Symphony No. 3 “Gloria”, Glenn Branca

Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), Mark Rothko
The New York no-waver’s third symphony for guitar orchestra is a bold and dramatic affront to the loftiness of the symphonic tradition.

Branca’s first shift into symphonic music was not so much a total stylistic departure or reinvention, as it was simply a new and different platform to filter his already established art-infused avant-garde no wave pop. “I wanted to make art, and it was so cool that you could make art in rock clubs” he once said and this – despite his shift towards using detailed musical notation and partaking in a supposedly in-depth study into the history and science of harmonics – never really left Branca’s work. 1983’s Gloria feels like an affront, a direct challenge to what is supposed to be expected from the musical format, and function, he is toying with. In the same way art was taken off of walls and onto stages, Branca set about deconstructing the presentation of the symphony and what indeed we meant by it in the first place.

Broken up into three movements, what gives much of Gloria its body and density is in the imagination of the space that it fills. This is not chamber or orchestral music, it doesn’t feel as though it was created with people or spaces in mind. It has a ruminating, uneasy dread in its churning intense drones that feels like it is more suited to loop endlessly in a confined, back-street, white-box gallery as something to unnerve and confront passers by, to move and be moved through by perishable shapes and transient bodies.

Retrospectively there is a hugely cinematic tone to Gloria largely due to it’s tendencies for bombastic dread and dramatic tension, but placed in historical context much of the uniqueness in tone comes from a purer sense of experimentation: the custom-made instruments. These include ‘harmonic guitars’ and ‘mallet guitars’, the former being zither derived and the latter built from wood and intended to be played with percussive tools. The overall tone captured by them is one of displacement; the crashing, thrashing anxiety that surfaces in the second movement feels more like a dismantling or undoing of a mood and atmosphere than a manipulative creation of one.

There is a rise and a fall within Gloria, its first movement is fluttering, gaining its wings, sustained guitars ascend, blend and repeat in crescendos with the addition of bells that never quite sit still for long enough to be deemed meditative. By the time the drums thwack the tone is closer to Branca’s previous – more propulsive – work, except the symphony of guitars don’t burst forth in sonic apoplexy, they remain in a sense of sustained, restrained droning; they hang in the background and the drums protrude like hills breaking into vision over a dense morning fog. Despite brief inflections and allusions towards the grandiloquent it never really reaches into a sort of melodic euphoria, as say on Lesson No. 1; it simply sinks again. There are hugely respiratory qualities to Gloria, it breathes in and out, sucking in and expelling out once more, it brings the listener in like a moist ground, absorbing and flexing, but never fastening or setting resolutely. Gloria is porpoise in its movements.

Listening notes: About 6 minutes (and see again around 10) into the second movement the piece leaps out from itself. The drums are incessant and driven by a forced jazz-indebted overdrive, the overbearing dread of the guitar symphony explodes with moments of Gavin Bryars-esque waves and the intermittent throngs and pangs of sound create a new rhythm within the rhythm. It is one of the loudest and most sideways moments in the three movements but it feels so because of its clear traditionalisms. Branca demonstrates here that by keeping in and using rock and jazz associated musicianship he could invert their roles and allow the moments of standard format to become the avant-garde within his symphonies.

Image: Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), Mark Rothko