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.