Glenn Branca: Where My Ears Want To Go
Glenn Branca has had a deep and lasting impact on several music scenes, but he was never really a part of any of them. With Theoretical Girls, he created a new kind of punk rock music that came to be known as No Wave. Later on, he redefined what a symphony could be. Making music that was more visceral and louder than anything in the new music scene, he even frightened John Cage. Thirty years later, he’s still making waves.
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Glenn Branca has had a deep and lasting impact on several music scenes, but he was never really a part of any of them. He was obsessed with sound as early as he can remember, but as an adult he envisioned himself in theatre long before he realized that his true artistic calling was to be a composer. Always insatiable for new sonic experiences, he experimented with guitars and tape recorders to make unusual sounds just to please himself; not long afterwards he became an avid record collector. Hearing him describe his listening appetite at that time is infectious:
I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. … I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. … [A]t one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler.
As the punk scene was burgeoning in downtown New York City, Branca and a friend of his named Jeff Lohn, whose ground-floor Soho loft was going to be used for Branca’s theatrical creations, decided to form a rock band instead. But the band they formed, Theoretical Girls, played a new kind of punk rock music. Critics later described the work of this seminal band, and other similarly anarchic bands in Soho and the East Village, as “No Wave.” Theoretical Girls played only about 20 shows, never released an album during its existence (a lone 45-r.p.m. single was issued in 1978), and is not included on the seminal No New York LP compiled by Brian Eno. Yet listening to the surviving archival live recordings of Theoretical Girls, which were finally released on two CDs in 1996 and 2002, reveals how prophetic their sound would later be. Elements of their visceral sonic assault were subsequently taken up by latter-day groups ranging from Sonic Youth and Helmet (whose founding members played with Branca) to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And, although her music sounds nothing like anything Branca has ever been involved with, there’s even a British singer/songwriter named Amy Turnnidge who records under the moniker Theoretical Girl.
But after forming another short-lived No Wave band called The Static, Branca was pretty much done with the group dynamic of rock bands and was interested in creating larger musical forms. After he composed Instrumental for Six Guitars and performed it at the legendary Max’s Kansas City, it was clear that his music had gone in a completely different direction and that it was precisely where he wanted it to go:
I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. … I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.
The point of no return was a series of hour-long pieces for large, extremely loud ensembles which involved retuned and often rebuilt guitars designed to play hundreds of different intervals based on the first 127 harmonics of the overtone series. Despite being for his own rock-based performing units rather than orchestras, he called these pieces symphonies. As his ambitions expanded, so did his instrumentation. In later years, he would go on to write pieces for actual symphony orchestra. He would also take a much less dogmatic approach to tuning. But in those earliest symphonies, Branca redefined the word for our own era in much the same way that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson had redefined opera only a few years earlier with Einstein on the Beach.
While Branca became the doyen of all composers who were interested in shattering the boundaries between musical genres (Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon even dedicated his early totalist composition, Four Kings Fight Five, to Branca), not everyone in the new music scene was enamored of such raw energy at ear-splitting volume. In one of more bewildering episodes in the annals of American music history, John Cage, who in an earlier era had been vilified for ostensibly creating “noise” and calling it music, was very outspoken in decrying what Branca was doing. It was somewhat crushing for Branca, but also sobering:
Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. … Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. … He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. … He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music. … I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.
Branca has tons of opinions of his own. In the two hours we spoke at Smash Studios, he offered salient commentary on everything from the differences between East Village and Soho No Wave bands to how orchestras should play Messiaen. He even had some off the cuff advice for other composers: Learn how to work with any sonic material you’re given. Make sure not to get too bogged down with musical theory. While his language is often as strong as his music, so is his message.
Glenn Branca: Yeah, I just let my ears take me where they wanted to go. I was only entertaining myself. I wasn’t ever thinking of playing for anybody else. My mother happened to be there, so she had to hear it. I used to go out on my porch. I used to go in the garage. Sometimes, I’d sit in the living room. But I had actually studied guitar for about six months. The guitar teacher just wanted to teach me Bach. I learned it and I learned how to read music, but it was boring as hell. I really just wanted to play folk music and rock music. That was what was going on at that time, the early- to mid-‘60s. But that’s not what I ever had any intention of doing at all.
I was an actor, and that’s what I was going to do. I was absolutely determined and when I went to school, at Emerson in Boston, which is a really good school for theater, I very quickly became interested in directing and very quickly after that became interested in writing my own plays because I couldn’t find any plays I wanted to direct. The reason for that was because I was an incredibly bad director. I wanted to incorporate all kinds of ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the play into the play. That’s not the way you’re supposed to direct. You’re supposed to take the playwright’s vision and realize it. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I had a vision. I wanted to realize my vision. So I started writing plays. I wanted to have a theater group, of course, and eventually I did start one in Boston called the Bastard Theater. But at the same time, I never lost my interest in music.
