Live Reviews: Glenn Branca - Symphony No. 13

Grand Canal Dock, Docklands, Dublin15 July 2007Glenn Branca’s heavyweight Symphony No. 13: Hallucination City rounded off the ambitious Analog Festival, a weekend of free music staged in the open at Dublin’s redeveloped Grand Canal Square. The...

Grand Canal Dock, Docklands, Dublin
15 July 2007

Glenn Branca’s heavyweight Symphony No. 13: Hallucination City rounded off the ambitious Analog Festival, a weekend of free music staged in the open at Dublin’s redeveloped Grand Canal Square. The piece, originally conceived to mark the millennium and for 2000 electric guitars, is now scored for 80 guitars, 20 bass guitars and one drummer. In every performance of the work, local musicians are invited to make up the unorthodox ensemble. Difficulties in rounding up 100 local guitarists meant that it was closer to 50 that took to the stage in Dublin. But the shortage in numbers did not noticeably detract from the physicality of the piece and, in truth, the most judicious use of space would not have seen another 50 guitarists squeeze onto the already-cramped stage.

Glenn Branca is synonymous with the electric guitar. After moving to New York in 1976 he formed the rock band The Theoretical Girls and began performing with that other pioneer of the multi-guitar ensemble, Rhys Chatham. He premiered his first multi-guitar work as far back as 1979 and has since explored the instrument’s potential through a number of large scale symphonic works culminating in 2001 with Hallucination City.

The electric guitar resonates in the collective psyche like no other instrument. It is so loaded with associations of libidinous adolescence, rebellion and counterculture that gathering so many together seems thrillingly illicit. Not being one to leave the audience wondering about the sonic possibilities of such an ensemble, the opening of Hallucination City was a declamatory collision of sparks and overtones that only gathered in intensity as the piece progressed. Virgil Moorefield, the lone drummer, propelled the guitarists forward like a slave driver on a Roman galleon, pounding out a metre around which the ensemble flowed in a morass of rumbling polyrhythmic textures. The conductor, John Myers, appeared at times like a dervish, challenging the musicians to pack the iron-grey sky with ever-louder blasts. The guitarists responded to his direction by chopping and sawing at their instruments with zeal. The noise built upon itself, continually expanding in breadth and range. The first three movements ended with a chord that fell like a blanket until all that was left was the hum of shaken eardrums. The fourth and final movement rumbled like a runaway train towards a sustained bedlam of discords and pounding rhythms. A palpable joy infected the crowd as bodies swayed and bobbed in the swirling, tumbling sheets of sound. The final, swollen movement careened headlong into a wall of stunned silence.

Glenn Branca’s interest in patterns led him to explore alternative tuning systems based on the mathematical relationships of the harmonic series and the musical textures that could be generated by tunings that exploit the higher overtones in the series. Branca does not allow the audience to ponder the minutiae of his musical structures, however. He dares the listener to penetrate the monolithic textures that throb hypnotically from the stage, but these sounds, pitched at the threshold of pain, engorge the audience like rolling surf, overwhelming the senses, ultimately spitting the listener back out, gasping and spluttering, but exhilarated.

The ensemble filled the wide backdrop of towering cranes and scaffolds with an industrial force that pulsed in the brain like a terrific hangover. Afterward the crowd was slow to disperse, preferring to remain bound a little while longer to a collective elation all too rare in new music.

Published on 1 September 2007

Rob Casey is a Dublin-based musician and composer of electronic and acoustic music.

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