Song Of The Day: Glenn Branca, Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus)


Dateline: East Texas, Summer 1987


I am 13 going on 14, and I’ve started to discover underground music. It started with Yoko Ono, Throwing Muses, and Pixies, but my mind is much more receptive thanks to magazines such as Re-flex, Alternative Press, MRR, and The Big Takeover. Living in East Texas, I don’t have much context for a lot of what I read about; mail order is king, and it’s a crapshoot––you pay your money and you take your chances. So far, I hadn’t really gone wrong. (Okay, T.S.O.L.’s Hit And Run is best left unmentioned.) In the advertisements, one label that caught my eye was ROIR, a cassette only label based out of New York City that released a lot of punk, reggae, dub, indie rock, and noise. They put out records by Bad Brains and helped to introduce the world to a very early Beastie Boys. At the time, I wasn’t interested in a lot of that; I was kind of into the 1960s, and so when I saw mentioned a cassette by ? and the Mysterians labeled 96 Tears Forever: The Dallas Reunion Tapes, I was intrigued. But they had a special deal going: three tapes for 15 bucks, shipping included. It was too good a deal to pass up, and so I wrote letter requesting that tape and an album by the band Television called The Blow-Up.

I was at a loss for my third selection, though. I didn’t know many of the names listed, and I was always wary of compilations because they can be hit or miss affairs. Yet in looking through some of my other magazines, I saw the name Glenn Branca listed and described as “modern classical.” I’ve always had a passing fancy for classical music, and being the naïve autistic redneck that I am, I made the assumption that this would be along the lines of Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. It’s amusing now to consider what I thought I was receiving, because when finally the tapes arrived, I had mixed feelings. The ? And The Mysterians was a pretty good live show,  while Television was a really rough sounding live show that was compelling in its mystery, a collection I would later grow to appreciate more.

But the Glenn Branca record was very confusing and frustrating. I had never heard any music quite like it; my first reaction was, “THIS is supposed to be classical music?” I was repulsed and disappointed, because to my young ears it didn’t sound  like I expected it to sound. The first selection was okay; it was a gentle drone that gradually grew stronger (and one that sounds not unlike Stereolab). But after about 15 minutes or so, the music grew louder, more cacophonous, more schizophrenic, and sounded like out and out noise. I don’t think I finished listening to side one for several weeks; I may have put it on when going to bed and fell asleep to it, but really I don’t remember. It took me a while to bother to listen to side two, which was nominally better but only just. It was the sort of tape I put away, swearing I would listen to it someday in full, never bothering to get around to it. It was also something I thought about selling, but the time or two I tried, nobody wanted it. So I was stuck with it.

Several years later, I am older and my tastes are better, and I’m more receptive to harsher sounds. I remember having a  late night dorm conversation with friends, talking about the worst records we ever bought, and I mention that tape. “Oh,” my friend said, “you do know that is where Sonic Youth started, right?” I had no idea. The next time I was home, I checked out the tape, and sure enough, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are there in all their glory. Recorded in 1981, it’s absolutely not hard to hear in that four part symphony the birth of one of the truly definitive bands of the 1980s. Now, three decades later, I can listen to the performance again and appreciate it for what it was. Not only was it an historical meeting of minds, but it also was as an early exposure to experimental music and noise rock for yours truly, a lesson I have yet to forget.

Glenn Branca passed away yesterday, from complications of throat cancer. He was 69.

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