If the electric guitar hasn’t already killed symphonic music, it will, say, next week. Yet the symphony still has something that overeducated rockers have coveted off and on since about 1965: class. Thus Glenn Branca, who’s already overtaken Beethoven in the symphony-writing marathon, has abandoned the legions of massed guitars that gave his compositions a grandeur neither Mozart nor the Moody Blues could rival. His Symphony No. 9 (L’Eve Future) was scored for an actual orchestra, not the lower-Manhattan no-wave veterans who originally played his music.
Hauntingly performed by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra and the Camerata Silesia Singers Ensemble, No. 9 makes explicit the humanity that was always audible in the buzzing electric overtones of his previous symphonies. With its reliance on voices (though not on folk melodies) and its midtempo ethereality, the composition actually bears a resemblance to that left-field hit, Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. Branca may not have been thinking of a Polish orchestra when he wrote the piece, but it definitely has an Eastern feel—more Arvo Pärt than Sonic Youth.
The composer’s work has never lacked impact; the most intense of his recorded compositions, Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven), lives up to its title, and without enlisting actual choirs or (presumably) actual devils. (Branca’s music doesn’t even have to be loud, though that’s how it’s played live.) Taking advantage of the electric guitar’s bristling potency, Branca has avoided the traditional structures that provide symphonies a sense of forward motion, of counterpoint, even of narrative; at their most epic, his compositions merely offer a growing (and sometimes overwhelming) buzz.
Here Branca goes further, eliminating movements altogether. Symphony No. 8 (The Mystery) and Symphony No. 10 (The Mystery Pt. 2), released last year on Blast First/Atavistic, each have two movements, but No. 9 simply floats—not aimlessly, yet without a clear destination. Despite a traditional vocabulary of sounds, the 47-minute composition doesn’t do what lengthy orchestral pieces normally do. Neither circular nor static, it nonetheless has a sense of eternity.
Such minimalist exemplars as Terry Riley’s pioneering In C achieve this illusion through such devices as the constant pulse and gradual transition—the gambits that earned early minimalism the tag “slow music.” No. 9 is slow too, but also eventful. Unlike Branca’s guitar symphonies, it doesn’t feature a drummer, and its transitions, though never jarring, go every which way. The sound is liquid, but less tidal than molecular —a flurry of tiny activities whose cumulative effect is not hectic but rather eminently graceful.
As with minimalism, this is both hard- and easy-listening music. It’s peaceful enough to function as background music, yet sufficiently detailed to reward close attention. It also sounds impeccably modern. Branca’s all-guitar pieces frequently yielded overtones that suggested choirs and chimes; crank this one up, and it sometimes sounds like electric guitars.
The album concludes with the 12-minute “Freeform,” which makes ample use of the string-sawing drama that Branca carefully drained from No. 9; it could be the allegro movement that (wisely) was left out. Perhaps the most conventional piece the composer has ever recorded, it nonetheless incorporates some rock-inspired drone into its rather 19th-century bombast.
Certain preferences could be discerned, however, and those come even more clearly into focus on Industry, an album that features one piece each by Can founders Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, and two by Louis Andriessen, a Dutch composer who “has been an inspiration from the start,” according to Wolfe, Lang, and Gordon’s liner notes.
What these composers share is unorthodoxy—theirs is not academic 20th-century music, nor the minimalism that successfully challenged it—yet there are stylistic links. They avoid minimalism’s implacable pulse, but share its interest in discernible beats and embrace a common rhythmic ancestor, the Balinese gamelan. (Andriessen’s study of medieval and non-Western canon forms also parallels Steve Reich’s.) They don’t write songs, but admit to being influenced by rock’s power and electricity. (The majority of the selections on this album incorporate electric guitar.) The pieces are generally unbridled in a manner that owes more to free jazz than to skittering, seemingly disconnected 12-tone music, but seldom involves improvisation. “Refining rebellion with discipline is an important idea for our time,” write Wolfe, Lang, and Gordon.
These five pieces are mostly played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a group that employs sax, guitar, keyboards, cello, bass, and percussion—and that does indeed refine rebellion with discipline. Despite their virtuosity and the vehemence of the founders’ endorsement of Andriessen, however, the album’s most effective pieces are the ones that are less than totalistic.
Lang’s “The Anvil Chorus,” for example, features just one All-Star, percussionist Steven Schick, playing brake drums, steel pipes, and “resonant and non-resonant junk instruments.” Lang says the piece has a “narrative” about blacksmithing in the Middle Ages, when smithing was “the loudest sound in the world,” but contemporary listeners are more likely to hear the timbres of industrial rock underscored by the chiming percussion of Bali.
Gordon’s “Industry” was also written for one group member, cellist Maya Beiser. An electric elegy, it achieves a harshly mournful tone by overloading the cello’s plaintive tone with heavy amplifier distortion. The most Branca-like piece here, it gives almost-minimalism the passion and power of romanticism.
Scored for two parallel septets, Andriessen’s “Hoketus” is the disc’s totalistic success—and yet it too owes something to minimalism. The canon-inspired composition has strong similarities to a Reich phase piece, and at one point strips itself down to a stark, almost static phrase; it doesn’t exactly follow the customary minimalist construction, but it does build from midtempo severity to an almost rollicking close. Tautly circular, “Hoketus” suggests that Bang on Can’s openness has brought contemporary music more in the way of new spirit than new strategies.