At the time that I was playing these chords that my mother heard, I was also fooling around with all kinds of broken-down tape decks that my parents would buy me for my birthday and for Christmas. They were cheap, junky things that would break down and start making really interesting sounds, because they weren’t working properly. I would set them all up, and use the one that was working to record all of the other ones. I found this incredibly entertaining. I would listen to it in stereo, but I never, ever imagined that this was composition of any kind.
FJO: I would love to hear these tapes if any of them survive.
GB: None as far as I know. My mom pretty much threw out everything I had after I left home: my comic books, my baseball cards, everything. She thought it was all worthless. I had Spiderman #1. Can you fucking believe that? She didn’t know. But the music thing never, never left. I was a gigantic music fan. I was a listener. I was a collector.
FJO: So what were you listening to?
GB: Everything. I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. I’d say the only kind of music I didn’t listen to was country and western music, to be honest, even though there was a lot of it—I mean old country and western—that was actually very good and very interesting. Nonesuch was releasing a lot of really interesting stuff, from all over the world, as well as releasing new music composers. It was a great, great label at the time. One of my favorite pieces was the Ramayana Monkey Chant, which eventually became popular but at the time I was listening to it I don’t think there were too many people listening to it. So many things came about accidentally with me.
I was always working at shitty jobs while I was trying to do my theater to just earn enough money to pay the rent—washing dishes, bus boy, whatever. But at one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler. This was in the early ‘70s, I guess. I had never had any interest in classical music whatsoever, mainly because of the kind of stuff they played for us in school. The stuff in so-called music class was either horrendous garbage or too sophisticated for a 15-year-old ear. To tell you the truth, I don’t really like the Beethoven symphonies, even to this day. But they played us that stuff. I love the Beethoven piano sonatas; those are killer. They’re absolutely gorgeous. The man had a tremendous gift. I wouldn’t even try to begin to fool around with that. To me, that’s what he was really good at. But I shouldn’t get into Beethoven or I’m going to make a tremendous amount of people upset.
FJO: So what was it about Mahler that got you so excited?
GB: Well, that’s an interesting question. He took me places that I had never been before with music. As I said, I was listening to everything, but I had never heard something so complex. My own work in theater, the plays that I was writing and the work I wanted to do, was complex. It was experimental theater. I had studied completely on my own because there wasn’t any school that taught experimental theater. You just had to go into the bookstore and grab plays by whatever Polish, Czech, French, or English playwright. There certainly weren’t any American playwrights who were writing really out there experimental stuff.
FJO: What about Richard Foreman?
GB: This is before Richard Foreman. Well, let’s see, it’s hard to get before Richard Foreman. He goes back to the late ‘60s. I still consider Richard Foreman to be one of the greatest artists of our time. So let that stand as my position on Richard Foreman. But this was before I knew anything about Foreman, because he didn’t get out of New York at all. I was brought up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and when I finally got the hell out of there and went to college, I went to Boston. And that was somewhat of a revelation to me because I was exposed to so much more, but still, Richard Foreman was not something that was known in Boston. But I had read some stuff about Foreman, so when I came to New York in 1976, I immediately went to check him out and he immediately became my hero. And he still is.
FJO: His plays really operate like pieces of music in some ways.
GB: Oh, he’s a great composer. His compositions are fantastic—really interesting stuff. And of course, it goes with his work perfectly. I mean, that’s the point. And that’s what I was doing with theater. There was no narrative. There were no characters. In New York terms, it would have been thought of to some extent as performance art, but not really because they were very much theatrical production—the lighting, the movement, and the text were all very carefully worked out and very carefully rehearsed. I started incorporating music into it, having actors performing the music. They were not musicians. That’s when I basically had to learn how to write for non-musicians, and that was interesting because I did a lot of work with structured improvisation. I’ve never been interested in free improvisation, ever. I was tremendously interested in the ‘60s, what I call Miles-style, jazz scene, but that wasn’t free improv. Even when Coltrane went to free improv I lost interest in him, although many people think that’s his greatest work. I don’t think so. I think his greatest work was in the ‘50s when he was still actually writing music.
FJO: To go from loving Mahler and not liking free improvisation and doing the kind of music you were doing as part of your theatrical work to forming a No Wave punk rock band seems like a strange trajectory.
