IN CONVERSATION WITH MARK DERY
From Issue #5 of MONDO 2000 1991
Glenn Branca and Elliott Sharp philosophize with a hammer. And an anvil. And a stirrup. The two New York composers take Friedrich Nietzche, who subtitled an essay “How One Philosophizes With a Hammer,” a step further. They make music that jangles the bones of the inner ear and bruises the brain.
Branca, 42, is a Promethean presence in new music. Emerging from Manhattan’s no wave scene in the late seventies, he smashed the world to flinders with a single, craggy, monolithic chord-a cluster of E notes, to be exact, the thunderclap that opens 1979’s “The Spectacular Commodity” (The Ascension, 99 Records). Then, he made it new. Scored for massed electric guitars amplified past the threshold of aural pain, “Symphony No. 1: Tonal Plexus” (ROIR) welded the harmonics and heterodyning effects of minimalism’s “acoustic phenomena” school to Beethoven’s stormy bluster, Steve Reich’s static harmonies, and the careening, locomotive fury of heavy metal.
“Symphony No. 3: Gloria-Music For the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series” (Neutral) called for non-tempered tunings based on the harmonic series, the naturally-occurring, endlessly-ascending row of pitches which are multiples of a fundamental frequency. “Within this internal mechanism exists a body of music,” Branca observed in his program notes, “music which has not been written, but which is inherently indicated, in much the same way that DNA contains information.” In “Symphony No. 5: Describing Planes of an Expanding Hypersphere” and subsequent works, Branca used the harmonic series to conjure otherworldly effects-an ethereal, crystalline whistling reminiscent of glass harmonica, sonic Spirograph patterns traced in the air by spiraling melody lines.
In his seventh and most recent symphony, Branca embraces equal temperament and conventional orchestral instrumentation. Polymetric, polymorphous, and perverse- there are no melodic themes to speak of, only ascending harmonies “Symphony No. 7“ suggests Reich’s “Desert Music” in its chattering mallet instruments and attacca movement, Anton Bruckner in its almost palpable air of mystery, of awe in the presence of something that withers words like dry husks.
Although he is not the Brucknerian mystic Branca is, Elliott Sharp shares his fellow composer’s obsession with raw power. In music of unutterable strangeness and mutant beauty, the 40-year-old composer/multi-instrumentalist summons visions of thermonuclear fireballs and self-squared dragons, black holes and information whiteout. On Sili/contemp/tation (Ear-Rational), Monster Curve (SST), and other Sharp releases, one hears echoes of innumerable influences-gutbucket blues, Inuit throat-singing, Jimi Hendrix, Krzysztof Penderecki, the harmonic chanting of Tibetan monks, chaos theory, and fractal geometry-scrunched into a single skull and subjected to explosive decompression.
All of which might suggest that Sharp’s art is a cross between the neural spin art of a theoretical physicist at mid-orgasm and the climax of the movie Altered States, where the protagonist devolves into Silly Putty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharp, like Branca, is a hyperintellectual who frequently makes use of mathematical equations in his work. He has explored the farflung reaches of the harmonic series and has written works in just intonation, the microtonal tuning system favored by Harry Partch. Moreover, his compositional architecture, tuning systems, and rhythms are often generated using the Fibonacci series, mathematical ratios derived by summing a number and its precedent- 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so forth.
“The music,” informs Sharp in his liner notes to Larynx (SST), “dances upon the ever-changing boundary between a geometry derived from the Fibonacci series and a fractal geometry of turbulence, chaos and disorder.”
Astonishingly, the two composers had never met, a fact that defies the laws of probability given their parallel courses and the close confines of New York’s downtown music scene. Fortuitously, both will have new recordings in the racks. One of Branca’s older works, “Symphony No. 2,” is being released by the Chicago-based indie, Atavistic. Subtitled “The Peak of the Sacred,” it relies on homebuilt “staircase guitars”-lap steel/hammer dulcimer hybrids arranged in tiers, their open strings played with chop sticks-to produce an eerie, lambent rainbow of sound, the aural equivalent of Northern Lights. The second half of “Symphony No. 2” spotlights Z’ev, a Mad Max Roach of sorts who plays springs, pipes, titanium sheets, and strips of cold-rolled steel.
