Tag: no wave

Fierceness Devoted to Truth—Remembering Glenn Branca (1948-2018)

Ed Note: It has been more than two months since the music community mourned the passing of Glenn Branca, but he still remains very much on the minds of many of us. Among the many composers who have been deeply affected by Branca is Michael Gordon who not only dedicated his seminal 1988 composition Four Kings Fight Five to Branca but who also, in his capacity as one of the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can, was responsible for presenting his work at BoaC’s annual marathon several times over the last 30 years as well as recording it for BoaC’s Cantaloupe Music label. So we asked Michael to share his unique memories of this unique musical creator.—FJO

In the post office on Prince Street that is now an Apple Store, I walk in and there’s a long line. I see Glenn Branca. He’s farther along in the line and he’s in an intense conversation with a woman. It’s Reg Bloor. I know that only later. I hadn’t met her then. I watch. It’s New York. Glenn Branca is in line at the Post Office. How can that be? Hasn’t he been able to commandeer the laws of physics and just get his package there?

Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds.

Scientists say that black holes are so dense with matter that light isn’t able to escape. Such fierce density is theorized but not experienced. Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds. Every possible location on the sound spectrum has been filled. There is more sound than can be heard. There is so much sound, the sound itself is creating more sound. It is an over-saturation of sound. And all that sound is a by-product of music. You hear the music and you hear imagined musics simultaneously. Perhaps they are choirs of heavenly bodies. You are at a Glenn Branca concert in the 1980s. You are at Symphony #3. I ask around for cigarettes, tear off the filters and stuff them in my ears.

It was actually earlier—the picture says 1979. Is that possible? I was going out every night to hear music. The concert said ‘experimental’ or something like that, but to me it sounded like a bunch of not-so-great bands. I can’t remember anything about it except being trapped. I can’t leave, because maybe the next thing is worth listening to. It was the final thing. It looked like another band. Four guitars? Drums, bass? Is there a keyboard? Was someone conducting? No. Branca is in front of the band, back to the audience, faster, louder. Someone with a sledge hammer starts slamming a metallic object. Dissonance. This is why I’m here! This is why I moved to New York!

Ten years later, I call Branca. Mr. Branca. I know his name is Glenn but when we talk about him, we call him Branca. “I want you to play Symphony #6 on the festival.” Branca starts yelling at me. I love this guy. I know he’s fierce, and I know that all that fierceness is devoted to truth. We do the concert. Branca is unhappy with how it went, and afterwards he locks himself up somewhere backstage. People are waiting after the show to congratulate him. Someone big is there. Was it Bowie? But Branca is miserable and won’t come out. The following night we do it again and things go well. He’s relaxed and he talks to people.

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Branca is a sensation. He’s touring and he must be making money because he has a studio to work in. Was it in a basement? I visit him there, and he explains his theories. It must have been a while back because the paper in the printer had little holes on the sides and the numbers, lots of numbers, had that unsmoothed, undigital look. He has charts, he has graphs and more numbers. He fits in with those brainy people in Europe who think a lot. When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual. People could be throwing themselves into the flames. But in his studio, Branca is thinking about overtones. He is mapping large movements of harmonics.

When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual.

“We have an orchestra,” I tell him. “It’s called Spit Orchestra. We want to play your orchestra music.” The World Upside Down. Branca is very practical. It’s all written out, it all works, it sounds like Branca, but there are no guitars. The precise markings of overtones have been replaced with conventional signs indicating 1/8th tone or 1/4 tone flat and sharp. He explains: they can’t get any more precise than this and it sounds good. It does sound good.

I’m at LPR to hear Branca. It’s Symphony #15. The lines down the block are a distant memory. There are people seated at tables, ordering drinks. But not enough people. I am embarrassed. But not Glenn. He is as always. There are movements, about seven of them. Not sure. One of them is totally bizarre. They are throwing things through the air that make sound. It’s whimsical. It is funny. I don’t get it. After, Branca says, “Did you get it?” I didn’t get it. Later I get it. Branca has written a Scherzo. Branca must be happy.

The last time I see Branca, it’s 2015. He is playing on the festival again. The Ascension Three. Is Glenn a Catholic? Does he pray? Does he have visions? He is just as extreme as 1979. Thirty-six years later, he is extremely extreme. He has channeled those visions into sound, and the sound is still too big for human consumption. The airwaves are soaked, and there’s so much music that it’s flooding the system. The merchants at the Winter Garden complain about Branca. We’ve been there for ten years, and they’ve never complained. Branca is too much. We get kicked out of the venue for good. Branca was the last act we did there.

Glenn Branca "conducting" an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Glenn Branca “conducting” an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Are we going to hear this music again? I thought that then, that night in 2015, and I think that now. The Symphonies were created, and sometimes recorded, in a process that isn’t easily recreatable. Many of the musicians were taught by rote. Were scores left? Is anyone going to take this on? Even if they do, can anyone channel the energy that Branca summoned during a performance? Are these like great buildings, designed, built, destroyed? Is all we have left a picture?

In my tiny corner of the universe, listening to Branca’s music meant that your soul had been purified or purged and had knelt before God in humility and glory. And that by some upending of the laws of nature, you manage to bottle a scent of it and bring it back to earth, and turn that scent into music, and that music, which is just a sound of a scent of something holy, is all that you have and everything that you have.

Symphony #6, sub-titled Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven, is all of it in a nutshell. It’s the dichotomy of Branca’s music: by excessive use of loudness, grungy guitars, microtonal tuning, dark and heavily tuned drums, maniacal energy, and erratic onstage persona, his music manages to alienate almost the entire classical music world. By excessive large scale musical form, lack of vocals, microtonal tuning, abstractness, non-narrative-ness, and complete un-commerciality, it manages to alienate almost the entire popular music world. It is a marriage of Heaven and Hell that repulses all and demands expulsion. About what kind of art can you make a statement like that?

I took comfort knowing that Branca lived a subway ride away.

I wake up and have the feeling that New York City isn’t the same. We build the Glory of Civilization on the backs of our most expansive minds. There is nothing about this city that makes it a Great City except the people who live here. Now there is one less. If I didn’t see Glenn every day, or every year, I took comfort knowing that he lived a subway ride away. It might seem strange to say that, more than anyone I know, Glenn was an uncorrupted soul. How artists hang on as they navigate through the maze of those who buy, criticize, and analyze, applaud, and ignore, is a measure of a life. To me, Glenn was a pious monk and a messenger of holy sounds, and I hope that there was a choir of angels singing for him when he arrived at the gates of heaven.

Ed. Note: In 2012, NewMusicBox published an extensive conversation with Glenn Branca. Here are some of the highlights:

Glenn Branca in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at Smash Studios in New York City
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan

Arto Lindsay: Space, Parades, and Confrontational Aesthetics

A conversation via Skype between Arto Lindsay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Sam Hillmer in New York, New York
April 15, 2015
Transcribed and edited by Sam Hillmer
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan

I first Met Arto Lindsay at a party I hosted at my house to preview a new set by my band Zs. Of course it was an honor and a privilege to have the man in my house—founding the band DNA alone makes him a legend!

