Sunday, October 9, 2016

Glenn Branca Ascends in Brooklyn

The New York Downtown arts scene – the music side of it in particular – is something I've touched at a dozen different points without ever grabbing hold of it. Like a leitmotif it keeps showing up on the edges of my life, and I keep resisting the idea of making it my scene. This is usually followed by regret, years later, when I see how rich and enduring it is and how lovingly its true exponents and fans embrace it.

Still, not really feeling a part of the scene doesn't quite explain why I have never been to a Glenn Branca concert until tonight, though I was aware of his music almost from the time he set foot in New York in the late 1970's. I suppose I have told this story before, but since most of the readers of this blog won't have heard it why not give it one more chance. When I was a student at the Mannes Conservatory – now a college of the New School – in the late 1970's, my brother and I formed a rock band. We quickly outgrew the Upper West Side bedroom we had converted into a music studio and started looking for rehearsal space – one that was all but free, since we had very little money. I can't recall how we found it – probably an ad in the Village Voice – but we managed to locate someone who wanted to share a basement rehearsal studio at 262 Mott St. That someone was Jules Baptiste, who founded the band Red Decade. At that time Jules was performing with Glenn Branca; that's how I heard of him, and his "symphony for 100 guitars". It sounded like a crazy idea, not to mention probably too loud for my tastes. Besides, since Jules was playing landlord – and, we assumed, having us largely subsidize his studio – we sometimes just barely got along, so running out to see him play wasn't a top priority.

Well, there it stood, for, um... about 37 years – until tonight. Today, the stars just aligned – thanks to my wife taking my daughter and mother-in-law on a cruise to Halifax (the purpose of it, lest there be any confusion, was not specifically to allow me to see Glenn Branca). Having that rare, momentary notion of myself as a "free man" from around 2:30 p.m. today until a few days from now, I was already more open than usual to the concept of an evening adventure. The notice of a Branca concert this very night – at Roulette, an easy trip on the R train from my remote Bay Ridge location – somehow slid beneath my eye as I leafed through the NY Times. Even more enticing, the premier of a memorial piece for David Bowie, with whom Branca had briefly collaborated and who was an admirer of his music.

So there I was at the stroke of 8:00, complimentary earplugs in hand, ready to experience my first Branca concert. What did it feel like? Well, not very different from the day I sat in a different Downtown room (The Kitchen, I think) waiting to hear my first (and last) Cecil Taylor concert. Expectations of an immersive but not terribly easy experience. Nothing I can take out on the street and hum as I head back to the subway. A feeling of obligation – to myself, to St Cecilia, to some spiritual link that I can only place by thinking of a lot of vague connections. I look around, and imagine everyone over 50 to be someone I either know, or should know, but can't recognize after decades of hair style and body weight changes. Patrons of the Downtown circuit who have either had works performed here or at least smoked dope with Phillip Glass, if not Andy Warhol. Feeling oddly at home, like I belong here, even though everyone knows everyone else, or so I assume.

The first item on the program was a set of six pieces called The Third Ascension, a recent work for four guitars, bass and drums. Each piece had a slightly different impact. The first, "German Expressionism", seemed to have more open sounds and events than some of the others, though it also featured a bit of energetic improv, not to say wilding, by Reg Bloor (who is Branca's wife). Next was "The Smoke (Guitar Concerto for Arad Evans)", hardly a concerto in anything remotely like your usual sense, and featuring smoother and more tonal sonorities than the first. After a change in the guitar tunings, the next two pieces also featured the trance-like continuities that make the Downtown music scene what it is. I found both of them too loud to enjoy, even with the deeply appreciated earplugs. (I did not wear them through the whole concert but for these two pieces they were hardly out.)

Another tuning change preceded what turned out to be my favorite piece of the evening, "Twisting in Space", a mutating cloud of appealing soundscapes that reminded me a bit of something Robert Fripp and Brian Eno might have come up with. The last piece, "Cold Thing (La Belle Dame Sans Merci)" is, I suppose, appropriate to its subject, though once again I found the sonorities a bit harder to take than, say, the sound of two Boeing 767's landing on either side of you.

Finally at the end of the concert, with no special announcement or fanfare, came The Bowie tribute, "The Light (for David)". This I have to say was a complete success, for me at least: I felt transported, mesmerized in the way this kind of music is supposed to achieve, and had no inclination to reach for the earplugs in spite of the volume. In fact I was sorry it ended, as I was about as close to feeling stoned as I have ever been without drugs. (Okay, one bottle of Brooklyn Lager – does that count?) Bowie, I think, would have been pleased.

As for Branca, he "conducts", after a fashion; at least he signals changes of sonority to the performers. His music is oddly metrical, sometimes even sporting a heavy backbeat on the drums, and with the energetic drumming of Owen Weaver behind the ensemble there is no real need to keep a beat. Instead, Branca sways, bends his knees and swoons, extends his arms like St. Francis receiving the stigmata, and sometimes ushers the performers towards a change of volume or tempo. When he speaks (with some difficulty) he offers comments that suggest he is well aware of how challenging his music is – "We're only just getting started!" (three pieces into the concert); "we have another tuning change, so go get yourself a drink – you may need it".

Well, that's one down on my list of obligations. I see four upcoming Rhys Chatham concerts in the NY area – will I manage to get to one? That would be after, not 37 years, but let's be honest, more like 47. Rhys was my classmate at the Third Street Music School back around 1969 or so. Our teacher, Tom Manoff, kept close tabs on the new music scene, and took the class to visit Morton Subotnick's studio, where he demonstrated an early Buchla synthesizer. Manoff was the first person to encourage me to compose music. I don't recall seeing Rhys again after a went to college and left the Third Street settlement. I should pay him a visit.

(P.S. - Why no pictures or video clips? They were recording the concert and asked us not to take any pictures.)

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