GB: Well, that was easy as pie. I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. As I said, I was a collector. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. When I would listen to Mahler, I’d listen really fucking loud, you realize. So when I would go to see the Boston Symphony, I would be tremendously disappointed because I couldn’t hear it. I remember actually hearing the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. Seiji Ozawa was conducting, and Messiaen was actually there to take a bow. He was quite old at the time. I was a gigantic Messiaen fan—I loved everything he did—[but] I thought it was terrible. Then many, many, many decades later, I heard the Juilliard Orchestra play it, and it was a totally different piece. It was absolutely killer. I think it’s one of the finest pieces written to this day. You know, but in those days, and maybe even still, the tendency is to slow everything down and to soften it up and to smooth it out. That’s exactly what [the BSO] did with this piece. Whereas the Juilliard guys played it as it was written—a piece that was meant to kick ass, a piece that was meant to be vicious and ugly and mean spirited. Ozawa leeched all of that out of the piece and turned it into just another generic, orchestral, classical music piece. So I had no idea that this was such a brilliant piece.
FJO: Considering your reaction to that performance, it’s surprising that you eventually wound up writing pieces for orchestra.
GB: Well, with Mahler, I became absolutely infatuated with the orchestra. At the same time, it was the most complex music and the most beautiful music I had ever heard. These composers were really thinking about what they were doing. They weren’t just like trying to get your rocks off. They were trying to get your head off, you know. All this crap about Mahler constantly writing about the fact that he was dying is completely ridiculous bullshit. He was writing music. He didn’t know he was going to die of strep throat in the last couple months of his life.
FJO: Mahler is a far cry from what you were doing musically with The Theoretical Girls, although I would venture to say that it was the most influential rock band never to have released an album during its existence.
GB: I think there are a lot of people who would disagree with you about that. If you didn’t have some kind of backing, it was just way too expensive. And I’m not just talking about New York. I’m talking about all of the indie bands, all over the country. Even releasing a single was an extremely expensive thing to do. We were all broke. We had to scrape together the money as best we could, and we didn’t just want to release a live tape or something. You have to realize these junky live tapes that are being released now are something that no one would have ever considered releasing at that time. You wanted to release something that at least had the potential to have the same kind of production qualities as the stuff that people were used to hearing. If you released a so-called garage band record in 1978, people would have thrown it out. No one would listen to it. No one would play it on the radio. Things have changed since then.
Without prolonging this, my buddy Jeff Lohn and I were both very much into theater. He had a ground floor loft in Soho, and we were setting it up to be a theater. I was going to do the Bastard Theater. He was going to do No Theater: N. O. Theater. Very simply what happened was that I couldn’t hold back my desire to start a rock band. And the truth of the matter is I didn’t even have a guitar at the time. I didn’t have an amplifier; I had nothing. But I said, I’m going to do this somehow, some way; I’m going to get together with some people and we’re going to make it happen. I started putting up some posters around SoHo near where I lived and where I worked. I didn’t even tell Jeff about this. Now, I knew that Jeff was a fine pianist. In fact, he had studied as a classical pianist and supposedly had broken his thumb and it ended his career. I don’t know what the real story is. But when Jeff found out that I was trying to put this band together, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Let’s do this.” And I said, “Great.” The loft that we were in the process of painting black and turning into a theater ended up being a rehearsal space for our band. He had a good friend who was a performance artist and a conceptual artist named Dan Graham, who has turned out to be one of the finest artists of our time. He loved punk music; he absolutely was infatuated with it. When he heard that we were going to start a band, he immediately said, “Listen I’ve got a gig at Franklin Furnace coming up in three weeks. I want you guys to play on it.” We hadn’t written one song. We didn’t have any equipment. Nothing. So we put this whole thing together in three weeks. Somehow we scrounged all this stuff together. We borrowed a drummer from a different band and we wrote all of this music, and they loved it.
FJO: So you and Jeff wrote all the music?
GB: Yes. We didn’t collaborate.
FJO: But the four people in the group were all composers.
GB: The original band actually only had three. Jeff might have learned how to play the bass, because he was a trained musician. It was very easy for him. And he actually did know how to play the guitar. But there were only three of us at the time. What happened was we immediately started getting invited to play everywhere. There was a whole loft scene. So we would play at people’s loft parties and things like that for a few weeks, basically doing the same set. Then we got invited to play at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Phill Niblock’s place, which amazingly is still there. This was very early 1978. I think it was a gig with Peter Gordon and Rhys [Chatham] doing his guitar trio. For this gig, we decided we were going to get our own drummer, and not only that, we were going to add a bass player so Jeff could just play keyboards. We wrote a bunch of new songs, and we kind of changed our sound, because we started out as a kind of skewed punk band. I was an experimentalist all the way. In fact, so was Jeff. Both of us had so many things in common and a similar attitude about work. We decided to say, O.K., this is our theater. Our idea of theater was not theatrical. It wasn’t like glitter or something. It was more Brechtian. So we didn’t wear costumes. We didn’t wear makeup. We didn’t do any of that. In fact, we were in complete opposition to all of that. We were very much influenced by the punk scene. But at the same time, both of us were coming out of the contemporary music scene. The kind of band that I wanted to do was very much the idea of taking contemporary, serious music and putting it in the context of rock music. Both of which I loved very much. As far as what Jeff wanted to do, I don’t know. I mean, the truth of the matter is, it really was very much my band as far as the sound of the band, the approach of the band, and the direction that the band took. Jeff was very quick, and picked up on all of this very quickly. So we were both kind of in parallel universes. But the band just took off immediately. I don’t know what to say. Whether Phill at Experimental Intermedia liked the band, I don’t know. But the fucking audience certainly did. We packed the place out the door.
