View from the East: Enough Nostalgia?

Greg Sandow
Greg Sandow
Photo by Melissa Richard

It was such a New York night.

There we were, “we” being an audience of several hundred, in the shadow, the valley, or, better, the notch between the two twin thrusts of the World Trade Center towers. And from the stage in front of us roared the music of Glenn Branca, which I hadn’t heard live for many years. This was the premiere of his Symphony No. 13, Hallucination City, for, the program said, 100 electric guitars, though in fact I counted not many more than 70 instruments, and some of them, it turned out, were basses.

But these are trivial details, especially the precise number of instruments, unless, maybe, we’re obsessed about the sheer size of the sound. I know I’m not the only one who thought the music wasn’t loud enough, but I didn’t care. The sound had real substance, almost literally — it seemed alive, a pulsing physical presence that gave shape and weight to the air. Branca doesn’t use his army of guitars as melody instruments. (Though, as a quiet aside, I’d love to hear how that would sound if someone else did it, maybe like Ornette Coleman‘s Free Jazz written large, or like the wild collaboration Coleman did with Pat Metheny, multiplied a thousand times, with screaming guitar lines scrawled like graffiti on the twin towers’ walls, right up to the 110th floor.) Instead, Branca arrays his guitars and basses almost as an army, producing either long notes or pulsations, which are layered to become a single substance. The music in this substance is sometimes dissonant, sometimes converges on a single note, almost always shines with clustered, high overtones, and falls into place around gigantic — and, in this case (at least to my ear) — cheerful rock & roll drums.

It’s a truly urban sound. It’s also cosmic, if you want to hear it that way, and would be overwhelming, I’d imagine, in non-urban settings like the mountains, the plains at night under lofty stars, or (let’s do it!) in the Grand Canyon. But it’s inconceivable — in its origins — apart from New York City, though maybe I hear it that way because I know that it was born here, and because I heard it here when it was new, way back in the early ’80s. Certainly it fits here, though of course Branca’s career has taken him away from New York, especially to Europe, and in fact Hallucination City was commissioned for a millennium celebration in Paris, but unfortunately it was never performed, a special misfortune because it was supposed to be played by 2000 guitars; can we put that in the Grand Canyon? Massed guitars, though, mesh easily with the scream of subways going round a curve, with the background traffic roar we hear here day and night, and, in ways harder to define, with the spirit of New York, with noise and people everywhere.

Though here, parenthetically, is another point of view: Music has been getting more urban ever since the Industrial Revolution, when, to pick a tasty benchmark, Beethoven added trombones and a piccolo to the last movement of his Fifth Symphony. That jumps out at you if you listen to his symphonies in chronological order. Further additions to the orchestra during the 19th and early 20th centuries — along with the greater discipline orchestral music needed, both because orchestras were larger and because the music had gotten more complex — made things more industrial. The reign of dissonance in the 20th century took things to a higher level; just imagine Schoenberg or Varese evoking, in their music, the innocent joy of nature. Webern did try to do that, though with such intense, extreme, and private spirituality that his innocence is anything but simple. One way to read him would be as a premonition that nature would soon enough be threatened, as it seems to be now. In our time, we can reclaim tonality as something high and spiritual that transcends dissonance, and we can reclaim dissonance as something high and spiritual that transcends the urban clanking — factories and railroads — that helped to make it central to our music. Branca’s pieces do that; but they can’t completely lose their origins.

Some people heard structure in Hallucination City, and if I were the most upright and responsible of critics, I could tell you how Branca’s music might have changed — developed, toughened, gotten tighter — since I heard his First Symphony so many years ago (and the Third, in a notable performance at BAM). But I simply gave myself to the surge of sound, and let myself be carried off. I felt, in some way, that I was home.