Arto and I have a mutual friend, Arto’s manager Ryu Takahashi, and through him we had occasion to meet a number of times over the next couple of years. As I got to know Arto and his work better, I began to appreciate the breadth of his artistic vision. Not only had Arto founded arguably the most important band from New York’s early-’80s No Wave scene, he is a well-known figure in Brazilian pop, collaborator of Matthew Barney’s, leader of parades, and thrower of sounds in space.

Alexis de Tocqueville has said that Americans “cut through the form to the substance.” Punk, which is quintessentially American, does just that. Born of an urgency around reaching people through disruptive and confrontational aesthetics and social practice, punk is inherently populist at the level of essence. What interested me about getting to know Arto was that, as I learned about his work outside of the band DNA, I felt I was able to identify that spirit in his pop efforts, parades, and the sound design of his various performance works.

Curious to learn more, I invited Arto to have a lengthy chat with me some day. He graciously accepted the offer, which led to a marathon Skype call last spring. What I had thought was breadth of vision was just an opening to an artistic world of Arto’s own—bigger and broader then I had ever imagined. Big thanks to Arto for the time and for his life and work!

Sam Hillmer: Tell me about the use of space in your music.

Arto Lindsay: That is something I’ve been doing for years and years, and I’ve done it with the band, I’ve done it with myself. I came up with one piece a few years ago where I use floor monitors that cut right through the middle of the audience. I had my voice in quad around the audience, no guitar around the audience, and I release the guitar into the floor monitors so that sound races right past you if you are sitting in the audience, you know what I mean? You get it, right?

SH: Yes, totally.

AL: So I’ve worked with a few different guys on this, and we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated. Sometimes we’ll have a different event in each speaker, or have different lanes of delay, and it makes it possible to come up with these insane rhythms that I don’t know how I’d be able to come up with otherwise. By myself, anyway.

Arto Lindsay seated

SH: So what about the spatialization itself facilitates the generative rhythmic part of what you are talking about? You’re saying that this process makes it possible for you to come up with rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to come up with otherwise. How does that relate to the spatial aspect of what you are doing there?

AL: I think it’s because I am working with delays, and because of the way they’re set they are pretty unpredictable. I mean, I can layer a few delays on top of each other and make a different rhythm, you know? I’m trying to answer your question—it’s a good one—about how this process leads to complexity that a normal delay pedal wouldn’t. The other thing is that it is in motion. The distance aspect of it adds to the rhythmic possibilities somehow.

SH: To me it seems like it would introduce a degree of clarity that, if it was all just a composite coming out of one speaker—

AL: Absolutely, a degree of transparency, yes—

SH: Yeah, there is a lot of interest in work like that now, quadrophonic work and work for 16 speakers and whatnot, and I always wonder why that’s interesting to people. I’m interested in it, but there is something about that, surround sound and composing spatially, that people respond to.

AL: Also, it emphasizes some aspects of what’s already there when you are listening to music. Already, music itself, if it’s loud it seems close, if it’s quiet it seems far, and stereo has been there since people have been playing more than one instrument. And certainly the Western classical orchestra, the way it’s arrayed—

SH: Sure, there is a spatial dimension to it.

AL: It’s about stereophonic effects, and of course the big bands, they all took advantage of this. There’s the back and forth, the basic panning, the basic joy of stereo, you know—like the early Beatles records where the instruments are all separated. Spatialization, in a sense, doesn’t add anything because music is already waves moving through space. Actually what it does is it adds more points of departure, so to speak. Instead of the music starting from one point of origin, it starts from a whole bunch of different points of departure.

SH: Right, right. It interrupts the sense that the point of origin of the music is this person, and that what’s happening is this two-way feedback loop between the audience and the person on stage, and then it locates that point of origin, at least sonically, in a variety of places.

AL: Exactly. It makes the person on stage seem like they have more points of origin. It opens up the person on stage. It’s like your molecules are a little less settled or something. The illusion of something solid is less strong. It’s closer to the truth, physics wise.

So it doesn’t really change things so much between the performer and the audience as much as it does bring the truth about that situation out. When I do this with the band, I try to incorporate that spatial aspect as part of the musical phrases in what I’m doing.

SH: Okay, this leads into something else I wanted to ask you. Throughout your career you have had some kind of relationship with the art world, and the art world as a context can facilitate certain things more aptly than straight music settings. So, has your exposure to the art world facilitated things generatively for you as a musician that have affected what you’ve been able to do?

AL: Well, when I moved to New York I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a musician, an artist, a dancer, or what, you know? And I ended up becoming a musician, but I had ambitions as an artist as well, so I tried to make a band that could be understood as music, but that could also be understood as a piece of art. So I’ve always considered myself an artist as much as a musician, or along with being a musician, or whatever, but I’ve tried to make what I do come up to the standards of art as well as up to the standards of music.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of collaborating with artists because I like the way artists think, and I like the freedom they have to invent their own medium piece by piece, which is something we can’t do so easily in music. I also like the quality of discourse around art which is more serious, more philosophy-based, and the conversations are often much more interesting. This has changed in the last 10 or 15 years, but in the ’80s and in the early ’90s I really thought this was true. I just wasn’t into the critics and the way they thought about music. I didn’t think about music that way. I didn’t want to hear some evocative description of the American landscape as a way of explaining why Bob Dylan was great; I just wasn’t interested. You know, when they started to draw parallels to the Situationists and stuff, that was kind of the beginning of it getting interesting again.

SH: So, when you’re saying that’s all changed in the last 10 or 15 years, you’re saying the quality of music journalism has changed?

AL: Yeah, and I don’t want to call it journalism, I want to call it criticism, because I value this dialogue between the artist and the critics. I don’t buy this “the critic is a failed musician” and blah blah blah. I also see the value in academics. The idea that “you can’t make a living doing your art, you have to teach”—these are all kind of wrong ways of thinking about it. I think you have to kind of keep things flowing in these different areas.

SH: Right. I think in the best cases criticism or journalism becomes a form of generative cultural practice that functions as an extension of the work, kind of the same way a remix functions. You know, you don’t make a remix, but the remix is there because you made this thing (the original) and you formed a relationship with someone who made the remix. In the best case, an interview or a review or an article, it’s almost an extension of your work—it’s not about your work, it is part of the work, in a sense.

AL: I see what you’re saying. And there’s another aspect to that which is that, in different times and in different places, the criticism is more creative, or poetic, or whatever word you want to use—it’s better art than the art, at times. Especially the French critics in the ’60s, they blew everyone away to the point that everybody wanted to figure out what kind of sense they [themselves] made in that world view, that way of understanding things. And that was very interesting, too. The art was getting really conceptual, and then you had these great conceptualists who stretched philosophy to the point where it was pretty close to poetry at times. You know, things got confusing, and lots of people went down the wrong path. It was an excuse for a lot of badness, but at the same time it was a really important engine for stuff, you know what I mean?

SH: Certainly that work was very exciting, but I feel you about people going down the wrong path. [laughs]

AL: Right, people went down the wrong path, but certainly you can’t deny that it was super important work.

Arto Lindsay set-up

SH: Hell yeah, super important to me for sure! Before moving on past this art world bit, could you give an overview of your more art world-based projects?

AL: I’ve done these two kinds of things that are more strictly in the art world so far. I’m going to do more. One is, I’ve done a sound installation that is pretty narrative. It’s text, and either different people read it or I read it, and each piece of the text is in a different speaker. Speakers are spread out throughout the room and the text plays back in sequence. So I could write a story and the beginning would be in your kitchen, and then it would move to your living room, and it’d be out back, and it’d end up by your front door or whatever, and this would be a little story of some kind.

