Monday, October 15, 2007

Glenn Branca: Like a spaceship taking off - the sound of 100 guitars

An electro-guitar symphony orchestra will play Glenn Branca's Hallucination City at the Roundhouse as part of the Frieze Art Fair. Mark Hudson meets the composer

Watch video of Glenn Branca's Hallucination City

As I enter the Roundhouse in Camden, there's an immense jangling vibration, as though the building is shaking from within. And as the doors open, I'm blown back by the sound of electric guitars.

Not two, as in your average band. Not three, five or 20. But 100, playing at subtly different intervals, their springs tuned to a febrile piano-wire tingling, in one vast reverberating round. It sounds as if some huge spaceship is permanently taking off.

And far from improvising or "freaking out", the players are all leaning eagerly forward, reading from sheet music at the direction of a conductor.

They are a kind of electric-guitar symphony orchestra, assembled for the first British performance of Hallucination City by the American composer Glenn Branca – an ensemble which is, as Branca observes, "10 times as loud as any orchestra you've ever heard in your life".

After a period when it appeared that real instruments might die out under the onslaught of electronic dance music, sales of guitars are higher than ever before.

"The guitar has become the instrument of our time," says Branca, who has been writing for it for nearly 30 years.

"We've got all these fantastic musicians, but unless they want to play pop there isn't really anywhere for them to go. And that has become part of the point of this piece."

An amiable 59-year-old, reminiscent of a growly, dishevelled Mickey Rourke, Branca is the product of New York's uniquely rich avant-garde scene, where the wildest fringes of punk and noise rock interact with the most abstract and demanding classical music – where you can draw a line between, say, the Ramones and John Cage, in a way you certainly can't with the Sex Pistols and Michael Tippett.

With Hallucination City, Branca wanted to see if he could achieve the subtlety and complexity of his orchestral music with the electric guitar. "If the electric guitar is played loud – which is the way it should be played, in my opinion – it sounds [getting correct words]. But when you hear them on this scale and in these numbers, you feel the potential for real depth and transparency."

A soldier's son from Pennsylvania, Branca developed an early enthusiasm for art that "f***s with people's perceptions".

After playing guitar in a Rolling Stones covers band, he composed music for his own theatre group in Boston – the very '70s-sounding Bastard Theater – before moving to New York in 1976, where he was hijacked by punk. His band, the Theoretical Girls, formed with other composers, had a big influence on bands such as Sonic Youth, though they only released one single.

Despite having little formal musical education, he went on to write for various permutations of orchestra and rock band, culminating in Hallucination City, his 13th symphony, which premièred at the World Trade Centre in June 2001 and has since been performed all over Europe and North America.

The fact that this performance is part of the Frieze Art Fair feels significant. The piece's overwhelming physicality feels as much sculptural as musical, and mass participatory works have become a feature of the contemporary art scene.

The musicians at the Roundhouse are all unpaid volunteers, selected from the 500 people who answered a newspaper advertisement. All had to be able to read music, follow a conductor and a score that involves scope for improvisation and considerable rhythmic complexity. "About half drop out the moment they see the score," claims Branca.

The fact that the musicians seem a good decade younger than their counterparts in a recent US performance perhaps reflects Branca's high standing in alternative rock world. I wonder if he wouldn't have liked the kudos, not to mention the money, that would have come with a more mainstream career.

"Are you f***ing kidding? Of course! But I've never had any interest in mainstream culture."

So if he's not rock, does he see himself as part of an essentially classical tradition? "Absolutely! I feel very close to Bruckner and Mahler – and even to Wagner. Composers at that time were constantly trying to increase the size of the orchestra to make it louder. That's what I'm doing. Hallucination City is symphonic music for people who've grown up with rock."

Hallucination City will be played at the Roundhouse, London NW1, tomorrow. Details:



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