Sharp’s September offerings consist of Datacide and Twistmap (Enemy/Indie and Ear- Rational, respectively, the latter available from Ear-Relevant, 547 W. 20th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10011). Datacide, which showcases the guitarist’s quartet, Carbon, is forty-nine minutes of neurocore-clotted, convulsive songs that are equal parts dark matter and gray matter. Twistmap features the title track and “Shapeshifters,” two astringent pieces for strings interpreted by the Soldier String Quartet, and “Ferrous,” a rambunctious instrumental performed by Carbon on instruments designed and built by Sharp. Among them are the pantar, an electric string instrument whose angry buzz Sharp describes as “a cross between a tamboura and a dumpster,” and the slab, an unlovely creation fashioned from a hunk of butcher block fitted with bass strings and pickups. Drummed with metal rods, the slab produces a raspy bumbling suggestive of iron bees with rusty wings.
Branca and Sharp share an abiding interest in science fiction. Branca, an obsessive cyberphile, ran JAA Press, a mail-order distributor of cyberpunk books and related ephemera. Sharp’s song and record titles chronicle a lifelong fixation: “Kipple” and “PKD” allude to Philip K. Dick, “Cenobite” to Clive Barker’s splatterpunk movie, Hellraiser, and Dr. Adder to the Jeter novel of the same name.
Little remained but for MONDO 2000 to introduce the two like-minded composers. A meeting was arranged in upstate New York, where both were summering, far from New York City’s sopping, sweltering canyons of steel. Branca graciously conceded to play host at the 200-year-old cottage on the campus of Bard College, at Annandale-on-Hudson, where the experiment in superconductivity was conducted.
MONDO 2000: Glenn, your piece ‘Freeform’ is dedicated to Rudolph von Bitter Rucker. It’s a shimmering, pastel work for orchestra, driven by vibraphones and glockenspiels-not exactly the soundtrack I hear in my head when I’m reading Rucker’s novels!
GLENN BRANCA: Well, I had already named the piece ‘Freeform’ when I discovered that Rucker had founded the ‘freestyle’ movement in science fiction. Since I love everything that Rucker writes, it was a happy coincidence. Beyond that, however, there isn’t the slightest connection between my music and my interest in cyberpunk writing. I came to cyberpunk through the mathematical ideas I was exploring in my composing. I was looking for books on mathematics and one of the books I discovered was Rucker’s Infinity and the Mind. The bibliography included a list of the other titles he’d written and since I hadn’t read any science fiction at all, I thought it would be a goof to see what it was like. So I read his novel, Master of Space and Time, which I loved.
M2: Relatively speaking, you’ve come lately to science fiction, whereas Elliott has been a lifelong sci-fi buff.
ELLIOTT SHARP: I was a science nerd. I started reading sci-fi the first time I went to the library. Ray Bradbury was an early find. He definitely did not hew to the idiot techno- fascist school of sci-fi. That was the thing about Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and most of those older writers. They were so jingoistic, taking their xenophobia to outer space.
GB: Did you read Philip K. Dick when you were young?
ES: Definitely. His stories always stuck in my mind, especially “The Father Thing,” where this kid’s father has been taken over by an alien and the kid has to kill it before the Mother Thing is released. Don’t you remember feeling, when you were a teenager, that your family was a collection of alien creatures? [Laughter]
M2: Dick, for all his darkness, was a true Groucho Marxist. Rucker has that same quality, especially in Master of Space and Time, which is wonderfully sophomoric-quantum mechanics for people who like to squeeze off armpit farts.
GB: Rucker’s writing is cartoony but very fluid. You see, I wasn’t reading fiction at all when I got into Rudy Rucker. The fact is, I don’t like fiction! Only cyberpunk actually deals with contemporary culture in a way that I can relate to. I like to think of it as rock ‘n’ roll fiction. It has replaced the kind of teeth-grinding intensity I used to get listening to rock music.
ES: One thing that occurs to me about cyberpunk is that it is actually the only political literature being written these days, and it’s always sympathetic to marginalized subcultures. It comes from the underdog’s perspective. If there’s one recurrent theme in cyberpunk, it’s this idea of taking technology out of the hands of the techno-fascists, of networking on unofficial levels.
M2: But it still has the technofetishism of the old wiring-diagram school of science fiction. One closes these books feeling that body armor and laser Uzis are really sexy. Tomorrow’s technology is the soft machine-small and sexy and internalized, nanomachines and biomechanic implants.
ES: Right, but you can’t separate the hardware from the software. You’ll always have technofetishism of one sort or another.
GB: I think that some of the writers are trying to move away from the techno aspects of the genre but what’s left ends up being something like Lewis Shiner’s Slam, which is not cyberpunk or even science fiction. Although I would like to see a few more plot problems solved with something other than a laser gun, the real-world application of these ideas doesn’t really interest me. I like the fiction, and that’s where I think cyberpunk lives.