And then I’ve done these parades. The first parade I did in collaboration with Matthew Barney in Bahia, and it was on a really grand scale, in Carnivale there. They have this wild-ass, ever-changing, ever-mutating street Carnivale, where the ecstatic and the tragic bump up against each other all the time. You have this confrontation across this huge income gap, you have almost religious ecstasy, you have the cheapest pop music, you have absolute social separation and absolute social mixing— it’s just an incredible event. And so we were able to do this really crazy parade as part of that, and people were like, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” But it wasn’t like they weren’t used to seeing crazy stuff. I kind of put that backwards, but it’s like we were able to do such crazy stuff just because people see crazy stuff every year at Carnivale there.

SH: So describe what’s going on in your parade.

AL: In this parade here, Matthew bought this giant earthmoving vehicle—it looks like a tractor with these big claws on the front—and he found a tree that was condemned, bought that, and had that in the claws. This thing was rolling down the avenue holding a tree. And the tree was supposed to represent Julia Butterfly [Hill]. She was supposed to be in the parade, but she couldn’t at the last minute. She was a big ecological activist, really beautiful person, who lived in a redwood tree in California for a couple years. [The vehicle] was pulling a shipping container that was covered with dirt, so it looked like a big block of earth, but on top of that was my band, and I also had 30 Brazilian percussionists from two groups there.

I actually pulled off something technically that nobody has managed to do before or since, which was to have the people on the truck play with the people on the ground in sync. It’s very difficult, but we put a lot of time into this. We rehearsed with the leaders of the percussion groups, we found the tempos that were natural for them to play certain rhythms at—they were based on all kinds of things, tradition but also just the size of the drums, how long it takes for the beats to decay and what not. We just felt it out and found tempos that felt good for them and good for us. We blasted them with just a rhythm machine, almost like a click track, and my voice, because traditional percussion groups in Bahia don’t have harmony instruments, and they have conductors, but the real conductor is the singer who gives them the time, and that’s what keeps one of these big groups together.

So then I also designed a sound system for this, because usually these trucks that parade in Bahia are unbelievably loud—a huge sound system and a generator, and it just blasts out. So I tried to work it out so I could have four sound cars, two in the front and two in the back, connected to my band and my percussion by Wi-Fi. So we’d be driving down the street, but preceding the floats and the musicians, there’d be two sound cars, one on either side of the street, and there’d be two behind the whole parade. So the participants inside the parade could circulate inside there. But I couldn’t pull this off because the street was not wide enough. I ended up stringing the whole thing out. I had a sound car out in front, and I had some speakers on the band car, and I had a sound car in back. And I used a lot of up and down the line delay stuff, which I do a lot at these parades.

So, that was the first parade, and it included some pretty hairy imagery. I mean, Matthew had a guy under the truck who took about 30 Viagras and was trying to have sex with the truck while the thing was rolling down the avenue. And we took a lot of imagery from Candomblé [the traditional religion from the area]. Matthew used two of these deities—one was a forest and plant deity and one was a blacksmith deity.

Anyhow, that was that parade, and Matthew was able to invest a lot in that parade, and then make it all back by selling that main vehicle as a huge sculpture.

That is a very interesting beginning. So after that I’ve been getting asked to do parades on my own, and I’ve done them on different scales. Sometimes I work with local artists in a particular place. In each of these parades, they’re kind of based on Brazilian parades in the sense that they have a theme and it’s worked out in different ways by different people. I usually try to put a different sound system together for each one, and one thing I deal with a lot is triggering—just basic triggering. In the Berlin parade, I hired a gypsy band, and they were mic’d, but their mics were all triggered by a Brazilian percussionist. So if you were right next to them in the street you’d hear gypsy music, but if you were down the street you’d hear flashes of gypsy music in, you know, samba, or whatever.

I did one in 2009, and I wanted to work with noise. Super loud white noise, pink noise, brown noise, and I made a group of those, so that it sounded like an airplane idling, you know? And then I had a band, and when the band would play we would shut off the noise. I had two basic ways for it to work: one was, every time you hit a bass note you’d turn off the white noise for an instant, so you’d actually create silence for a second, which sounds pretty cool in description, but in real life just sounds like [imitates white noise in jagged rhythm]. And then sometimes you’d hear the notes in the band, so there was never a silence. White noise was blasting between every note. It was actually cool.

SH: A number of things strike me about what you’ve been describing. Firstly, a parade is a relatively ordinary thing to happen in one’s life. But a noise music, new music, outsider music practitioner applying their work to leading a parade is radically exceptional.

AL: I think a parade is an incredible form because you can have so many different narratives and so many levels of abstraction in there. One reason I was attracted to these is that I was really involved with the parades in Bahia for a long time, and I performed in them, which is kind of like confronting people with my music in the context of a parade. You know, like saying, “Hey, this is alternative hedonism. I’m not trying to inflict pain on you. This is another kind of pleasure.” I was involved there in Carnivale for years doing many kinds of things: delivering costumes, interviewing security companies, helping dream up themes for Carnivale groups, providing support and performing in different ways.

SH: So you’ve been involved in Carnivale just as a local Brazilian participant, not only as an outsider interloping artist.

AL: Yeah, more than just a voyeur, as someone who helped make the carnival. And I really admire these people that do this. In different states there are different ways this works. In Bahia, it’s normally one person or two or three people who decide on a theme, someone writes a song about that, and the costumes and the floats are an expression of that whole idea. And a lot of these groups are black consciousness groups, so a lot of themes are historical themes about something in Africa, or they might be honoring American Civil Rights activists, etc. In Rio, you have a guy or a woman who is hired to work out a whole theme, and then they go through the process of writing a song, but then that person is in charge of the design of all the costumes and the big floats. The people that do this, they’re kind of like opera directors; they’re artists. It’s really interesting, and I’ve been trying to encourage people to do a museum show on them for a long time. I’m still working on it. [laughs]

SH: There are two main takeaways that I have. One, getting back to this idea that a parade is a relatively ordinary occurrence. They happen all over the world at different times for different reasons, but at the same time it is aberrant for a practioner of official culture, outsider music, or what have you, to enact one.

AL: People know how to relate to a parade. It gives you a chance, because they’re expecting something crazy. They expect clowns, or cheerleaders, something out of the ordinary. Of course, they expect something ordinary out of the ordinary, but they give you a chance. And everyone knows how to take part in it. It’s not some kind of forced thing like, you know, “breaking down the fourth wall, you are part of the artwork about the social relation and not about the work on the wall,” and so on. I mean, here’s a chance to actually determine some of the social relations, or at least offer options as to social relations, and not just propose them as a category or as a way of behaving.

Arto Lindsay looking off

SH: That’s what I’m trying to find out about. Is the medium interesting to you because it’s this moment in the body of quotidian cultural life that is kind of ripe for the introduction of something surprising and fresh, but in a relatable way? And one that’s not, like what you were saying, this forced thing—like “my alienating theater piece is about breaking down the fourth wall and making everybody participate—but actually just organically is that way, and so it’s a meaningful medium for you because it allows you to connect aspects of your work to a broader audience.