Why was that? I could explain it as nostalgia: I was just beginning as a critic — I was a Village Voice columnist — when Branca first did this stuff. I could tease my nostalgia, by calling it self-serving. I think I was the first (or at least the first in an above-ground venue) to write about Branca; I championed him, as I remember, to the point, perhaps, that praising him became my trademark. Though really I was excited (liberated?) by the marriage of rock and classical music in both Glenn’s work, and Rhys Chatham‘s, then in other people’s. (Rhys was, so very many years ago, the first music director of The Kitchen. Now he’s in Paris; when last I spoke to him, he was playing the trumpet, and writing dance music. I could picture him, in an alternate universe revisiting his New York history by joining Branca as one of his 2000 guitarists.) Later I became a rock critic, and an ache for rock lives inside me, now that I’m back on the classical side. I wrote a provocation called “Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.” A lecture I gave at Juilliard under that name became a graduate course I’ve taught there for the past four years, “Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” I talk passionately about rock (rock critics being the excuse) in my other Juilliard course on music criticism. Glenn Branca brings it all together for me, and on yet another ground you can call this nostalgia: Some of the “rock” that gets me going isn’t around much any more. (Retro me: I’m listening now to Radiohead and Lucinda Williams, but the rock I taught this past year at Juilliard was Springsteen, Van Morrison, and Janis Joplin.)

Certainly there were people at the Branca evening who thought it was nostalgia. “Takes me right back,” or words to that effect, were a frequent comment, at least from those who’d been around long enough. I noticed Eric Bogosian in the audience, and that took me back; he’d been coming up as a performance artist when Branca first appeared, and was part of the same scene. And though I didn’t know it, the drummer — who by himself, I would have thought, could have generated enough energy to power all Manhattan — was Wharton Tiers, whose own music is in Branca’s debt, and who has produced albums for Sonic Youth, a band that emerged from Branca’s ’80s downtown world, and which Branca influenced. I remember Kim Gordon, later Sonic Youth’s bassist but then in the art world, showing me an essay on Branca that she’d written titled “Hero Worship.”

But enough nostalgia. I found the music completely convincing now, taken on its own terms, whatever those might be. I didn’t try to excavate its structure; as I said, I just sank inside it, swept from one moment to the next as can only happen, or so I’ve come to think, when music is superbly structured.

And as for its meaning, one thing sadly struck me. We’re in an age, we boast, where all musical styles are possible, and when none of us — in our “classical,” “new music” world (terms in quotes because nobody really knows what they mean) — is penalized for writing what we want.

(Well, OK — there’s one penalty, but it’s a natural one, and important to emphasize. If you write inaccessible music, defined as music that very few people will like, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be free to do it, but also no reason why you should be surprised if you don’t get much attention or support. Of course, you’re free to go to funders and other artists, asking for support because you’re doing something new and crucial. But you shouldn’t — and I’m aiming this directly at the modernists of the past generation — cultivate any sense of entitlement, any demand to be supported, even after your style has made its long-ago revolutionary impact, simply because you aren’t popular. Of course, anyone who makes demands like that thinks his or her music is both good and important, but in my experience, the lack of popularity becomes a special badge of honor, the assumption being that music many people like is therefore bad. Tell that to Haydn — or, rather, for extra credit, write an essay explaining what has changed between Haydn’s time and ours, why music that’s popular could be good then but can’t be now, and what the social consequences of that are.)

But our freedom comes at a price, as I know I’ve said before — we have no anchor. If you’re creating pop music, you also have a wide choice of styles, but each of them comes with its own audience, often its own pop charts and record labels, in short its own support system, its own social life, its own world. You know who you’re talking to, and it’s very likely people who are much like yourself.

In our amorphous world, there might be examples of that –Bang On A Can, for instance. If you write in their mÈlange of styles, you enlist an audience much more informal (to pick just one of many words that might apply) than what you’d find at Carnegie Hall. But the mainstream concert audience is, as it hears new work, completely amorphous. It’s in large part not even oriented toward new work (though I think it’s not nearly as hostile as we often think it is). For that matter, it’s not oriented in any special way toward older music, either. Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Rachmaninoff — it all comes dancing by, undifferentiated, with nobody expressing much preference for one style over another. (Except, maybe, for the subsets of the audience, some of them small, that prefer opera, or early music, or chamber music, or even new music.)

So it can hardly be surprising that new music seems undifferentiated, too. Carter, Corigliano, Joan Tower, Michael Daugherty, Steve Reich…pile on any names you want (including your own, if you’re in that world, or want to be), but it all seems to come at the concert audience from the same place. Sure, some of them will think Carter’s work is dissonant and ugly, and Reich’s far too repetitious; maybe some will think Daugherty is cheap; but as far as they’re concerned, it’s all new music, presented to them equally, with no acknowledgement (or very little) that it might come from different places, speak to different people, and carry different messages.