The next thing that happened was we were invited to play on the X magazine benefit, which incorporated these East Village bands that were doing strange things with rock music—bands like DNA and the Contortions. We knew a little bit about some of that stuff, but not much. The magazine was just throwing a benefit. They wanted to raise a few hundred bucks, and they were able to rent this gigantic Polish dance hall for very little money. They were only charging two dollars, and nobody expected more than 150 people to show up. A thousand people showed up. This was like in early winter of ’78. It all happened like that.
FJO: I imagine one of Lydia Lunch’s bands was a part of that gig as well.
GB: She wasn’t on that gig, but we knew Lydia Lunch. We had seen her play. We had started to find out about these East Village bands. And they started finding out about us, but when I say us, I don’t mean just Theoretical Girls. I mean the so-called SoHo side of the No Wave scene which was The Gynecologists, which was Nina Canal’s band. She’s now known for her band called Ut. She was English, and she now lives in England. She was actually Rhys’ wife at the time, and Rhys was in the Gynecologists. And Rhys’s band Tone Deaf was one of the bands. Then there was, of course, Rudolph Grey’s band, Red Transistor. None of these bands were part of this little clique in the East Village that would eventually be released by Eno on the No New York record, the bands that became known as the No Wave bands. That was really not the case. In fact, I doubt whether there would have even been a No Wave if the art world hadn’t taken an interest in the SoHo bands.
The Kitchen was starting to book bands. The Artist Space actually put on a festival of bands where they invited not only the SoHo bands to play, but also the East Village bands to play. There were about ten of us in total. We didn’t have anything against them, but they seemed to have something against us. At this point, after so many years, I can be perfectly honest about what the separation was between us and them. They were junkies, and we weren’t. It was just as simple as that. It was the whole sort of Velvet Underground junkie punk scene. Whereas where we were coming more from was entirely about music. We thought, lived, breathed, ate music. I’m not saying we didn’t take some drugs sometimes. I mean, there was one article in which, for instance, John Rockwell said, “Mr. Chatham had a hard time maintaining a vertical position during the concert.” You know, which was an understatement to say the least. But we were friends. We were all friends.
FJO: Now in terms of being in it for the music, though, I’ve listened to the music from those East Village bands, and DNA is unbelievably sophisticated musically. You’ve even compared their music to Webern.
GB: Yes, I have done that. And I stand by it. They were a great band, especially when they got Tim Wright, the bass player. Originally they had a keyboardist named Robin Crutchfield, who was interesting in his own right, and did some of his own stuff. But to me they exemplified whatever No Wave might be. The truth of the matter is we were all doing different things. But some critic—well actually I know what the name of the critic was, his name is Roy Trakin. I think he wrote for the SoHo News. He’s the one who labeled it No Wave. There was no label. None of us thought in terms of being part of a movement. But he gave it a name, and once it got a name, what can I say.
Eno became very interested. Wow, there’s a movement going on in New York of experimental rock. We actually did a gig of an evening of short pieces in Jeff’s loft one night, and Eno was there. He was like an incredibly big deal to us at the time. You have no idea. We were a bunch of scroungers. I mean, we were all working in shit jobs, you know; you didn’t make any money playing music. It’s like things are nowadays for bands. And so wow, there’s a real, honest-to-god rock star who’s interested in this. Originally the word was that he was going to release all ten of the No Wave bands. One cut each, or two cuts each. Actually, it was two short cuts each. But he started hanging out with Lydia. I think that’s pretty much the way it went down. It was really pretty much as simple as that.
FJO: Given this SoHo vs. East Village dichotomy, it’s interesting how remnants of No Wave music survived. In the decades since that time, the band that carried on the sound world that began with the No Wave bands was Sonic Youth, and two of the founding members of that group were people who began playing your music.
