Glenn Branca, 69, experimental composer

Glenn Branca, at far left, at the base of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 2001, conducting his “Symphony #13 (Hallucination City)” for 100 guitars. Photos by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER | Glenn Branca moved to New York in 1976, where he began a career in musical composition and guitar noise that has left an indelible mark on the avant-garde scene. On Sun., May 13, he left, succumbing to throat cancer at age 69.

Branca made an impression from the beginning, with his first band, Theoretical Girls. Part of the noisy and deliberately noncommercial Downtown “No Wave” scene, the band only released one single but made their mark. Musician / actor John Lurie tweeted that seeing the band perform was a major event for him.

“Glenn Branca, playing with Theoretical Girls, was the best band in the program,” he said. “It changed my life.”

Branca moved away from punk song structure to experiment with the possibilities of the electric guitar, composing longer pieces that used alternate tunings, dissonance, feedback and overtones to create one of David Bowie’s favorite albums, “The Ascension.”

Lee Ranaldo, not yet a member of Sonic Youth, played in that ensemble.

“The beginning of my time in New York — 1979 to 1980 — would have been nothing without the genius work that Glenn Branca was doing at that time,” Ranaldo posted on his Instagram page. “The most radical, intelligent response to punk and the avant garde I’d ever seen.”

Another founding member of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore, also played with Branca. He, too, wrote on Instagram about how Branca deeply affected him and his fellow musicians.

“The man’s creative light and spiritual aesthetic he’d continually express in his work was, in all truth, a defining inspiration for all of us,” Moore said.

Bob Krasner’s full photo of Glenn Branca, at far left, conducting his “Symphony #13 (Hallucination City)” for 100 guitars, at the World Trade Center in 2001.

Branca moved on to creating symphonies, but certainly not in any traditional sense. Utilizing extremely loud electric guitars as well as homemade instruments, he produced soundscapes that were not always admired by critics and even put him at odds with the great iconoclast composer John Cage, who referred to Branca’s music as “fascism.”

If you look for written descriptions of his work, you will find terms such as dense, chaotic, cacophonous, merciless and claustrophobic. But these were also the virtues of his music, and his original and ambitious works gained him a following around the world, giving him the opportunity to write for soundtracks and ballet, as well as traditional orchestras.

Recently his work was performed more frequently overseas than in the U.S. A longtime West Village resident, Branca was perplexed with the lack of opportunity at home, but continued to produce a fascinating variety of work. According to his Web site, his last major completed pieces were “Symphony #16 (Orgasm),” in five movements for 100 guitars and drums; “Dark Harmony,” for four cellos and drums; and “The Light (For David),” for four guitars and drums.

Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and started playing guitar in his teens. Before coming to New York, he spent time in Boston and London and was initially interested in music for experimental theater.

Guitarist / composer Pat Irwin, founding member of 8-Eyed Spy and the Raybeats, an 18-year veteran of the B-52’s and leader of the PI Power Trio, summed up the composer’s impact and influence.

“Glenn Branca’s music was beautiful, powerful, ugly and monumental,” he told The Villager. “I’d never heard such a sound since or before. The music impacted me in ways that are still with me today. He was one of a kind.”

Branca is survived by his wife, the composer / musician Reg Bloor.

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