AL: Not even a broader audience; just to connect to an audience in a different way. You know, some things that annoy me in a concert appeal to me in a parade. Like, the fact of exhaustion and repetition, you know, just as a listener, I can get bored if it’s kind of forced repetition. I mean, if it’s really fine grain repetition and I feel that within the repetition there’s all this variation and I can hear things in different ways, that’s one thing. But in general, I find it hard to reach that kind of altered consciousness thing in concert situations. I don’t know what it is. I’m just too far back from it. I’m just too close to the traditions of South and North America. I mean, I don’t want to come down on anyone in particular, but I can get somewhere in a Youssou N’Dour concert, but I can’t get into it in a concert of minimalist concert music. I just don’t feel that it’s elastic enough, that it’s reactive enough, because, you know, there is nothing in repetitive music that prevents you from responding to changes.

SH: I understand what you’re saying.

AL: Um, I’m not being too articulate here.

I’m interested in trance music and, since I heard it, I’m interested in Candomblé music because it’s very specific. As far back as DNA we were talking about this. Each deity has its own rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, the people who are consecrated to that deity get possessed. You play this rhythm and this deity comes down and inhabits these initiates, you know what I’m saying? But it’s specific! In Moroccan music you go to a house and you drive out the devils, but it’s specific; you can’t play just any music, you have to play the music that drives the devils out! A very practical one-on-one relationship between the music and the listener, which I find fascinating, like everybody else.

I don’t know how I slid into that.

SH: Well, we were talking about the parades, and we were talking about—

AL: Yeah, altered states of consciousness or something like that.

SH: Right.

AL: Yeah, I’ve been interested in that in other ways, so I went off on this tangent. But let’s forget about that!

When you’re in a parade, you just march and march and march and you inevitably feel quite a bit different when it’s over because you’ve kind of been to exhaustion and back a few times. And I love that about it. I love being able to go in and out of things, to alternate, including concentration, or a concentrated state. Like at a club, I don’t watch the entire concert. I get up and make snarky comments, and talk to my friends in the back, and then I’m interested again, you know. It’s a really rare show that commands my attention all the way through. At a sit-down concert of some kind or other, I start to daydream after a while, and then I come back. I mean, maybe it’s a failure on my part not to be able to follow, but I’m also bored, as I’m sure most people are, with the way that most music gets worked out. You know with the chords, the keys, the this, the that, you know what I mean? So much of it, structurally, is simply not interesting. Emotionally this music is supposed to knock you over, but if you’re not knocked over, it’s just kind of boring. Similarly, if you go to a disco, it’s just really loud, and for a little while, that’s enough. It’s just loud and it feels good. It’s like a shower of light; you’re soaking this up. It’s like a thousand cats are licking you, like a thousand slices from the razor blade. So for a little while you’re in ecstasy. It’s just loud, and then, after a while, you need more. And with the orchestra, it’s the same thing. You walk in and there’s just this sumptuousness. There’s this kind of implied perspective which is like—back to the spatial thing—a lot of the joy of the orchestra is that it’s as wide as the landscape. It just implies depth in so many ways—the depth outside, the depth inside, something about that is really selective. But it wears off, the first thrill wears off. I think that’s just part of it, and you need to be able to go in and out of things. The point being, it’s not about maintaining interest all the way through, because it’s impossible.

SH: And you’re saying the parade as a medium helps to facilitate that relationship?

AL: Absolutely.

Arto Lindsay standing

SH: You said something to me once about DNA, that the band was formed with the specific intention of doing this arcane difficult stuff, but being able to do it for a room of people, and win that room of people over, and that that room of people would be people who weren’t necessarily predisposed to like DNA.

AL: Well, when we started out, we had kind of lofty goals. Yeah, we wanted to provide really intense experiences, we wanted to satisfy ourselves, and we wanted to do something new—we had these radical aspirations. At the same time, we wanted that to work to thrill a room full of people. A rock audience, an audience that was there… You know, you don’t give them what they want, you give them what they need, or you give them something that they can’t deny, you know what I mean? What’s the point of just giving them what they want? And even my onstage behavior—I saw so many people pretending to be rock stars on the stage at CBGBs, and I just didn’t find that persuasive or charming at all. I wanted to be able to move in and out of this kind of stance and to be able to use the power of being on stage, but not to be stuck with that. I mean, Lydia Lunch was such a great performer. And she kind of stumbled on this, in that her own aggression and her own way of being turned into this style. I mean, we’re talking about confrontational aesthetics, and as far as confrontational aesthetics are concerned, there were three people that I drew from—Lydia, Vito Acconci, and Karen Finley. And I saw these incredibly confrontational performances, and they were just so perfect in terms of how long they lasted. I mean, I was at the Palladium, which was a night club, but it was full of all these cool art people, and Karen Finley took canned yams and shoved them up her own ass, and the feeling in that room was just unbelievable.

SH: That’s definitely taking it somewhere.

AL: It’s different then, like, hurting yourself, you know? It avoids a kind of romanticism that gets in the way, or a kind of late-Christian thing that gets in the way. I’m kind of rambling.

SH: Well, I want to get back to some things, but talk about that late-Christian thing for a second.

AL: Well, you know, hurting yourself as art. I can understand hurting yourself in some particular situation you might end up in, where that was the thing to do. But people who just routinely hurt themselves in front of an audience, and it just doesn’t go anywhere. It seems to be a reflection of spending your life staring at this naked bleeding guy. Like, the height of something. It’s like an erotic thing, but it’s different from your S&M roles. I don’t know; I’ve never been down this conversational path before. But control and submission, that seems to me to be a different mechanism than just hurting yourself, which is like a way to communicate the intensity of your desire to communicate. I’m also thinking about James Chance now, like, this little guy, pushing people around and stuff, but now I’m just talking about the whole context.

SH: Well, I wanted to cover this, and I am glad to hear you talk about this. There are a lot of threads forming here that I am going to tie back in. But, the thing you said to me about DNA, and the thing about the parades—in my mind, there is a degree of symmetry between the intention you described with DNA to do this kind of lofty arcane thing but in this kind of populist way. So there is a thread of populism between what you described to me about DNA and the parades.

AL: I agree.

SH: There is a thread of populism that makes sense out of the two projects as a progression. But I’m not saying that’s there. I’m asking you if you think that’s there.

AL: Well, the reason we did what we did the way we did in DNA is because we thought about how it worked in a room, not about how it worked in the music business. I didn’t try to make a pop song with some kind of subversive message or something, that just wasn’t my way of doing it. But there is definitely a populist thing. Also the way I write lyrics, I like lyrics to go down easy. It’s like conversational language most of the time, and then if you pay attention, things are a little murkier than they seemed at first. But I have kind of a bad reaction to pretentious-sounding lyrics. I don’t know if you read the Grammy speech that Bob Dylan did?

SH: Whoa! No, I didn’t.

AL: Well, I’ll try and run it down for you. Bob Dylan says, if I hadn’t heard Woody Guthrie, I couldn’t have written, so and so forth, and he just shows you how all of his lines are variations on folk and blues adapted to his situation. I really appreciate that kind of vernacular aspect of playing and lyric writing. But, on the other hand, certain pretensions in lyric writing drive me nuts.

