with a John Zorn duck call instantly takes on the status of avant-garde, such as the first Golden Palominos album. (And that’s not a slam on Zorn, whose best work can be difficult but often rewarding).

        Fun fact = Wim Mertens is huge in Greece. Visited a dumpy little record store in Thessaloniki once and cleaned out their entire stock. He and Tuxedomoon are practically national celebrities there.

        • The Tuxedomoon guy – Blaine Reininger – lives in Greece; I follow him on Twitter. As for Mertens, he’s also huge in Spain, I don’t know why. I keep my eyes open for concerts in the UK, but he almost never plays here. I saw him twice doing “piano and voice” in Paris in the late 1980s, but haven’t been anywhere near his concerts since.

          Agreed about Eno. He was somewhat smitten by New York’s underground scene when he was there with the Talking Heads. No New York is a document of a weird time, and it’s a shame that it’s out of print and not on the streaming services (last time I looked).

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