“German Expressionism,” a piece that begins with off-kilter, sporadic dissonance, only to explode into a raucous, distortion-fueled guitar solo (virtuosically played by Reg Bloor), opened the night of immense noise. “German Expressionism” is the second piece on The Third Ascension, a posthumously released live album by the composer Glenn Branca, and the finale of his now-iconic Ascension trilogy. Sunday’s concert, at the Greenpoint metal haven Saint Vitus, was a celebration of the album’s release and a tribute to Branca’s musical legacy on what would have been his 71st birthday; he passed away in 2018.
“My ears wanted to hear new things,” Branca once said. The Ascension, released in 1981, was his first full-length EP, and a monumental amalgamation of experimentation, rock, and noise—a sound that was incredibly new. The central theme of the album is an exploration of alternate tuning, using the harmonic series as a tonal foundation. It encapsulates the dichotomy of maximalist noise and minimalist short repetitive phrases, embracing the unending sonic void and eschewing a musical narrative for a bottomless search for climax. Branca’s three Ascension albums are linked by the same ensemble setup: four electric guitars, bass guitar, and a drum set.
In live performances, Branca stood at the helm of his ensemble, conducting the group through the complex noise with cues, and, perhaps more memorably, by communicating the feeling of the sound with his body. On Sunday, Brendon Randall-Myers took the conducting reins, writhing, waving, mouthing screams, even pulling his hair. “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right,” he turned and casually stated to the audience as he stretched during a pause.
Watching the ensemble, the simultaneous spontaneity and rigidity of the music became apparent. Randall-Myers may have been shaking, but his beat was strong and steady. Each guitarist visibly counted at different points. Libby Fab, the percussionist, was hard at work in keeping the noise together. Somehow, through the cloud of sound, syncopation and intricate layers rang with clarity.
“Velvets and Pearls” got a rise out of the audience. Its rowdy, rhythmic darkness elicited a room-wide head-bang and foot-tap. The sheer magnitude of sound was almost unimaginable, until you remember that this ensemble has perfected the concept of sonic immensity. The room reverberated with the electric amplification, spitting back the loudness put into it.
A true break existed between the pieces—the group needed to tune and physically recover after each work ended. This is the kind of music that requires everything to get anything. Each piece was a test of endurance. At times, the room was suffocating.
And yet, the room also remained light. The ensemble smiled through the tumultuous escalations and the inevitable minor accidents. The audience cheered, clapped, and danced. A few people threw horns. The intimacy of the evening was palpable: everyone was there to enjoy the enormity, to become encapsulated by the massive noise one more time.
The final piece, “Cold Thing,” was an ode to ascension. The primal scream of guitars ebbed and flowed until Randall-Myers cut the ensemble loose to explode. In that moment, the volume raised even higher, frequencies sounding across the spectrum. The sonic rise was almost unbearable, immeasurable, unending. Glenn Branca may be gone, but his music is still ascending.
Vanessa Ague is a violinist, avid concertgoer, and music blogger at theroadtosound.com, and the development and research associate at National Sawdust. She was a 2019 Bang on a Can Media Fellow, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
In 'Ipsa Dixit,' composer and vocalist Kate Soper presents a variable treatise on art and its available meanings, one as clever and sly as it is erudite and provocative.
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Let's begin bold: There surely will be no student undertaking of an operatic or music-theater work more significant than the new production of Robert Ashley's 1999 opera Dust that the College of Performing Arts at the New School unveiled on February 2 in the school's Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall.
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Having completed its fifth year, the Prototype festival is a success. But in applauding a festival for its vision, we can also ponder uncomfortable questions, some of which might be unanswerable. What do we expect from a 21st-century opera? Does it have a cultural obligation to the representation of gender? What is its role in advocacy? Is it possible to be progressive and retrospective at the same time?
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How vital is it to know the literary underpinnings of what's essentially an abstract musical work? Does something fundamental get lost in translation, so to speak, when you hear such a work without knowing the literature that inspired it?