SH: Right. Well, this aspect of vernacular that you bring up gets into another territory that I wanted to explore. I hear something in your recent solo work that I wanted to ask you about. A harsh, austere, at times severe noise vocabulary or wall of sound effect, and at the same time the rhythmic or lyrical vocabulary of honkytonk, rhythm and blues, or Brazilian musical forms, yet not in a way that I’d describe as pastiche. This is interesting to me because the few other attempts I’ve heard at integrating similar content (John Zorn’s Naked City most notably and most successfully) do come across as pastiche, or collage, and are often a bit contrived. Your work evokes these things without setting them against one another and achieves a greater organic quality in the doing, so I’d be interested in hearing whether this is something you’d given any thought.

Arto Lindsay with Zs

Lindsay preparing to record with Zs.

AL: I guess I’m more interested in the thread between these things, or how to get between these extremely different sounds if you want to look at it that way. One thing is to look at them as not being so different. Another one is to go between them, accepting that people hear them as very different, and get back and forth smoothly. And while I can’t speak for Zorn, I think what he is interested in is the shock of the jump from one to the other, whereas I am interested in the continuity between them. Maybe that’s an over simplification. But obviously I’m super aware that I’m using these two seeming opposites, and that I’m playing with them in differing proportions and going back and forth. But yeah, I only wish that the beautiful stuff could be more beautiful, and that the ugly stuff could be more ugly.

I think there is a passive aggression in the beautiful stuff anyway, and there is a kind of rhythmic aggression even in the ballad stuff. Obviously my model is a lot of the Brazilian stuff, but also someone like Miles Davis, who says white people have it all wrong when it comes to ballads—when you play it slow, you have to goose the tempo. To keep it awake when it’s slow, it has to feel like it doesn’t want to be slow. You have to feel some energy that’s like a caged energy or something. You guys [Zs] are prime examples of this. Within that wall of sound of undifferentiated clusters or whatever, there’s so much information; there’s tons of lyricism that you can hear in there, too, if you just don’t back away. If you just stay where you are, stand your ground, you can hear all kinds of beauty in that stuff. And I actually think this is something that we were aware of in DNA and talked about, but it’s become kind of common knowledge. If you think about how popular drone music is, how popular Keiji Haino is, Merzbow, that crew—and there are other crews that I am not aware of—but people use that. You hear all kinds of stuff in that noise. I wish I was a good enough musician to extract some of that stuff into the lyrical territory, make that stuff music. Let’s work on that!

SH: That would be a good project!

AL: It’s interesting to talk about these harmonic and rhythmic strategies in the context of DNA because so much of what passes for punk rock now I feel provides this kind of false or shallow catharsis for people. It doesn’t really make you think, and it doesn’t really pull you up close to that spot where pleasure and pain can be close to each other, and that’s sort of what these strategies are about. But you know, it’s not an intense experience now.

SH: Right, it’s like scratching an itch. There are these people who do this thing, which is supposed to be punk, and there are the people who want the thing, so the people who do the thing do it for the people who want it. It’s just consumption; there’s nothing challenging about it.

AL: Right.

SH: But back to this notion of juxtaposition, or establishing connections between disparate sounds, or what have you. Does this become a strategy in terms of the populist agenda we have been discussing? Here is what I mean by that. I always feel that with things that are represented as being polarized sonically, there is this kind of endowing a musical or sonic artifact with properties that ostensibly make them into polarities, but in fact that constitutes a kind of grafting of the social onto the sonic. So, actually, what is different there are the people who got to hear these sounds—at least more so than the sounds themselves are, inherently. Does that make sense?

AL: Sure. Right, there is that. But I think that there are more essential differences, just if you think about physics, music, sound, consonance, dissonance, clusters, structural properties! The way we hear music, a lot of it is that we recognize in music structures that are similar to our structures. We hear polyrhythm, and we think, “Hey, I’m a polyrhythmic being. I have a pulse here and a pulse here. I have a pulse in my crotch!” So yes, there is a social piece, but there is another component, and I don’t know if it determines the social thing or if it is concurrent with it, but I think the differences are real. And if they weren’t, there couldn’t be such a pleasure in going back and forth. Does that make sense?

SH: I know what you’re saying. I also think that the attitude of establishing continuity between supposedly disparate elements is involved with drawing a bigger circle around the whole thing and looking at the basic unit as something heterogeneous that contains all of these things, rather than looking at the basic units of the situation as these disparate nodes that you bang against one another.

AL: Sure. I definitely can go with that, and that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of the coexistence of the different elements inside of something larger. Coexistence is a difference thing, as well as just a similarity thing. I think that both are there.

SH: Definitely. Okay, last question: is the attitude of play something that you think about in your music?

AL: Absolutely! Like when I was talking before about not being stuck in one role. Definitely there is something to keeping it light, and being able to switch between lightness and something that’s dead serious, life and death, like pointing your finger at the void. “Over there is nothing, and you, my dear audience, you are prime examples of nothing! You may think you are having an opinion. No! I am! I’m inventing you and your opinion wholesale. Ahhhhh!” [growls]

Glenn Branca: Where My Ears Want To Go

A conversation at Smash Studios in New York City
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.

Frank J. Oteri: You once said in an interview that when you were really young you were playing a guitar and your mother thought that you were playing the wrong chords, but they were the chords that you wanted. You were already forging your own path and discovering new things with the instrument.

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.

Bastard Theatre

Members of The Bastard Theatre watching TV on the Esplanade in Boston, 1975. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca

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.

Ascension Band

Glenn Branca’s Ascension band in dressing room during European tour, c. 1981. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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.

The Static

The Static in a dressing room at Riverside Studios in London. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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.


Dissonance at The Kitchen, 1979. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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.

Indeterminate Activity Of Resultant Masses

Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses during the U.S. tour, 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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.

Branca 1983

Glenn Branca in 1983, at the time of the composition of Symphony #3 “Gloria”. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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.

Symphony 4

A performance of Glenn Branca’s Symphony #4 during a European tour in 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.

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 HarmonicsLehrbuch 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.

Branca: Thought, Instructions

Branca: Thought excerpt

Excerpt from the score of Thought © 2012 by Glenn Branca. Reprinted with permission. World premiere performance by the Crash Ensemble at the Project Arts Center in Dublin, Ireland. November 2, 2012.

Ikue Mori: At Home in Strange Lands

Ikue Mori in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
July 16, 2009—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation filmed and edited by Molly Sheridan

Thirty-two years ago, a young woman from Tokyo decided to visit New York City to hear live some of the punk bands she knew only from recordings. It was the first time she’d ever left Japan. Visiting the fabled CBGB decked out in punk regalia, Ikue Mori stood out. As she points out, “Asian punks were very rare.” She quickly caught the attention of Lydia Lunch and James Chance, who would soon emerge as the leaders of the No Wave scene in downtown Manhattan. Only months later, despite a limited grasp of the English language and having never performed music before in her life, Mori found herself playing drums in the Arto Lindsay-fronted band DNA, whose music was compared to Webern as well as free jazz. DNA quickly became a major No Wave act, getting recorded alongside Lunch and Chance on Brian Eno’s seminal compilation No New York, and Mori never went back home. In fact, Lunch and Chance helped land her an apartment in the East Village where she lives to this day.

In four years DNA ran its course and Mori found herself in another scene-the burgeoning world of Downtown improv. Soon she was playing drums for groups led by some of the most intrepid improvisers—Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Anthony Coleman, Tom Cora, Wayne Horvitz, Jim Staley, and perhaps most importantly John Zorn with whom she continues to collaborate to this day. Mori grew tired of lugging a drum kit up and down the stairs of her sixth-floor walk-up and decided to explore the sound world of drum machines instead. But regular beats held little interest for this iconoclast who found a way to make drum machines “sound broken.” According to Mori, “If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound.”

