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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Glenn Branca's Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) and 100 Guitars: An Insider's Look

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2008 at 8:05 PM

Tomorrow night at the Pageant, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and an army of 100 volunteer guitarists will be performing composer Glenn Branca's Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City). Writer Ryan Wasoba is participating in the performance, and offered to write about his experience for A to Z. Here's part one. Read more about the concert here and stop by tomorrow for an interview with Branca himself. -- Annie Zaleski

In my short stint as a music journalism hobbyist, I have used the word "cacophony" several times when describing dissonant bands. Usually this word is a loophole to avoid repeated use of the term "noise” (and a choice inspired by frequent visits to But yesterday at approximately 4:15 p.m., I finally understood the true meaning of the word. As I sat, guitar in hand, obviously annoyed composer Glenn Branca spoke into a wireless microphone.

"The Fox 2 cameras are here and they want to videotape the 100 guitars group playing in order to promote the concert on the news tonight. I told them that we weren't prepared because we haven't even played a note yet, but they insisted. So we're going to invent a piece of music. I am going to count to four and then I want everybody to play whatever effing note they want, and then I'll cue you on when to stop."

Branca's arms waved violently as amplifiers hummed in anticipation. Four counts and then an explosion -- 70 something guitars, 20 bass guitars and one loud-as-shit drummer exploded in a punishing, three-dimensional fortress of complete and utter cacophony. If somebody were to compare the sound of the group to the sound predicted to be in hell, I could not disagree. Branca counted again and the sound cut off sharply, echoing through the hall. "Yeah!" Branca celebrated, "put THAT on the news!"

Another word that has made its way into my music writing, much to the chagrin of my parents, is "clusterfuck." However, no word is more appropriate for the confusing mess that was the load-in at the Powell Symphony Hall as dozens of guitarists with dozens of guitars and dozens of amps attempted to find their spot and move their equipment on the cramped stage. The floor was labeled with gaff tape marked "Tenor 3," "Alto 6,” "Bass 4,” et cetera, to mark the positions for different parts.

I have been assigned Baritone 1. This means that I had to re-string my guitar with 3 low E strings and 3 D strings tuned up to E so that my entire instrument played E's when strummed open, which means not pushing down any notes on the neck. Altos were tuned similarly, all E strings but one octave higher than us. Tenors were tuned up in the interval of a perfect fifth, so that every note was a B. In laymen's terms, when all of the guitars strum their open strings, it makes the largest power chord known to man.

There are three other people in the Baritone 1 section: a guitar teacher from San Francisco named Nils, a computer programmer from New York by way of Toronto named Steve (I think) and a curly-haired Los Angeles-based composer who wrote the music for Nickelodeon program Avatar. All three of them have participated in Branca's piece for 100 guitars before in performances in other cities and got hooked. They flew into St. Louis just to play the piece again.

(rehearsal from 2007)

A small soundcheck followed load-in. Section by section, Branca and his conductor sidekick John Myers listened to the sound of each amp. When a player is pointed at, that means to play all of your strings open. If the sound is not acceptable, you tweak and do it again. Each player in the section then plays in succession to make sure volumes were matched.

As other sections checked, I drank coffee with my fellow Baritone 1's as they reminisced about performances past. "I sat right in front of Mike Watt!" Curly said about the Los Angeles performance that the Minutemen bassist participated in. "He was freaking out. He said that he felt like the music made his brain feel like it had hair and that it was growing out of his skull."

The veterans in my section helped me decode the sheet music, which includes unusual Branca-isms like "staircase chords" and red notes that symbolize the range of notes which are allowed to be played at random. Steve (I think) asked me for a pick after admitting he had been strumming with a penny. I pulled out four picks and offered him one. "It's good that you have extra picks," he said "because you'll probably break one."

After a sandwich break, the group rehearsed the music for the first time. The arrangements are, no surprise, noisy as all get-out. Guitar parts are generally a mix of sharp rhythms and what Branca calls "double strumming," which is strumming with a pick so quickly that the rhythm of the picking is unheard (think "Misirlou" by Dick Dale, popularized as the theme music to "Pulp Fiction"). This double strumming was responsible for my first equipment casualty around 7:30 p.m.; the green Mountain Dew pick I picked up for free at CMJ last year was no match for Glenn Branca's demands.

Throughout the piece, the quantity of dissonant notes makes the guitars seem to melt in the air while the drums pound relentlessly. In fact, the drumming is the only aspect of the music that leaves something to be desired: All four movements of the piece remind me of Jimmy Chamberlain's tom-heavy beat during the verses of the Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" performed at varying tempos. But the drums serve to anchor the chaos of the guitars, and in that they succeed. Besides, the concert is called "100 guitars," not "one drummer."

The group rehearsed into the night, taking a 9 p.m. break for pizza which inspired a swift 9:40 trip to the bar for many players. Rehearsal let out at 11:30 after a run through of the fourth movement. I drove home in silence, my ears fatigued and my insides jumbled by the abusive sound. As I laid in bed that night, the sound of 600 guitar strings being strummed in unison danced in my head, and it was beautiful.


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