GB: Sonic Youth was not a No Wave band. Not even close. The No Wave scene existed basically between 1977 and 1979. After that, it started to change very quickly, because it had become popular, mainly due to the release of No New York by Eno. You started having tons and tons of bands, mainly Talking Heads-type imitation bands that were called Art Rock bands. After 1979, the term No Wave wasn’t used any more. It was Art Rock. Sonic Youth was very much an Art Rock band. And Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, Swans—these were really good, powerful bands. But they had literally nothing to do with No Wave. I don’t care how many concerts they may have gone to. That would be like if we had tried to call ourselves Bebop bands or something. There was no connection whatsoever. I mean, these guys were doing commercial music, even by the standards of the times. It was commercial compared to what we were doing, which was utterly uncommercial, and in fact that was clearly documented in the press. These guys aren’t out to make any money. That’s not what this is about. It’s about music and music alone. Whereas all of a sudden these bands came along and they were using riffs from bands from the ‘60s and the ’70s and kind of incorporating this modern New York sound into it. As I said, it was basically called Art Rock, and it went from ten bands to about 200 bands. And it went from two clubs—basically Max’s and CBGB’s, and then there was always a sort of floating club that would be on and off—to about 20 clubs. The scene was gigantic, and people actually were making money, because it had gotten popular. It was the thing in New York at the time. All these new guys had come to New York to see something and do something exciting and new. What was exciting and new at that particular time was the No Wave scene. A lot of the artists were also starting their own bands, and became part of the Art Rock movement, people like Richard Prince and Robert Longo. Everybody was doing a band. Basically pretty much like it is now. Who isn’t doing a band?
FJO: At that time you also had a second band called The Static.
GB: Yes, because Jeff wanted to start doing his own work independently. And he said, “I can’t play on a regular basis.” I had tons of ideas that I wanted to get out, so I said, “O.K., well that’s cool. But I’m going to start this other band and keep doing my own music. That’s all The Static’s about.” And The Static didn’t last very long either, because I found something really new. This was in 1979. Everything happened very quickly at the time. I had ideas for all kinds of pieces that didn’t fit into the straight rock band structure.
One of the pieces was called Instrumental for Six Guitars. Without belaboring the story, I was invited to play in Max’s Kansas City’s Easter Festival. So I very quickly threw this thing together. And the piece, again like Theoretical Girls and like The Static, was very quickly successful. People loved it. At Max’s, the dressing rooms were upstairs. You had to go through the audience to get off the stage. There was no backstage area. When we performed Instrumental for Six Guitars, people were literally grabbing my clothing. I felt like Elvis. “Who are you?” “What was that?” “I’ve never heard anything like that before in my life.” It just so happened that this particular piece was a killer. I was still doing my band The Static at the time, and I remember going back to the guy who booked Max’s, saying “O.K., so when can I do another gig with The Static?” And he said, “The Static? Why don’t you do Glenn Branca?” Because the Instrumental for Six Guitars piece had been billed under my name, basically we had The Static and Instrumental for Six Guitars on the same bill. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, but it kind of developed from there. I would rather be home sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pencil in my hand than go to a Stones concert. I really enjoyed working and this was really just another part of my work.
I saw that I was in a position where I could do absolutely anything I wanted to do, and there was an audience there for it. I mean, New York was nothing at all like it is now. I feel bad about it, because it seems like—relatively—it was ridiculously easy for us. There were a few bands, the audience was much smaller. But we got a lot more attention. It’s so gigantic now. There are thousands of bands and literally hundreds of clubs. It’s very difficult for a band to get any recognition. I don’t care how good you are. There are just too many bands. Too many people have swarmed here. There are people doing very good stuff who are being ignored. But that’s the world. I don’t know what to say. I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.
FJO: The point of no return: sitting in front of that paper instead of going to a Stones concert; being a composer—
GB: —Instead of schmoozing; instead of going out at all.
FJO: So you had this deep interest in Mahler and all of sudden there’s this piece under your name that’s really a composition rather than a song. Is it fair to draw a distinction at that point between a song and a composition?
GB: Oh, very much so. I dropped the songs very quickly once I heard what a large group of guitarists could sound like. I had already started using different tunings because, as I said, everything I was doing was experimental. I was trying everything in the world. I was doing all kinds of things for years and years and years and years. This one clicked. This one hit. I don’t mean hit like, “Wow, they like it, so I’ll do that.” No. I liked it.
I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. And I immediately started developing that direction. I started inventing more tunings, and I started listening very closely to what was really the essence of that sound. I realized that close harmonies were a very important part of that and open strings on the guitar, strings that were ringing and allowing a lot of harmonics to interact. So I started moving more in that direction with a piece like Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, which is the piece that Cage hated. And it’s the first time I wore these sun glasses.
FJO: The story about John Cage hating your music is one of the stranger episodes in new music history.
