03/01/06

Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City)

Going back to the early 1980s, experimental music provocateur and rebel Glenn Branca has been making a spectacle in the form of massed electric guitars. Of late, he has upped the ante to an almost surreal degree, scoring his Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for an aural sprawl of 100 guitarists (actually, 80 guitars and 20 electric bassists, with one lock-step grooving drummer to hold them together).

The piece had its world premiere, a bit eerily, in front of the World Trade Center in June 2001, a few months before that landmark ceased to exist. Fittingly, or not, the west coast premiere of the work took place in March in the still-new Walt Disney Concert Hall. The acoustically stunning venue was turned, for this occasion, into a throbbing resonant vessel for Branca's microtonal wall-of-guitar-sound.

Branca likes to cite such lofty symphonic influences as Bruckner and Mahler, but his vocabulary is something much more brutal and stripped-down than even the most basic of Minimalists. He loves thudding, anti-nuance rhythms and massive textures, out of which surprising overtones miraculously emerge. This side effect is especially noticeable when you’ve got so many electric guitars playing only vaguely in tune, and when they’re playing in a space as live and responsive as the Disney Hall (which has been praised as one of the finest orchestra halls in America and beyond).

We knew we weren’t on orchestral or standard symphonic turf from the outset, when the first sound, after conductor and longtime Branca ally John Myers commenced, was a buzzing chorus of 60 cycle hums from dozens of amplifiers onstage. What quickly emerged in the first movement, “March,” was a dense, fascinating and also cathartically enervating din (the other three movements in the 70-minute piece have telling, snarling titles: “Anthem,” “Drive” and “Vengeance”).

Truth be told, a kind of primal approximation of the symphonic experience did arise, but only as filtered through a rocker’s dream. Instead of a large but delicately varied large ensemble sound, a sonic wall shot up, built up from a famously unsubtle instrument. The thunderous sound masses couldn’t be produced in any other way. In front, Myers kept time and led the charges with a Neanderthal maestro’s regularity, while drummer Virgil Moorfield regulated rhythm from the rear, pounding out simplistic, tom-heavy drumbeats.

The volunteer army of instrumentalists, culled from word-of-mouth and Internet invitations, were basically required to be able to follow a score, measure by measure, and have their own guitar and amp (in the bass section, incidentally, was open-minded rocker Mike Watt, of Minutemen and firehose fame). Led and scored by Branca’s aide de camp (and girlfriend) Reg Bloor, the guitarists were split up into different sections, and instructed to play different registers and degrees of mad strumming, on instruments broken up into two pitches divided over six strings.

A peripheral aspect of Branca’s multi-guitar works—true to the democratic nature of the instrument—is the wide, wild variety of players, axes, and amps onstage for “Hallucination City.” All body types (guitaristically and anatomically), of both the solid and hollow-body type, and varied hair and fashion configurations were present here, including a cowboy hat and shades for good measure.

Branca, who used to conduct his guitar troops in a kind of mad dervish dance way (less effective than Myers’ necessarily crisp and robotic directions), is something of a mythic figure by now. His bands over the past quarter century have hosted the likes of the Sonic Youth guys—Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, whose avant-jangly guitar approach carries distinct Branca-esque echoes—and Rhys Chatham, who went on to do his own less-famous guitar experiments.

For Branca, who taps into ideas from experimental theater and performance art as well as music, the success of the gesture has much to do with the realm of ideas as musical realities. To present 100 guitarists in one of America’s finest orchestra spaces is audacious on more than one level. This is guitar fetishism pushed over the top, to the point it’s also something of an anti-electric guitar piece, or at least a commentary on the instrument’s penchant for brutality over standard musicality.

This concert was officially part of an adventurous series presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic called “Minimalist Jukebox,” although Branca fits only loosely in the Minimalist crowd, as a tangential outsider. He does rely on a willfully limited palette of tones and rhythms, but instead of the fussily precise arpeggio food processor style of, say, Philip Glass, Branca is happy to plot a raucous guitar caterwaul.

As with above ground, sanctioned forms of Minimalism, Branca plugs directly into pop culture, but instead of the culture of beats and triads, he’s working the darker energies of punk and noise rock--more subterranean musical byways. Not all new music fans, even the most open-minded ones, have been amused. John Cage did Branca’s bad boy reputation a backhanded favor by expressing how much he was disturbed by Branca’s “fascistic” music.

Fascism never sounded so disarmingly sensuous. Despite the timbral and tonal unruliness of the group, ghostly overtones rose up, vapor-like, and turned the piece into a site-specific sound sculpture. By the time the final movement, “Vengeance,” came along, many listeners were probably past their saturation point in terms of pummeling sonic masses. But Branca nodded again to symphonic mannerisms by bringing the volume down to a soft murmur only to raise holy hell yet again, with one last burst of thrashing volume in which even the previously relentless beat finally melted to anarchy, as if the bearings in the pulse had finally shaken loose. The piece ended, and we were released to the seemingly calmer and more rational world outside Branca’s fierce imagination.

To appreciate what “Hallucination City” is about, at its most basic level, one can only summon the cliché: You’ve gotta’ be there.

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