About ten years ago, Mori switched instruments yet again, to her laptop, a device even more portable than her three drum machines plus various effects units. And the laptop is also capable of myriad more possibilities. Mori’s sensitivity to sound and pacing, from intuitively exploring rhythms first behind a drum set and then with an array of drum machines, have made her one of the most in demand performers on this 21st century musical instrument. The laptop has also allowed her to expand her artistic imagination beyond sound into the realms of graphic design and animation. Armed with a laptop, Mori continues to perform in a variety of contexts including the improvisational trio Mephista (with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionist Susie Ibarra), with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, in John Zorn’s Electric Masada, and numerous projects of her own.

A couple of weeks ago we visited Ikue Mori in her apartment. She had just returned from gigging in Poland with Zorn. That trip was on the heels of a concert tour of Japan, where she now returns twice a year but still feels culture shock upon arriving on either side of the Pacific. Sipping cold green tea and surrounded by walls of LPs, CDs, VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films, and a small drawing of her made by Jean-Michel Basquiat, we had a delightful afternoon conversation which was part reminiscence and part lecture/demonstration.


Transcribed by Daniel J. Kushner and Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri: One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about your career in music is that you grew up in Japan and were not really involved in performing music there at all. But then you came to New York, not even knowing how long you’d stay here, and you found yourself playing—the very first time you were playing music—in one of the most significant rock bands of the late ’70s/early ’80s, DNA. How did that happen?

Ikue Mori: I think it had a lot to do with what was happening in New York in the late ’70s. I had good timing and was in a good place. It had a lot to do with chance also, because I really didn’t plan to be a musician in New York. I just came to see what was going on in New York. That was my first time outside of Japan; I was just out of school. But I was with my friend; he played guitar—he was already a musician.

I was familiar with the music scene in Japan, but there was no motivation for me to play music there. It was a very male-oriented world; not many girls were playing music. It had a lot to do with discipline and show business. But then I came to New York and it was all much closer. It was the time when people who weren’t really musicians just started making music. Arto Lindsay was a poet, and another colleague—a keyboard player—was actually a visual artist. And all those people just started picking up instruments and then tried to do something with it. So it was easier for me to get into, because the idea wasn’t really about playing and technique. It was more about the idea and to have something for yourself, not just to be in the audience. I think it’d be different if it had been ten years later or ten years before. I think I just came to the right place at the right time.

FJO: When you were growing up in Japan and as a young adult, when you were still living in Tokyo, what was your exposure to music? What were you listening to? What was interesting to you?

IM: A lot of music was available in Japan, and I was definitely growing up with rock music, like ’60s American rock music, like [the] Doors to Jimi Hendrix. Rock music has really influenced me, and I was really listening to them. Also I had grown up with all the traditional music, which was always part of my life. My grandmother was singing. I was surrounded by all that music, but I really start listening to music as a teenager. I was listening to music from outside of Japan; I wasn’t really into anything Japanese. There was a lot of rock influence, and also hippie culture influence.

FJO: Did you listen to any sort of experimental music or free jazz when you were in Japan?

IM: During high school we started going to this jazz café. There were a lot of jazz cafés. A lot of places would just play the music all day long and all night long; you could have a long cup of coffee and sit for hours just listening to all those records. But I wasn’t really living in the jazz world, and nothing made me want to be a musician.

FJO: The music of DNA was compared to free jazz and even to Anton Webern. So I’ve always wondered if any of you had even heard any of this music, or if you all independently created a similar sounding musical vocabulary.

IM: I think we created it, because of the different backgrounds of the three of us. Arto Lindsay really has an influence from Brazilian music, and I think he really taught me a lot. In my background, I was [hearing] taiko [drumming] and different kinds of beat counting, and this keyboard player from the art world was more into conceptual art. I think those mixed together and then made something unique. It’s not just based on the rock beat—it was in the beginning, but it was so limited. Our technique was so limited, and then [we] somehow created something else to communicate and express; and it also was the end of the punk era, which was all anger and attitude and powerful music, too.

FJO: There’s this revolutionary aspect to punk, and you were very much interested in that, leaving Japan and leaving those traditions behind. But you’ve just said now that taiko drumming was an influence on you; that’s certainly a very traditional thing.

IM: I did not really study rock beats or jazz beats, so that’s what I had naturally and it made me play drums like a taiko drummer. I think that I cannot help it; those things influenced me without my really noticing it.

FJO: Lots of people tell stories about the late ’70s in New York, CBGB and that whole cultural milieu. Clearly something happened that transformed you. You were not a musician; you didn’t play drums— now all of the sudden you’re in this band as the drummer. Where did you get the drums?

IM: In the beginning, because I came here with this rock guitar player, we were hanging in [clubs like] Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to see all those bands that I was always interested to see in Japan, like Patti Smith and Television, and all those successful bands in New York. The main reason I came was to see these bands because my friend was really interested in the music. I was too, but as a fan, and he as a musician. Then we met Lydia Lunch and James Chance—in CBGB maybe. Back then both me and my friend had short hair and were really punk-looking, and Asian punks were very rare. So they came up to us and said, “What do you do? What are you doing here? You play instruments?” So my friend was scouted to be the bass player of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia’s band; then they are always in the rehearsal room with a bunch of young artists there looking for the next band. The people from Mars, Connie Burg or Mark Cunningham, were there. They were always jamming. And then one day Arto asks me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you just play drums?” And then I pick up the drums and that’s it. And Arto goes, “OK, you are the drummer of my band.” And I became a drummer. And then we put together a cheap set of drums and then three months later, we had a gig in Max’s Kansas City. That was the beginning.

FJO: You mentioned Lydia Lunch and James Chance and Mars. Did you all remain friends with each other or was there a sense of rivalry at some point?

IM: Not at all. I mean, Lydia and James were really nice in helping to get me this apartment actually. Not everybody had the same history and background in music. James Chance was already playing music in the jazz scene, but me and Lydia and Arto hadn’t really played in a band before. So we brought in different ideas, but these bands were pretty close. We’d been hanging, playing the same double bills together, and were associated as friends.

Ikue Mori as drawn by Jean-Michel Basquiat

FJO: It was a very tightly knit scene, and it was something that was known by a select group of people. But then I think the thing that made it become legendary was the fact that Brian Eno heard it and then recorded all of you and put out that record, No New York, which was a landmark. How did Eno find out about you?

IM: I’m not really sure what the beginning was, but we heard he was looking for some band to produce; but there were a lot of bands, not just us. In SoHo, there was Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. I don’t know why he picked these four groups—DNA, Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus.

FJO: What was it like working with Eno? Did he have much of an input in the studio?

IM: This was my first recording. I don’t really remember if we had a meeting or a discussion about music or anything. He’d come to the studio and just make little suggestions and tuning on the drums for me or just on the overall sound. But it wasn’t so much tight communication.

FJO: Now one of the things so many of these bands had in common was that most of them didn’t last very long. Within a three-year period, Lydia Lunch had formed and dissolved Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8-Eyed Spy, and 13.13. There were so many different groups that fell apart after maybe two or three months. You know, Glenn Branca and the Theoretical Girls lasted for a very short amount of time. But amazingly, DNA survived four years—that’s an eternity in terms of what these groups did.