GB: I can understand it. It was a festival in Chicago I was invited to play at, New Music America. And everybody was doing one version or another of Cage. Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. There’s just no question about it. I mean, he went all the way back to the ‘30s with this for God’s sake. He actually got a feature article in Life magazine, which would be equivalent to—I don’t think there is an equivalent to that anymore. I mean, it was just gigantic. So wherever he went, people followed in the new music scene.
So this festival had something like 200 concerts by 200 different composers. For some reason, I was invited, and Cage had stated it was his birthday party. His birthday cake was cut by the mayor of Chicago. I mean, it was a big deal. And he stated, “I’m going to see every single concert at this festival that’s in my honor.” He says, “I don’t usually go out to see music very much, but this I’m going to see.” He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. What happened is that the day after the concert, there was a symposium of composers and Cage started off the symposium by giving a ten-minute critique of my piece. After he had just seen like 200 pieces, he chose me to crucify. He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music.
There are many, many documentations of things that he said. He said things to radio stations; he said things to newspapers. He said things to interviewers and, luckily, I was able to get a hold of a tape. It’s about a 15-minute interview, in which he does nothing but attack my music in what, for me, was a vile and vicious way. Because you have to realize, I felt that the piece was in fact a tribute to John Cage. I mean, just to use the word indeterminate, that word in music is undeniably identified directly with John Cage. And I felt that the piece was very much a Cagean piece. I released the recording of Indeterminate Activity eventually. I didn’t have a recording that I liked, but after many, many years, I said fuck it. I’m never going to play this piece again, so I might as well release this recording. And on the other side, I put the interview with Cage in which he crucifies me. I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.
FJO: Did you ever talk to him after that?
GB: No. We didn’t talk to each other before or after. The only thing we did was wave when we passed each other at the festival. I guess he recognized me, and I recognized him and said hi.
FJO: I think it’s so interesting that he reacted so viscerally, because he always gave this aura of being so open to all and every possibility.
GB: As it turns out, I found out afterwards that actually wasn’t true. There was a composer that I knew named Julius Eastman. Cage had basically done the same thing to him immediately after his concert, and supposedly he’d done the same thing to both Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich. So, if you didn’t play what he considered to be politically correct music, so to speak, he would come after you. He would attack you. I wasn’t the first. It’s just that I got more attention, or at least he got more attention for criticizing me, than any of these other people.
FJO: In a weird way, his criticizing you so publicly and all over the place spread the word about you.
GB: Yeah, people like to believe that. People like to think that. That’s not really true. Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. I have used and still use structured improvisation, but it certainly is not improvisation in any conventional definition of the word. I remember when John Zorn emerged in the mid-‘80s, Cage immediately aligned himself with Zorn against me. He wanted to find a young, new composer whom he felt was more connected to the kind of work that he himself had developed. Cage wanted, to be brutally honest, to destroy written music. And I felt that was just outrageous. Not everything can just be improvised or collaborated. Would you want to read an improvised, collaborated novel? I mean, I don’t know if you read. I read a lot. And I can tell you right now, I would not want to read something that was written by five people improvising. I mean, I want to read a carefully worked out and developed piece of work. I can say the same thing about any kind of art.
FJO: It actually is a redux of what you were talking about with the SoHo and East Village No Wave bands where one scene didn’t quite fit into the other. Then, all of a sudden, you became part of this, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical, downtown music scene. But ultimately your music didn’t really fit in with that either. You were your own thing. You were using musicians who had backgrounds in rock. This wasn’t the kind of music that the folks who went to new music concerts were used to hearing at that point.
GB: That was definitely a problem. What can I say? I mean, it was loud. Rock music, I mean, I like it loud. Just like I said when I listen to Mahler at home, I listen to it three or four times louder than you would ever hear it in a concert hall. That’s what got me off. Actually, I’d rather hear Bruckner now than Mahler, but things change. But yes, I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on.
FJO: Perhaps the ultimate affront to classical music sensibilities was calling your pieces for a group of very loud rock guitar players and drummers symphonies.
GB: I was on a plane home thinking, What am I going to do next? I’d like to do a long-form piece of music, something similar to a play, the kind of things that I had been writing before I started seriously writing music. And the term symphony—this is the perfect analogy for creating something that develops over the entire evening in, you might say, acts, the way a play develops in acts. So it seemed like an obvious thing to do, although I knew that I was sticking my neck way, way, way out on the line to call my funky, primitive, loud rock music a symphony. Um, it worked. They liked it. I liked it. It became basically what I wanted to do. Eventually I felt that the kind of music that I wanted to write needed to be more transparent than I could get with amplified instruments. I mean, for me anyway, amplified instruments tend to be murky. If you try to do anything harmonically complex with it, it just turns into mud. In fact, I was used to working with mud. And I still am.