JAMES JOYCE, PROTO-CYBERPUNK
M2: Who do you two feel are the proto-cyberpunks in literary history? For my money, there are four authors — all of them outside the science fiction continuum, strictly speaking — who blazed the trail for cyberpunk: William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, and more recently, Don DeLillo.
GB: Burroughs and Pynchon, certainly, but I would have added Norman Spinrad and Dick.
ES: Burroughs and Pynchon, absolutely, and I would really have to add Joyce to that list.
GB: James Joyce was a proto-cyberpunk?!
M2: That’s legitimate!
GB: It isn’t even slightly legitimate!
ES: Yes, for his consciousness! The brain became a different organ in Finnegans Wake.
GB: Oh, all right. You could probably convince me. Cyberpunk may catch up with Finnegans Wake by the year 2095, but none of these writers are doing anything remotely like Joyce’s novels, and I hope they never do. I don’t need any more Russolo or Duchamp or Cage, although I have heard that Paul Di Filippo’s new book, Ciphers, is his Gravity’s Rainbow and it’ll probably be great.
But I don’t think experimental fiction is really the right direction for cyberpunk. That’s what happened to the English new wave in the sixties. Cyberpunk brought back the energy of new wave in much the same way that punk music brought back the essential energy of sixties rock. There were a few people, like Charles Platt, Mick Farren, Jeter, and Spinrad, who continued to define near-future dystopian chaos right through the seventies, and I’m sure Sterling and Shirley were aware of them.
M2: So the trail of the first cyberpunk novel leads all the way back to Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock?
ES: Further than that, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
GB: To me, though, the person who has the key to this kind of writing is Burroughs. You can go back and re-read Burroughs and even though you understand his world, it’s always a mystery.
ES: I get a buzz from Naked Lunch that I don’t get from most of his other books, although I love them all.
GB: Really? I think the later books are better — The Wild Boys, The Soft Machine, Nova Express. And Interzone! If you read that last story — the one that wasn’t included in Naked Lunch — that is Burroughs to the fucking 10th power! See, my hope is that cyberpunk is going to end up simply becoming Burroughs. I’m just looking for more Burroughs! To go beyond Burroughs… I can’t even begin to imagine!
ES: Isn’t that what we’re really looking forward to-the book that we can’t imagine? I keep wondering when a work of art come along that will introduce me to a new way of thinking?
SLAMMING THE CYBERPUNKS
GB: There have been all these attacks on cyberpunk writing in the last year or two, among them that Lewis Shiner essay in The New York Times, saying the genre is dead. At the same time, there’s an amazing scene happening in England, revolving around a group of young cyberpunk writers, most of whom are published in Interzone — people like Charles Stross, who calls his work “technogoth,” and Lyle Hopwood, a female writer who recently moved to the States, and Glenn Grant, a young Canadian who publishes a Montreal-based fiction magazine called Edge Detector.
And then there’s Alligator Alley, which is supposedly a collaboration between Jeter and a cartoonist named Ferret, under the pseudonyms Dr. Adder and Mink Mole. [Actually written by Tim Ferret-ed.] If cyberpunk is going to lead somewhere that isn’t cyberpunk, this is one direction it could take. The book is… sick. It sounds as if it had been written by an incredibly talented underground writer, somebody like Bart Plantenga, the Beer Mystic, who used to appear in the newsletter published by WFMU radio and who has spent time on the ‘zine scene. Plantenga wrote one completely wild story about a guy driving around the city, crashing into everything. Alligator Alley is strikingly similar-hardcore misanthropy, pushed to unbelievably absurd extremes. The book takes place on a strip called Alligator Alley in Florida, which apparently actually exists. It’s a stretch of road where alligators and other animals are constantly being run over. The main characters spend almost the
entire narrative on this one thoroughfare.
M2: Do they run over any alligators?
GB: Oh, they run over everything you can possibly imagine-endlessly! The book has that repetitive, Burroughsian quality about it. “Roadkill” is the last word you’ll ever want to hear after you finish it.
The second half of Alligator Alley begins with an infodump in which the authors avalanche about five books’ worth of plot material onto you in about a chapter and a half, after which they continue with the narrative on a totally different level. The book is amazingly dense and that’s just what I want!
I want to be blown away on every page! I don’t care where the narrative is going; just get me off right now, in this sentence! Of course, the book has to keep giving it to me, and for the first 150 pages, that’s exactly what Alligator Alley does.
M2: It sounds like Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, which, for me, is like a cut-up novel for the blipvert generation.
ES: That was one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read.
AUPRES MOI LE DATA-DELUGE!
M2: Doesn’t it strike you as odd that, while our culture is drowning in this data deluge, we as individuals seem to thrive on information overload?