IM: Sonic Youth has been together for more than 25 years.

FJO: True, they’re really the last surviving manifestation of that No Wave scene, and it’s unbelievable that they’ve kept going for so long. And it’s really atypical.

IM: It’s amazing, but four years with the same band is already a miracle, I know.

FJO: Yet even though you were together for that long a period of time, you never made a full studio recording. There are the four tracks that Brian Eno recorded for the No New York compilation and one EP, A Taste of DNA, and then some live things.

IM: Yeah. That’s it.

FJO: Was that because you thought of yourselves more as a live band?

IM: Definitely, I think it became more exciting live than in the studio. But towards the end, when the CBGB recording came out, it was already kind of past the peak.

FJO: What’s interesting is that once DNA broke up, the worlds that you floated in became very different. Suddenly you went from being part of this experimental rock scene to more sort of the Downtown improv scene, the fringes of jazz, the fringes of experimental music, new music— people like John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Anthony Coleman, Jim Staley. Some of these people had connections to the rock scene, but it was a very different crowd.

IM: Things kind of overlapped at that time. At the end of my DNA time, James Chance was already crossing over and playing with John Zorn in the experimental jazz scene. After DNA I was really searching for what to do next. I tried rock bands, people from that scene. But then I met John Zorn through Arto Lindsay, because Arto and John and David Moss were playing together. And then I met a lot of interesting, great musicians like Fred Frith and Tom Cora, and like you said, Wayne Horvitz, and a lot of different kinds of players. It was really a different way of relating from this attitude I started out from, playing in DNA. I could go more in depth and I was really searching my own vocabulary to play some kind of language. And then also I was changing instruments, cross-fading electronics with acoustic drums.

You know, it’s funny: DNA was often mistaken as improvising all the music, but there was actually really a set of music that we were practicing, and then it was always the same songs. We would jam first and create certain form of song from it, but once it was made as song, there was no improvisation. Everything was all set. In the end, DNA was becoming like music theater, even though we were playing rock music. It was more like ritual music than free jazz, I think: really short and really intense, and then that primitive drumming. And for three years we were playing the same set: 30 minutes, and every song was like one minute long. So when I was first asked to improvise, I really didn’t know what improvisation was and how it was different from jamming. But it was really fun to play the concepts live in front of an audience, to play something that I just made up. It was a different way of interacting with another musician.

FJO: Over the years, you have also gone back to more rock-oriented things. You eventually made an album with Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth.

IM: Much later, yeah.

FJO: But you did not completely leave that world.

IM: No, no. I still like playing clubs full of audience members, concerts with young people. I think I need both.

FJO: What led to giving up playing drums?

IM: A lot of reasons. Even when I was playing drums, I thought like a drum machine; the way I played was a lot like playing the programmed drum parts. And when I started programming drum machines, I noticed that I really loved programming rather than practicing. And with those drum machines I could recombine the beats and manipulate their sounds. I wasn’t really interested in playing a beat, the same beat continuously. The drum machine became more like a composition tool. It’s easier to think song structure than when playing drums. But at first I was playing half drum set, and one drum machine. Then it became two drum machines and less drum set, and then it kind of crossed over in the course of ten years. In the end, the drum machine became more like a synthesizer, like the way I would play three drum machines with big effects on them and a mixer, until I encountered the computer. Then I realized I could do everything in the computer and I changed to computer.

FJO: Before we talk about what you do with laptops, I wanted to talk some more about what you’ve done with drum machines. It’s fascinating to me that you were able to do so much with them. When drum machines started proliferating in the 1980s, those machines were very limited at first in terms of what they could do. The manufacturers of these machines created them for people to do various sorts of normal 4/4-type beats who maybe didn’t have a drummer to work with: press a few buttons and the machine is doing the drums, but very rudimentary. But I’m sure if the folks who made these things had heard what you were doing with them, they would have been surprised that their machines could do that.

IM: It sounded defective. [laughs]

FJO: It was also kind of like what Colin Nancarrow did with piano rolls, creating music that a human being could not do. You just described it as a compositional tool. Were there ideas in your head that were different from what you or anybody else could do physically in real time? Was the only way to get those ideas across through using machines?

IM: Well, in the beginning, all the drum machines, of course, were very limited. Later on you could program more. But then if you don’t think about drums, and just make a tune with all triangles or cymbals and treat it with processors and effects, they are not at all sounds like drum samples. I was more into sound than beats or rhythm. I just didn’t really like the continuous, same beat at that time. I wanted to make it sound broken.

FJO: So how would you get a “broken” sound on it?

IM: If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound. And then this naturally repeats in loops, but it could also get really kind of broken, just bits of pattern with two repeats. Even though now I’m playing a computer, it’s still really based on these kind of interwoven lines and patterns and combinations—layering them. That’s really still my basic playing idea.

FJO: You made a CD, Garden, which consists only of drum machines. In jazz there have been recordings that were just drums. Max Roach recorded unaccompanied drum solos. And Sunny Murray, whom Lester Bangs once compared to you, made an all-percussion record. And in rock, Ginger Baker did really extended drum solos. But before Garden, I don’t think anyone ever made a recording that was just drum machines. And what you did is extraordinary, because you’ve taken drum machines and taken them beyond the role of time-keeper to reveal an extraordinary array of not only rhythms, but also timbres and even melodies. And it’s you and nobody else. I’m curious about how that particular project happened.

IM: I really wanted to make compositions from drum machines that eliminated continuous beats. I made this one continuous beat with drum machine in a band recording, but that’s the only one I have—Painted Desert. That was really loops and then Marc Ribot and Bob Quine played over it. That was my first record with drum machines. And then one year later I made Garden, which sometimes eliminates continuous beats and is just melody and sound and sometimes layers of beat which make polyrhythms with three different beats going on.

FJO: Eventually you decided to stop using drum machines and just use computers for everything. And that’s been about ten years now.

IM: I started [doing that] in 2000.

FJO: It’s obviously way more portable to bring one laptop than it is to lug several drum machines.

IM: That’s really the main reason. I started realizing that what I was doing with all the equipment and cables that I was carrying, I could just program it on a computer. That was my liberation.

FJO: So, in a way, it’s been a progression towards more and more portability. First you had the drum kit, and then the drum machines which took up considerably less room. And finally, the laptop.

IM: Living in this city on the sixth floor with no elevator, you have to think about equipment. But also I’ve always liked to take small compact things and make something maximum out of it.

FJO: Since you’re working on a computer, how much of what you perform is worked out before a concert and how much is happening during the concert in real time?

IM: It’s half and half. I always have a preset of something to be a starting point. And then spontaneously, I react with people—I’ll change the set of sounds, so instantly I’ll have to prepare some sounds. And then the processing happens live. But I always use something that’s been prepared.

FJO: So, basically what exists in advance are the timbres.

IM: Yes. The diversity of the sound library I have. But in order to layer them, or for it to be just one strong sound, I have a set-up like a sampler so I can bring out different sounds with the key pad.

FJO: So where do the sounds in your library come from?