I feel at this time in my life there isn’t any type of sound I couldn’t create a piece of music out of. In fact, if I was a composition teacher, this is what I would teach my students. I would probably give them very difficult and strange types of sound-making devices, and say, “Make me a piece of music with this.” Two-by-fours, pipes, I don’t know, whatever, because I don’t think the music is about the instrument. I think it’s about the mind. The mind creates the music. Not the instrument. Not even the musician. I mean, I think the musician is incredibly important, don’t get me wrong on that point, and there are wonderful musicians who truly do create magical experiences. But as far as a composer is concerned, I think the composer needs to use his or her mind. And it really doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, whether it’s in the equal temperament system, whether it’s a harmonic series system, or any other system. It matters what you imagine and if you have the ability to put that into real space. For instance, the way Michael Gordon did with his piece called Timber. I don’t know if you’ve heard that piece, but it’s one of the finest pieces that I’ve heard in many, many years. And it’s just a bunch of two-by-fours. He did use some effects, I believe, but it doesn’t matter.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that it doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, since in the 1980s, a very precise tuning based on the harmonic series was extremely important to you. I’m curious about what inspired you to explore just intonation.
GB: I knew of Harry Partch. In fact, I had pretty much everything that he had recorded. And I went to many concerts by La Monte [Young]. One of the members of my band was Ned Sublette. He’s done all kinds of interesting things, and I knew he had studied with La Monte. So I said, “O.K., Ned, what is this harmonic series?” And Ned said, “You know, it’s actually incredibly, ridiculously simple. It’s just a series of natural numbers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, to infinity. Basically you choose a bass frequency, let’s say like 30 Hz, and take that times one, and the second harmonic is two. You take that 30 Hz, times two, then times three, then times four, then times five.” I said, “Wow. That’s sounds like an incredibly interesting tuning system.” But when I started working with it, I realized that no conventional instruments could play in the system. I mean, if I wanted to use the entire system. As it happens, when I say the entire system, the system is infinite, but when Partch, or Young use it, they choose particular sets of harmonics. Like La Monte will choose 12 particular harmonics and then have the piano tuned so each of the 12 tones are differently tuned. But it’s still 12 all tuned the same way. Whereas in the harmonic series, each interval is different. You don’t have half steps, quarter steps, or eighth tones. Every single interval is a different interval. It’s a different length. You can’t give it a name. It gets smaller as it goes up.
FJO: And you found a way to explore those harmonics in your Third Symphony, Gloria.
GB: In Gloria, yes, I was lucky. That was the first grant I ever got. It was an instrument building grant for five thousand dollars, and I used it to have what I could only call harpsichord-like instruments, because I can guarantee you they were nothing like harpsichords, except for the action. I found a wonderful, amazing instrument builder in New Jersey who built me six keyboards that could be tuned in the first seven octaves of the harmonic series: every single interval, 127 different intervals.
The reason why I wanted that was because I could then use mathematics, or—to put it very simply—arithmetic, to determine compositional structures. That’s what interested me about the harmonic series. I started to find that there was more than just music that was of interest in this harmonic series. I found what I would consider to be philosophical aspects. I began to become very deeply involved in the series itself, having nothing to do with music. There were three symphonies that were written for the harmonic series, #3, #4, and #5, just so you’ll have that on record and people will know. I’ve used bits and pieces of it throughout my work.
But I became so involved with it that at one point when I happened to be in Europe for a gig, I made sure to stop at the Institute for Harmonic Research in Vienna, which is basically just an office in the music school there where a composer named Hans Kayser had been working with the harmonic series. He had written a book called the Learning Book of Harmonics— Lehrbuch Der Harmonik. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a beautiful book. It’s amazing. I went through the book, and chart after chart that he had made. To visualize what this would look like, there were charts that I had already created at home just sitting in my room. It was like I was right there on the same page with this guy. I mean, this book was written in 1950. The difference was he never attempted to write a piece of music using the harmonic series. He got too involved, as I said, in the philosophical aspects of it.
But by the time I had finished Symphony #5, I realized, O.K., am I going to be a mathematician, or am I going to be a composer? I also discovered it doesn’t matter what tuning system you use. I had become infatuated with it. I’d fallen in love with it. But I realized the real beauty of music is what the mind creates. It’s not something that can be mathematically determined, which was something that had been very important to many of the serious composers of the 20th century like the serialists; I won’t go on about that. We won’t get into that subject, but they were using a lot of mathematics. I had found what I considered to be the absolutely perfect analogy between mathematics and music, because you have to realize these tones were vibrating at exactly the same rate as the numbers. So if you’re using mathematics in conjunction with the harmonic series, you are literally recreating mathematics in physical space. That became very interesting. But I realized that I wanted to be a composer. I wanted to compose music. I did not want to be a philosopher. I did not want to be a mathematician. I did not want to go in that direction. I wanted to be a composer, and I understood that composing is a function of the mind. The harmonic series is a massive subject, but it isn’t what I do now.
