At the New Music America Festival in 1982, John Cage attended a performance of Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activities of Resultant Masses. He was deeply troubled by what he heard, leading him to famously liken Branca to a fascist. As a matter of course, if an artist is able to provoke extreme disgust -- and particularly if the disgusted party happens to be the exalted father of American avant-garde music -- that artist probably has something going for him. Branca’s symphonies are still met with derision from certain quarters of the crusty classical coterie, but thanks in part to his association with the No Wave movement and Sonic Youth, his place in punk’s history books (they have those now!) is cemented.
The Ascension was written directly before Resultant Masses, when Branca was still playing rock clubs and working up the nerve to call himself a composer. Released on what’s widely considered to be the coolest record label of all time, 99 Records, The Ascension achieves a level of sophistication that even the most ambitious New York noise punks had only hinted at. Crossing the seemingly insurmountable divide between punk and classical, The Ascension stands apart from both traditions as simply essential 20th-century music.
Instead of offering my own account of an esoteric scene that died before I was born, I’ll defer to the recent throng of coffee table No Wave books (and at $29.99, you can’t call this cheap nihilism). The primary sources are probably more deserving of your time and money, though: Metal Machine Music, The Ramones, Brian Eno, No New York, minimalism, theater of cruelty, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Branca’s own Theoretical Girls, and of course John Cale and The Velvet Underground. Branca’s piece managed to invoke the Lower East Side’s noisy cultural legacy while predicting the future of indie guitar rock.
Critic/martyr Lester Bangs once argued that the alien screeching of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was really just urban ambient music, “great in Midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.” That holds for the more extreme side of No Wave in general: It’s music to prove a point to, good for advancing passive violence on those around you, maybe attractive to Catholics with self-laceration complexes, but by design a moral and aesthetic dead end. Take The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” which after 15 minutes of hard fought perseverance finally succumbs to its insidious disease and degenerates into unadulterated white noise. The Ascension works the opposite way; it takes white noise and harnesses it to create something highly organized and possibly even life-affirming.
Branca begins “Lesson No. 2” with an agit-bass riff before his guitar army joins in, adding grinding and whirring feedback to his insistent pulse. It sounds like the rehearsal of a particularly tight and imaginative No Wave band. The tune runs its course and then derails; Branca’s shout-out and kiss-off to the scene that fostered his artistic development. It ends in crashes of cacophonous guitar executed with chilly precision on top of a steady drumbeat.
With a name borrowed from Situationist theory, “The Spectacular Commodity” initially continues the mood of cynicism and foreboding, a sonic depiction of industrialization’s corroding effect on the landscape and the human spirit. A monstrous chord rings out seven times in slow succession like the toll of church bells -- strident metallic chimes. Three guitars, each playing on a different octave, are accompanied by bass and drums as they work their way through a series of tempo changes, rave-ups, and blowouts. The musically untrained among us won’t understand everything that’s going on, and it makes no difference. It’s immediately discernible that, despite all the dissonance, each note played has its place in this 12-minute leviathan. At roughly 8:50, high, open-sounding chords begin to float above the grit, while the other two guitars drop in to perform exultant accompaniment. Climactic doesn’t begin to describe it. This could make the perfect soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis or a triumphant battle tune for that fated day when humans will have to take up arms against the machines. Guitarists of the world, unite!
“Structure,” built on recurring noxious harmonics, is all suffocated aggression and claustrophobia (on a related note, the pointed song titles helpfully guide the listener’s free association responses to the work). The second side begins with “Light Fields (In Consonance),” which basically consists of one note, but garners its momentum through rhythmic interplay. The composition is somewhat reminiscent of Rhys Chatham’s 1977 “Guitar Trio,” which was probably the first piece to marry punk guitar with minimalist composition. However, Branca was no strict minimalist, and “Light Fields” suddenly becomes dynamic in its final two minutes, as the riffs begin shifting and climbing upwards until they reach the octave.
Last act “The Ascension” is as ambitious and lengthy as “The Spectacular Commodity,” though otherwise an entirely different beast. It's a less muscular and methodical buildup, relying largely on the overtones created by extreme guitar feedback (one can only imagine how loud and powerful this must have been live). You know how weird guitar sounds are always referred to as “ethereal” now? Well, here’s the blueprint. At times the center can barely hold and the song becomes almost completely abstract, yet during the last 30 seconds I would swear there were strings playing if I didn’t know better. It's like a redemptive response to the godless Metal Machine Music.
The sense of otherworldliness in “The Ascension” is created in part by the random disorienting nature of feedback, as well as the song’s Cage-ian silences and unpredictable tempos. Yet “The Spectacular Commodity” remains the show-stopper here for all the reasons Cage hated Branca’s work: its shattering volume, its triumphant romanticism and Wagnerian hulk. One of Cage’s misgivings was that too much of Branca’s own personality was in his work, and indeed The Ascension bares the heavy hand of its maker. When I want ego-less sound, though, I’ll just open my Brooklyn window or turn on my rain machine, thankyouverymuch. With both classical and rock, the listener’s sense of empowerment often comes vicariously through the artist. Like the paroxysmal art-punks in Robert Longo’s iconic Men in Cities series -- to which the striking cover art belongs -- sometimes we need the shock of loud, angular guitar to catalyze our own private liberation trip.
1. Lesson No. 2
2. The Spectacular Commodity
4. Light Fields (In Consonance)
5. The Ascension