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Glenn Branca - Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses

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Artist: Glenn Branca

Album: Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Feb. 15, 2007

In the middle of July 1982, Glenn Branca had a piece, “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” performed at the New Music America Festival in Chicago. John Cage was at the performance. The following day Cage had a taped conversation with Wim Mertons of the Belgian label Les Disques du Crepuscule on Chicago’s Navy Pier, where he basically called Branca a fascist, a quip that gets mentioned to this day any time anything is written about Branca. Thus was born one of the more entertaining clashes in contemporary art music, which this reissue attempts to document.

First, the piece itself. Recorded shortly after Branca’s early masterwork The Ascension, though never previously released, “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses” documents the continued development of Branca’s early guitar army. The ensemble includes all his early mainstays: Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom, Lee Ranaldo, and Jeffery Glenn are back from The Ascension (with Glenn on guitar instead of bass), and are joined by Thurston Moore, Barbara Ess, and three other guitarists for a grand total of 10 guitars. I wish I could have been there to see them live, because judging by the sound on this disc, they were a force to be reckoned with. No recording can do justice to the swirling mess of overtones one guitar produces, let alone 10, so the piece, as recorded here, is only a shadow of the original. But it still has everything you would expect from Branca in this period, from the opening gamelan-like chords that gradually coalesce into a dense wall of notes, to the slowly mutating drone in the middle, to the metallic cacophony at the end. What makes Branca’s composition so genius is that while it often feels like pure chaos, there is precise structure to what each guitarist is doing so that each individual chord figures into the mass in a very proscribed way. In a way, he’s taking ideas from Penderecki and Ligeti and applying them to electric guitars.

Next, Cage’s response to the piece, originally released on Les Disques du Crepuscule. Before I talk about Cage’s actual words, it is worth mentioning that the recording could almost be an early-’80s Cage piece in its own right. It feels less like a conversation than two people talking around each other with occasional pauses. Add in the particular timbres of Cage’s and Mertons’s voices (Cage with his dry, Capote-esque alto, and Mertons with his distinctive Belgian accent) and the ambient noise of the boats and birds from Navy Pier, and you have yourself a fairly enjoyable piece of music. But it is Cage’s words that matter most. His main objection was Branca’s domination of every aspect of the performance, with the only release being when an amp breaks. There is no space for any random occurrence or individual voice, with Branca as either the field marshal or doctrinal enforcer. Cage then abstracts this to society as a whole, stating that he “wouldn’t want to live in a society” based around that set of implications, that it would be “something resembling fascism.” Cage further objects that Branca (and his contemporaries Laurie Anderson and David Tudor) needs to be present for his music to be performed, calling it a “return to the middle ages,” whereas Cage’s music can be performed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. And finally, according to Cage, Branca’s music evokes the European tradition of musical climax, resembling Wagner’s constant climax more than anything. On a certain level, Cage seems to be suffering from a generational gap, coming across as a cantankerous old man unwilling to accept what the kids are doing. He even goes so far as to say that while Anderson and Branca may be popular now, their music won’t be talked about in 10 years, while his will. Many of his arguments seem overly subjective, coming from Cage’s own ideological framework. However, he is still John Cage, father of American avant-garde music, so his statements still carry popular weight, even if their reasoning is suspect.

The “controversy” doesn’t end there: Branca would comment on the whole situation in a 1997 letter to Musicworks Magazine that is printed in the liner notes. In the end, the whole situation seems like a lot of hot air, even if it has garnered Branca a sobriquet. But if it gives us an excuse to exhume a pair of previously unreleased Branca works (“Harmonic Chord Series,” an orchestral work unrelated to the rest of the goings on), we can’t fault Atavistic for packaging it as such.

By Dan Ruccia

Other Reviews of Glenn Branca

The Ascension

Lesson No. 1

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View all articles by Dan Ruccia

Find out more about Atavistic

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