“Where are the fucking kazoos?” Glenn Branca asked.
“Can everyone show me their wind chimes?
“I’m gonna need more fucking glasses!
“If anybody sees a hamburger, get me a fucking hamburger!”
Mr. Branca was digging through his backpack Sunday evening, pulling out sheaves of musical scores and searching for the misplaced kazoos. The sounds of big-band jazz wafted in from across the hall. A dozen musicians waited patiently, tuning and detuning their instruments in the fluorescent-lit practice space at Carroll Studios at the end of West 55th Street. They were all there to rehearse for the upcoming world premiere of Mr. Branca’s latest symphony, his 15th, titled Music for Strange Orchestra, at Le Poisson Rouge, Nov. 20 and 21.
The room was packed with a dizzying array of instruments–guitar, bass, sitar, saxophone, shruti boxes, long-string guitar, harmonic guitar, cowbell, flute, zither, vibraphone, gong, concert bass drum, sarangi, panpipes. It was as if a rock band’s gear started breeding, and somewhere along the way a few Asian and Middle Eastern instruments joined the orgy. Yet amid the chaos, Mr. Branca imposed his own brawny, foul-mouthed order. Since his first band, Theoretical Girls, through three decades of music, he has been strikingly consistent despite an aesthetic that favors extreme volume and never-ending builds. The gentle modern composer John Cage once said of Mr. Branca’s cacophonies, “If it was something political, it would resemble fascism.”
If so, it is a rather rumpled fascism. Squat but broad-shouldered, wearing an oversize black blazer, loose black jeans and a black shirt buttoned to the neck, its collar turned at odd angles, Mr. Branca was every bit as scruffy but focused as his music. He is not a bully, but you get the idea that he could charge and tackle you if provoked by, say, playing too loud, too soft or anything apart from just right. After a particularly vulgar ejaculation on the subject of a Paris Review interviewer, he turned to The Observer and said, “I’m not a total bastard, you know!” Everyone chuckled.
Mr. Branca made sure each player had his or her cache of instruments and that there were no conflicts. Several were given glasses from an odd assortment of snifters and wine goblets, to be used as glass harmonicas. They kept tipping over. Each person also got a plastic bag (“You should probably write your name on the bag!”) to hold all the flutes and pipes and chimes and bells and triangles.
“With the orchestral bells, Glenn is giving in to the Leonard Bernstein fantasy,” one of the musicians said.
MR. BRANCA TREATS rehearsals like workshops. “Continuity is absolutely crucial. These people understand what I want without me having to say it. I don’t like to perform. What I like to do is one thing and one thing only: sit behind my desk, in my own home, with my computer in front of me, and write music.”
When he speaks about his creative process, his crankiness melts away. Outside the space, during a break, Mr. Branca smoked (he rolls his own cigarettes, storing them in a crumpled Camel soft pack he keeps in his shirt pocket) and chatted about the evolution of the piece. It will be the second premiere for Mr. Branca this year; his The Ascension: The Sequel debuted in February.
“This is a piece that I’ve wanted to do for like 25 years, so I did have a lot of notes. In fact, this is kind of a look back at, uh, my beginnings. I didn’t want to say that. It’s a fucking cliché, but it is true because I love acoustic instruments. I love sound. I love timbre. That’s really interesting to me, but it’s rare I get to do it because I’m working either with my ensemble or the 100 guitars, or for an orchestra, which has a specific set type of instrumentation. I’m using everything I know. It’s what I do every day, what I think about, for 35 years, so I’m kind of putting everything and the kitchen sink in the fucking piece.”
Hence Music for Strange Orchestra finds Mr. Branca covering somewhat new territory, with new instruments and dynamics. Back in the rehearsal space, a musician held aloft a silver gong she’d been dealt that looked like a hubcap or a pot lid. “What do I hit this with?” she asked. “I have no idea. …” Mr. Branca replied. This night, the group was rehearsing the first of the piece’s seven movements, and its most diversely orchestrated, with each player logging seven or even eight instruments to play apiece. “Boy, this is gonna be fucking weird,” Mr. Branca addressed the ensemble.
“The harmonic series uses the six harmonics,” he told The Observer. “I’m basing this piece on the first 5,000. The first movement is called ‘Changing Fields.’ I’ve been writing fields of sound since the beginning, whatever the instrumentation. I’ve put together a very disparate group of instruments that normally would not be played together. A lot of the piece is soft; it’s not what people are used to hearing from me.”
Mr. Branca recently restarted his record label, Systems Neutralizers. “I did it as a kind of political thing,” he explained. “There are a couple of labels I work with that are very good labels, but I don’t sell a lot of records, so I can’t live off those royalties. So now I get like 90 percent of the money, instead of 12 percent. And I need that income. I’ve got a wife, and an extremely expensive, crummy studio apartment in Manhattan, costs way too much money, but this is my home, where I’ve lived for well over half of my life.”
Yet Mr. Branca’s home hasn’t been all that friendly to him in recent years. “If you’re local, they’re not interested. Ninety percent of my commissions and work is done outside of New York. I don’t get it! I just don’t fucking get it! It’s not like I’m some kid. I’ve been on the New York scene since 1977.
“I shouldn’t complain. I have had commissions from the Brooklyn Academy and other organizations in New York, and I’ve gotten grants from other organizations in New York and New York State, so I’m appreciative of that, but it does seem strange not to be able to do my work in the place where I live, and not only that, the arts center of the entire fucking world. And if my music isn’t art music, I don’t know whose music is!”