Glenn Branca | “Night of 100 Guitars”

prof_branca_sm.jpgIdiosyncratically pushing his boundaries in a never-ending exploration of his own twisted cosmos, he remains a hard man to pin down.








Who is Glenn Branca? A symphonist? A mimimalist? An avante-garde classical composer? A punker? People have levied labels at him for decades, desperately trying to describe the man behind the droning with succinct quips, and for just as long he’s managed to defy them. He’s compiled a staggering body of work that’s both unique and challenging in his 40-plus years making music. Idiosyncratically pushing his boundaries in a never-ending exploration of his own twisted cosmos, he remains a hard man to pin down, but one thing can be said of him: He’s a man on a mission, his own.

prev_branca.jpgBranca’s bringing that mission to St. Louis later this month (November 13) when he and The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) team up for a night of truly epic proportions. Billed as "The Night of 100 Guitars," Branca’s "Symphony #13" will live up to its name, being performed by mostly area guitarists drawn to the chance to work with the prolific composer, and share the stage with one of the premiere orchestras in the world (at their first performance at The Pageant).

In 2001, "Symphony #13" was premiered at the base of the World Trade Center. Since then, the piece has toured sporadically around the world, performing in Los Angeles, Belgium, Dublin, Rome, Seattle and London. On its way around the world, it’s picked up some alterations and, most recently, a completely rewritten movement. This will be the first of two Branca works performed November 13. After droves of guitarists finish double-strumming the epic "#13," the SLSO, lead by David Robertson, will debut Branca’s newest effort, logically titled "Symphony #14." In a recent correspondence with Branca, I asked him what he thought about "#14’s" debut. He excitedly replied, "I’m thrilled beyond belief. The SLSO is the best orchestra that’s ever played any of my orchestral music. Not to mention Robertson himself, who’s one of the best conductors in the world today."

Branca beams praise toward Robertson, who’s incrementally introduced some less traditional pieces since becoming SLSO’s music director in 2003. By breaking with tradition, Robertson has quietly nudged St. Louis’s traditionally conservative orchestral appetite toward newer territory, a trend typified by this Branca performance. Although Branca’s ecstatic that his work is getting attention, he’s less than optimistic that it represents a shift in the status quo. When discussing this topic, he pointed me to his blog on The New York Times (aptly named, "The Score"). There he writes, "New pieces of music will often not get good performances. This can be very frustrating to a composer who has spent months or even a year working every day writing a piece. Most conductors are simply not going to commit as much time or energy to a new piece as they would to a piece that’s been proven over years of careful performances." This is where Robertson stepped in, who actually sought Branca out for this performance.

Of the unique aspects surrounding the November 13 performance, the most striking, and perhaps the most obvious, is Branca’s enlistment of 100 guitarists, who will somehow manage to cram onstage at The Pageant. When I asked if it was difficult to find 100 music-reading guitarists able to commit to a Wednesday night performance, Branca enthusiastically replied, "The piece has always been a very successful and satisfying experience. I think that something like this would not have been possible 20 years ago but the world has changed." Part of that change he mentions is the internet, which Branca’s used almost exclusively to fill his ranks. (He’s still looking for musicians (both bassists and guitarists). Simply email Branca at or visit his site ( for more information.)

Branca’s work is often marked with challenging, even difficult passages, in which the listener is bombarded with caustic sounds, peppered by sporadic percussion and, of course, assaulted by cataclysmic volume. His work often transcends "music" and borders on endurance art. This facet of his work lies at the core of who Branca is: a man who makes his own rules, and composes for his own ears. Although the material may be difficult for a first-time listener, the payoff is immense. Branca offers some advice: "You have to forget about your expectations and listen to the music for what it is." He goes on to explain, "More people will like bubblegum music than something difficult or new. This will always be true… The satisfaction derived from a powerful and intelligent piece of music is worth whatever it takes to hear it. We’re all very complex beings and some of us need something that talks to that part of us that is usually ignored by popular culture."

He concludes, "We need to know that we’re not alone." I can imagine a plethora of adjectives that might describe Mr. Branca’s disposition on November 13 while he’s surrounded by 100 guitarists and the best symphony in the world, but somehow I doubt "alone" will be one of them. | Glen Elkins

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