Carnegie Hall, a couple of years ago, could name Pierre Boulez to its composers’ chair, succeeding the far more conventional Ellen Taaffe Zwillich, without one word to say, “We’re doing something different now.” (If they took any stand at all, it was — ironically implicit in their understandable bragging at their prestigious catch — that Boulez was far more famous.) But more telling, I think, was the situation at Great Day in New York, the series everybody loved so much, and not without reason, at Merkin and Alice Tully halls this past winter. The whole point was stylistic diversity, and, sure enough, the styles and manners flew by — the composed-within-an-inch-of-its-life, every-”i”-dotted-not-just-once-but-twice music of Tobias Picker, the old-style, post-serial modernism of Ezra Laderman and Barbara Kolb, Ned Rorem’s classic ’50s songs (which sound better than ever), Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Bang On A Can, Meredith Monk, electric (in the literal sense) music by Scott Johnson with R&B rhythms, John Zorn and Charles Wuorinen (as friendly as long-lost brothers, reunited at last), music by David del Tredici that showed up months later far from the concert hall, in an East Village performance piece by John Kelly…it was a fabulous, liberating zoo, but also formless.

And in the midst of that, or rather not in the midst of it, were roads not widely taken. I’ve touched on this in print before, in a Wall Street Journal piece on Cage and Stockhausen (as performed at Carnegie Recital Hall — their transfiguring “When Morty Met John…” retrospective — and the Miller Theater). Both composers, it struck me, had gone down paths which, if not forgotten, surely hadn’t resonated widely in our present, multi-stylish world.

Take Cage’s silence. Literally, his entire-work silence of 4’33″, the infinitely famous piece, one of the most prominent landmarks of 20th century art, where the performer makes no sound. Many, many years before, Beethoven added trombones and piccolo to his orchestra, and the innovation lasted. In our more recent history, Cage opened the possibility of long, long silences, but that didn’t last. I don’t see composers writing those, though the structural possibilities alone could be fascinating. (Silences instead of transitions. Silence as a climax. Silence substituting for development, replacing i’s that could be dotted, or t’s that could be crossed.) I understand that silence is a little more unusual, more declarative, a bigger break with standard practice than a piccolo — it encourages you to listen differently, to have a different experience, one that I think is a lot less passive. It throws you on your own resources. Nor am I mandating silence, insisting that this is something composers have to do. I just think it’s notable that hardly anybody does it. Cage influenced all of us in many ways (and, miraculously, often not by inspiring anyone to do exactly what he did; in Japan, for instance, his example encouraged composers to revisit traditional Japanese styles and instruments). I just find it odd — and a little sad — that this technique, this stylistic resource that he introduced has gotten just a little lost.

And the same could be said of Glenn Branca’s work, which was the thought his concert left me with. I shouldn’t forget to add one sweet, romantic note. Glenn — cigarette dangling from his mouth, stubble on his cheeks — projects himself, intentionally or not, as a deep romantic figure. And at least on this occasion, he evolved a conducting style to match, or rather a division of conducting jobs. Somebody else, unmistakably cueing the guitarists with the neck of his own guitar, undertook the purely musical leadership. Glenn, meanwhile — urging, entreating, pulling on the air as if he could bend it to his will — conducted what the music meant, often enough dropping out as if spent, at least for the moment, letting the sound find its own way. Makes sense, when you think of it (and something like it happens often enough in conventional orchestras, if the conductor has ideas but not enough technique, making the concertmaster, by default, the one who gives some of the important cues).

But Glenn’s style seems a little lost in today’s world, despite its obvious power, testified to by the ovation his music got that night, and also by the reaction of at least one person new to it, who loved it, even though she’d come to it from very different musical worlds. His influence on some strains of alternative rock is clear enough. And so, come to think of it, is his link to a notable explosion in now-distant rock history, Phil Spector‘s “Wall of Sound.”

But I don’t hear classical composers incorporating even echoes of what Glenn’s been doing for the past 20 years. Not, again, that anybody has to. But it’s odd that hardly anybody does. We live and work, those of us in new music, in a fragmented musical world, and maybe we’ve lost touch with some of our resources.