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Glenn Branca - Lesson No. 1

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Artist: Glenn Branca

Album: Lesson No. 1

Label: Acute

Review date: Apr. 30, 2004

While much of Glenn Branca’s work was easily available from Chicago’s Atavistic Records by the end of the 1990’s, from his early work with his no wave rock groups (Theoretical Girls and The Static) to his microtonal guitar symphonies, the music that represented the transitional point in Branca’s career was much harder to search out. The original vinyl releases of his debut full-length, The Ascension, and the preceding Lesson No. 1, were hard to find, and CD reissues on Italy’s Newtone Records weren’t much easier to procure. Luckily, Acute Records, a label which has already issued a compilation of Theoretical Girls compositions by Jeffrey Lohn (all of Branca’s work for the group appeared on his Songs '77-'79 disc) as well as The Ascension, is finally bringing this stage of Branca’s work to the masses, and with bonus material to boot.

Lesson No. 1 was Branca’s first release in which he delved more fully into instrumental sounds that melded the dissonant rock of his former outfits with the heavy, massed sounds that he would later explore with groups of anywhere between ten and a hundred guitarists. Originally issued on 99 Records in 12” format, Lesson No. 1 contained two songs, one on each side. This cd reissue contains those tracks, “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” and “Dissonance,” as well as “Bad Smells,” a dance score previously available on a split LP with poet John Giorno. In “Lesson No. 1…,” Branca first exhibits the formula that would serve as the basis of his next LP, The Ascension, a combination of heavy, repetitive, rhythmic statements overlaid with a chorus of guitars that begins in an almost stately mode before rising into a celestial frenzy. The more aggressive “Dissonance” also builds on a straightforward, repetitive rhythm, though the clangy interjections from the guitars and percussion, and the mechanical yet furious strumming that follows take the track in a new direction in which the different parts of the piece hurtle along together like a locomotive, then battle in and out of rhythmic phase with one another.

“Bad Smells,” though it was composed for dance, has its beginnings in material similar to “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar,” though, more than the two original tracks on the 12”, its defined sections, mini-movements that begin to forecast the progressions Branca would favor in his larger works, create shifts in atmosphere and timbre that break up any building momentum into smaller pieces, most likely to the benefit of dance composer Twyla Tharp. The addition of an almost eighteen-minute quicktime video of a performance of Symphony No. 5 serves as an intriguing, though somewhat out of place, addition to the disc, but it’s hard to fault Acute for its inclusion, as the musical recording of the symphony exists on a different imprint, Chicago’s Atavistic Records.

It’s not hard to see where Lesson No. 1 fits into Branca’s oeuvre. Remnants of Theoretical Girls material are rampant in these pieces, sometimes even what sound like they could be exact quotes (something Branca would continue to do in Symphony No. 1). The transition from rock music to more “classical” territory wouldn’t take place until Branca extended and transformed the ideas of The Ascension into Symphony No. 1, but this disc represents the beginning of that change. Listening closely, one can hear ideas which would come into fruition later in Branca’s career beginning to gestate in these pieces, a composer’s first bold forays into music which must have been even more thunderous then than it is now. Glenn Branca is not yet recognized adequately for the steps that he (among a select group of like-minded NYC composers) took towards the immersion of the rock vocabulary into classical music, but the reissue of this EP, as well as the earlier re-release of The Ascension on CD, can only be steps in the right direction.

By Adam Strohm

Other Reviews of Glenn Branca

The Ascension

Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses

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Find out more about Acute

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