IM: In the beginning I wanted to play drum machines on the computer, so it’s a lot of sounds that I was using with drum machines. Then later on, I added sounds that were more processed: like processed, processed, processed sound—a third generation of sound—is now in the library. So I create from these sounds to make new sounds. Also by mixing sounds, like factory sounds or sampled string sounds, and layering them to make melodies.

FJO: So when you use your keypad to trigger specific sounds, are you triggering single sounds or a whole sequence of sounds.

Inside this laptop is Ikue’s entire musical and graphic universe

IM: I’ll show you. This is one of the patches I use, and this particular one I use with Zeena Parkins in our Phantom Orchard Project. We use visuals in this, so this screen [points to window with visual imagery on computer] goes out from the back [of the stage]. This project plays a lot of compositions, and I have to be right on, so there are a lot of presets— everything, including sounds and visuals. I have four players here, so there are four different sound layers I can make. There are about 40 sounds altogether that I create from, from beats to just sounds. And I can also change things with filters and reverb. So from all this, the different sounds and visuals come together.

FJO: How many different programs are you using to make this all happen simultaneously? I see you have Max/MSP open.

IM: For the music, this is all Max/MSP; the controller is Max/MSP and Jitter. And this is another effect. And I use GRM [plug-ins], and in that way I relate to physical musicians, but otherwise I’m not really physical at all. For the visuals, it’s a whole bunch of things made using FinalCut and then Flash to put together the animation.

FJO: So is the video component improvised in real time as well?

IM: Yes.

FJO: How long were you working with laptops before you began incorporating a video component into your music?

IM: I think I always wanted to work with visuals, but I started to develop this system three years after [I began performing on laptops] and somebody helped me to organize this system here so it would be easy to put together these separate programs. And then when Jitter came around, it gave me much more speed; the computer became faster and much more powerful and then I could really use visuals with the sounds.

FJO: And on your latest CD, Class Insecta, which was just released a couple of months ago, there’s one track with video animation. But seeing it made me wonder how much I’ve been missing as a listener on the earlier laptop recordings, not being able to experience the video component.

IM: Music can be music independently. It would only be missing when I’m playing live for an audience. When I play a live performance, I feel there’s something lacking if I’m only playing sound. Somehow we have a wall, so I started using visuals with it. CDs or recordings could be just music. But I do like to also make DVDs that could have a visual story as another element.

FJO: With laptop performers there frequently isn’t much to look at. You’re often just watching somebody occasionally making a few key strokes. The joke is that they set off a series of algorithms and then they’re just surfing the web.

IM: I’ve been playing in lots of live bands with “real” instruments and always somebody in the club says, “So what are you doing?” and I always say, “I’m checking e-mail.”

FJO: In all these different groups you are a part of, I wonder how much input you have. When someone brings you on board to play laptop in a group, do they necessarily know what they’re going to be getting? How free are you to do whatever you want? And if they have a specific idea in mind, what kind of guidelines do they give you?

IM: Basically I get to do my own thing, because you can’t really write a classically notated score for me. Sometimes there are graphic scores which specify very basic requests, like a really low sound at one point or a “monster coming” kind of sound. But most mainly just say when I should come in and out. So as long as the exact in and out [points] are set, I can do whatever I want, whatever I feel [during the performance].

FJO: So in something like Zorn’s Electric Masada, with which you just toured to Warsaw a couple of weeks ago, what kind of instructions would you be given in advance?

IM: Electric Masada is much looser. When you’re pointed at, you just have to play. But there’s a John Zorn’s score, Orphée, that has a lot of graphic things, showing high-pitched sound, sparkling sound, etc., when I come in and out and what instruments I’m playing with.

FJO: Still, there’s quite a bit of interpretive leeway in how you’d respond to such a score.

IM: The rest of the score is quite precise, except for me.

When you need someone to read a score like this, contact Ikue Mori

FJO: So you’ll interpret the score your own way. But as a result, could it ever come to a situation where he would say, “That’s not what I wrote”?

IM: No. But of course we talk about it and go through the sounds. And I’ll say, “How about this sound?” And he’ll say, “Maybe add something more.” So we do have to talk about it beforehand.

FJO: So given the kind of flexibility that others have working with you, how precise are you in keeping notated records of your own work? Is this even something that matters to you?

IM: For my pieces, my system is all numbers and I remember it all with these numbers. It’s only me that understands these. I don’t know how to explain it for anybody else to play using my system. But I use it to remember songs and structures.

FJO: In your ensemble pieces, like 100 Aspects of the Moon or the tracks on B-Side and Hex Kitchen, how much do you predetermine what others play?

IM: 100 Aspects of the Moon was the first time I wrote something for other instruments, and there are just very basic melody lines that I gave them. There are different kinds of things going on in there, like game play or structured improvisation, as well as scored things. I like to make up a score to give people, but it’s all mixed.

FJO: So individual players have a lot of freedom within that framework?

IM: Yeah. I have to have this place with improvisation in it for my pieces.

FJO: So if other people than the ones who recorded it were to play it, it could potentially sound like a completely different piece.

IM: It depends on the musicians, but I think so, especially in the improvisational parts. 100 Aspects of the Moon is very basic, but it’s more set things. But unfortunately it wasn’t something that we could play live so much; we only played it once.

FJO: You said that nobody else really understands the number notations you’ve made for yourself. Might you ever be interested in a situation where someone else would be playing a laptop in one of your pieces? Maybe you’d want to do something involving multiple laptops?

IM: Not right now. I would rather play with other instruments.

FJO: One group you’re involved with that I really love is Mephista. And part of what I find so interesting about it is that here you’ve put yourself in a situation where someone else is playing the drums—Susie Ibarra—which frees you up to do less rhythmic things, but given your rhythmic inclinations, it also frees her up to drum more melodically. And then with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano—her playing can be very rhythmic at times and at times can also be very atmospheric, like the things you do on the laptop. So in a way, you all share multiple roles here.

IM: Another drummer I like to play with is Joey Barron. A couple of times we’ve done a duo project. I can be a percussionist and I can also be a sound maker. But Mephista is a special band for improvisation. Piano and drums are great to play with.

FJO: Would it be fair to call the music that Mephista performs jazz?

IM: No. It doesn’t feel like jazz so much. With Phantom Orchard also, we’re not classical, we’re not rock or pop, and definitely not jazz. There’s really no place to put it. And Mephista also is not really jazz. Sylvie is more influenced by classical music and Susie is now really more into her own music, and then with me, my world is a very peculiar place, I think.

FJO: It’s been several years since the last recording; is Mephista still active as a group?

IM: Right now it’s very rare that we have a performance, but Sylvie and I have a lot of different projects together. We just did a tour in Japan with a Japanese vocalist, Makigami Koichi—we have this band, Agra Dharma. It was the band’s first tour there, and it was really great.

FJO: I wonder what it’s like for you to go back to Japan as a musician, which is something you did not explore until you came here. The scene is certainly totally different there now than when you left thirty years ago.

IM: My music developed here in America, so my connection is still much closer to America as a musician, but I still have a lot of friends in Japan and I like to play with musicians there. I’ve actually been going back to Japan twice a year. There are a lot of great improvising musicians. But the public is very small; it’s not like in Europe. It’s very hard to book a tour and find places to play. Every time I go back to Japan I get a big culture shock. And then I come back to New York and also get a big culture shock. I feel at home here, but some things are easier in Japan. I’m still Japanese, but I’m happy to be in America and live in New York.