Same As The Old Boss

I wonder what accounts for Glenn Branca’s bitter tone in this short, online article in the NY Times? It’s emotive of something beyond the content, which is stupid; objectively ignorant and ironically completely un-selfaware.

He writes as if he alone has discovered that symphony orchestras are struggling, when they have been pretty much since their inception in the 18th century. One way to look at it is that even though those original orchestras were supported by royalty, the musicians needed other gigs to survive. But his other complaints seem to come from the same universe where Sarah Palin is, one where reality is whatever she makes up in her head to suit whatever happens to be dribbling from her mouth. “Rock has been relegated to the underground.” Really? What are all those rock musicians doing in the country then? “Jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art.” This makes sense only if the last time one listened to jazz was 1965. “The music industry has been subsumed by corporate culture.” Was this written in a time capsule for post-dated publication?

Branca is literally ignorant in the details and his premise reveals a commitment to an incurious, smug navel-gazing. He begins with “We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift,” and then proceeds to describe this shift as the end of new music making. Glenn, the paradigm shift has happened already, and it’s moving in a direction opposite the one you imagine. Cheap, mass digital technology is the shift in music making and listening, and it’s worked to destroy the corporate culture of the music industry, itself more than thirty years old. File sharing has obviously undermined the industrial/commodity model of music, but the rise of the laptop and music software has contributed as much, if not more, from the inside. With Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Logic, Reason/Record and many other packages, musicians now control the means of production as well as those of distribution. While composers could always produce music with paper and pencil, now they can also record and package their music without depending on a Duke or a CEO. The punk DIY ethos is now an actual mass-method, Branca should know this, but perhaps it offends him that the generations that followed him have surpassed him in dogma-free application of his own supposed values.

Digital technology is also producing genuinely new music, but perhaps one needs to be computer literate to recognize this. Beyond the DAW, tools like Max/MSP and free, open-source languages like Csound and SuperCollider mean that anyone can produce music, and music which is fairly popular in appeal while being resolutely non-commercial. This nether space between abstract electronic sound and pop sensibility is expanding, and it’s a new thing. The idea of making a piece of music out of lines of text code is not inherently new, but that anyone willing to tackle the challenge of the language in the comfort of their own bedroom can do so is part of the new paradigm. The rise and spread of Hip-Hop, a music fundamentally based in the resources of digital technology, is also both new and influential to music from opera to jazz, and if Branca hasn’t heard this in work ranging from Craig Taborn to Mendi + Keith Obadike then he is lazy and claiming that laziness as discernment.

Finally, I think Branca is ignorant as an artist, willfully so, and his post is the key to decoding the core of ignorance in his own body of work. Conceptually, the idea of making music for masses of electric guitars was daring and important, and the sound can be thrilling. Musically however, what Branca does is tightly limited and has shown no growth in either method or form. Having learned one thing, he seems to think that there is nothing else to learn, and neither he nor his work have developed in knowledge and understanding. For a moment, he was at the cutting edge, and then that edge continued into the future, into a new paradigm, while he decided where he was at was a good place to stop. He conflates his own lack of development with the limits of human possibility, rather like the rock version of George W. Bush. That Branca is recording a sequel to his 1981 record “The Ascension” says it all right there.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • While I don’t fault Glenn Branca for his disenchanted take on present-day music-making, I do think his conception of innovation is too wrapped up in large-scale, heavy-handed epic-ness, which to me seems like an outdated, modernist mentality. A lot of songwriters and composers of the post-whatever generation–myself included–are more interested in subtlety and intimacy than in grand, sweeping gestures of novelty. I’d hate to think that this subtlety is lost on Mr. Branca.

    • His record “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses” has, as the second track, an interview with John Cage talking about hearing Branca. Cage says “I didnt’ really enjoy the Branca piece. It wasn’t because it was so loud . . . I felt negatively about the . . . political implications. I wouldn’t want to live in a society like that, in which someone would be requiring other people to do such an intense thing together.” While it’s interesting and gutsy that Branca would include this as part of the recording, he seems impervious to the content of any ideas, not just Cage’s, different than his own.

  • I agree with this response for the most part.

    But I don’t blame any composer for composig the “same thing over and over again.” If Glenn’s found a niche, congrats. I’m happy to let him explore it. I only a know a couple of his pieces so I can’t speak to whether or not there is successful variety within that niche in his case, but Bach (in the 250 cantatas), Crumb, Glass, Babbitt are just a random sampling of composers, whose work I know well, who in one sense wrote “the same piece” over and over again, but on the other hand, wow, what variety.

    • Christopher, I agree with your sentiment, but I can’t agree that it is a fact that Bach, Crumb, Glass and Babbitt wrote the same piece over and over again. While they each have a specific voice/style, the variety in their work, including Glass, is pretty wide. What I mean is that fugue, as an example, is a form while 100 guitars is a method. In Branca, there is method without form, and the method is always the same. Even Glass gets beyond method when he’s writing vocal music, and the later symphonies have been made with polytonal forms both in the moment and on a larger scale.

  • I doubt whether any of you have heard more than 5 % of the music that I’ve written in the last 35 years.
    And the point I was making about technology is that the “advances” in music have no where near equalled the advances in music tech, going all the way back to the 50’s. Think before you leap.

    • Your point is completely unprovable, it’s essentially meaningless, not an idea but a slogan. Is that “thinking?”

      “Music Tech” is to music as the assembly line is to cars. From Henry Ford on there were huge advances in assembly line technology, especially robotics. But it’s still an assembly line, the robots do the same things the people did, just with more efficiency. That’s what technology is, a dumb tool that replaces human labor with faster, longer enduring dumb machine labor. “Music Tech” does the same thing, it creates opportunities for greater efficiency, productivity and hopefully costs less than what it replaces. It “advances” by gaining muscle, so what kind of “advance” is that really? Since the 1950s music has advanced a great deal, it’s like science in that you can chart the gains in knowledge, and considering what music composed music knowledge in 1950 and what composes it today, that stretch of time saw more advancement in a shorter period than any other period in the history of music, except perhaps for the advances in the late Medieval/early Renaissance period. One advance in particular is enormous and, yes, involved with technology, and that is the development of text based music programming languages like Csound. They take advantage of the brute force power of digital computing, but the idea of creating an entirely new language for composing music, then developing a vocabulary and syntax for it, is an act of human imagination, of advancement in music and musical knowledge. Thinking, in other words.

  • yo gtrain,
    ranting is not your metier. you have gone round the bend and jumped the track, not to mention the shark. jeez. i don’t entirely jibe with what glenn’s saying, but i can dig it. you, on the other hand, sound like you’re drunk.

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