FJO: What you do now encompasses so much. You’re still writing for your own ensemble of electric guitars, but you’re also writing pieces for other ensembles—I know you just completed a piece for the Irish new music group Crash.
GB: I sent them my piece a couple of weeks ago, maybe it was about a week ago actually. I’m a bit a burned out from running. I always like to try something a little different. I’ve been working on it for months. And then I’ve had to do a couple of concerts with my ensemble during that time. I’m killed, but luckily it’s one of the rare pieces I’ve been able to write where I really was able to get what I wanted.
FJO: You already alluded to writing for orchestra, and I’d like to talk with you more in-depth about that. But most of the time you can certainly get more from a chamber group than you can with an orchestra—not in terms of the mass of the sound, but in terms of having time to rehearse, working out very precise details, and more flexibility overall.
GB: Well, I don’t live in Dublin, so I can’t really work with them. I’m going to get to hear them rehearse the piece one time in England at the Huddersfield Festival, one of the places they’re going to perform it. Even these small ensembles don’t have as much time as you would think. I mean, a lot of these musicians are working with a number of different ensembles. It’s the only way they can pay the rent. So you’re still stuck in that same situation where you don’t really have enough time to give to a piece.
FJO: Well, writing a piece for other people is always different than writing for your own group. You certainly have much less control over the outcome. But if you’re writing for orchestra, at least it seems to me, there are even fewer chances you can take. You certainly can’t do things like explore the first 127 intervals in the harmonic series.
GB: You’re absolutely right. And if I’ve made a mistake in a composition, I can fix it in a rehearsal. I can cut it. I can change it. I can’t do that when I deliver a piece to an orchestra. That’s it, you know; that’s the piece they’re going to play.
FJO: But given what you were saying earlier about the performance you heard of the Turangalîla-Symphonie which had all its edges wiped away, I’m surprised that would be an arena you’d want to place your own visceral music in.
GB: It depends on who plays it and who conducts it, whether they like it or don’t like it, and how much rehearsal time they’ve got. Working with an orchestra for a living composer writing a new piece of music is very, very difficult. And the reason for that is very, very simple. Most of the music they play is music they’ve been playing since they were in high school, for Christ’s sakes. You know, they don’t really even need to rehearse it at all. That’s what the classical music audience wants to hear. If you give them an entirely new piece of music that’s—let’s say—an hour long, you’re giving them something that they really have to work on. Not only that, we 21st-century composers tend to do things that are very unconventional sometimes, not the kind of things they learned in music school, and that makes it even more difficult. Sometimes they say, “Fuck this. I don’t give a shit about what this sounds like. This is crap. I just want to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.” In a sense, I’m not being fair, but in another sense, it is the truth. So much of the classical music scene is about virtuosity; it’s about the musicians showing off their abilities. The composer is the last man on the totem pole.
FJO: So then why have you invested so much compositional energy writing for the orchestra—the Seventh Symphony, the Ninth, and the Eleventh, which are for chorus and orchestra—
GB: —I want to hear my music performed by an orchestra and I’m willing to put up with the crap you have to put up with to work with an orchestra. I’m not blaming orchestras or orchestral musicians, because I understand the problems they’ve got. I mean, their audience is getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And the costs are getting higher, and higher, and higher. They just don’t have time to work on a piece unless they know it’s going to pack a place and make a lot of money or make their audience happy in one way or another. Now, damn it, personally I want to say this: I think to play to the audience that only wants to hear 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century music is a gigantic mistake. If we are looking at the end of the orchestra, that’s going to end up being up the reason.
There have been a tremendous number of really fantastic, hot, sexy pieces written for orchestra by many composers: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ligeti, Penderecki Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen, and the list just goes on and on and on. Throughout the 20th century, there have been really good pieces that people really would like. But they can’t perform these pieces because it takes too much time to rehearse and it’s expensive to rehearse them. It’s going to kill the orchestra eventually. The orchestra is going to become a museum system, as Steve Reich when he was interviewed by The Times was saying it was. I’ve been trying to fight against it.
There are so many musicians here in New York who are really, really good, the best musicians I’ve worked with anywhere in the world. I’ve worked with orchestras all over the United States and Europe, without a doubt the best musicians are in New York. There’s no way around it. And they don’t have gigs. That’s why they very often put together these small ensembles. It would not be difficult, if the union was a little forgiving, to put together a 21st-century orchestra that only played modern music, good modern music. I am absolutely positive that people would pack the place. It would be sold out every night. There is no question in my mind about it: it would rock; it would kill.