ES: Well, the need to be constantly stimulated is modern life, but it’s also human. A nerve impulse has its effect for only so long before the infocaine wears off.
GB: What’s vital about cyberpunk, to my mind, is this idea of the underground network. I mean, most of the interesting cyberpunk stuff deals with the alternative network- hackers and artists and musicians, renegades who are living outside of consensus reality as we see it on television. For me, the best extrapolations from this culture have been Peter Lamborn Wilson‘s pirate nation-state, Port Watson, in the short piece of the same name; Glenn Grant’s techno-nomads in his story “Mimetic Drift;” Misha’s dystopian art world in Red Spider, White Web; and Pat Murphy’s city of artists in The City, Not Long After.
This anti-society already exists all over the country, not just in the urban centers. Again, the cyberpunk novelists are doing exactly what the new wave writers were doing in the sixties. The difference is, the culture has become so much more sophisticated than it was in the sixties.
M2: The silicon underground has become a reality.
ES: Right. And bearing in mind where you and I hook into all of this, I have to ask: Why hasn’t music kept pace with these developments?
GB: Oh, but it has!
ES: I don’t know about that. If you look at pop music, what do you have? College rock!
GB: But we, Elliott, are the reality of this cyberpunk fantasy, I’m sorry to say. [Laughter] To be honest, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musical analog for cyberpunk literature.
ES: Well, that’s just it. You hear something and say, “Do I make the connection because I’ve been told it exists or do I make the connection because it’s actually there?” For example, Sonic Youth called themselves “cyberpunk” at one point, but if you listened to a Sonic Youth record without knowing that, would you say, “Oh, these guys are clearly cyberpunks?”
GB: The closest I’ve come to cyberpunk music is Dane Rudhyar’s description of music that he would have loved to have heard. It was in The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, where he imagines a kind of science fiction music, created with the push of a button.
A LITTLE PO-APOC NIGHT MUSIC
ES: Did you ever read The Memory of Whiteness, by Kim Stanley Robinson? It’s about this human colony in the future, where the language is based on musical analogies and musical terms. It’s a little bit corny, a little New Age-y, but it has its moments.
There’s also a story by Cordwainer Smith called “Under Old Earth” which revolves around music and the rebel underground. Although Smith wrote in the fifties, he was really pretty visionary. This story takes place in a post-apocalypse, post-history New York and features an
underground culture of subversives that has rituals where they play Einsturzende Neubauten-type music, banging on metal in odd meters, all fives and sevens.
M2: There’s another treatment of cyber-rock, in John Shirley’s “Freezone,” in Mirrorshades.
GB: That’s an excerpt from his novel Eclipse, in which the main character is a musician named Rickenharp. Shirley does music, you know. He sings with the guitarist Michael Chocholak, the husband of Misha, who happens to be a great cyberpunk writer. He made soundtracks for Alligator Alley and Red Spider, White Web, and if you buy the special editions from the English publisher, Morrigan, Chocholak’s cassette tapes come with the book.
Shirley has made, at this point, about an album’s worth of songs with Chocholak. I’ve heard some of them and they’re fantastic! Shirley is still coming from a sixties orientation, a Jim Morrison kind of thing, but if you like Shirley’s writing and you know Rickenharp, you’ll like the music, because it really is the soundtrack that goes with his books. Strangely enough, the music, although somewhat anachronistic, is appropriate. I mean, what is the proper modern music to accompany cyberpunk?
GB: I mean, is it some futuristic-sounding electronic beep-boop music or what? Lucius Shepard, who is very, very into music — I think he used to have a band, although I don’t believe he makes music now-has written a “recommended” list. Hypno Love Wheel was on it, as well as Gaye Bikers on Acid. And then there’s fractal music, which I haven’t heard a note of. Richard Kadrey is calling his new book Kamikaze L’Amour: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel — maybe he’ll give us some idea of what this stuff should sound like.
EAT YOUR FRACTALS, GEORGE
ES: There’s a guy at Princeton who did some fractal music. It’s the musical illusion of a never-ending cycle, descending and then ascending, over and over again, a musical perpetual motion machine. It’s not a bad aural analogy for a Mandlebrot set, but it completely avoids the whole issue.
For me, fractals are an analogy to a natural form and function, whereas fractal music is an impression of an analogy of natural phenomena. A mathematical equation can only offer an abstraction, an idealized picture of this natural form and function. Fractals don’t depict things as they really are. They merely define the laws whereby you can make an analogy.
GB: You can make a piece of music that’s as interesting as a fractal; the problem is, a fractal is nowhere near as interesting as a beautiful landscape. Cellular automata, for instance, are about as sophisticated as ant farms. It’s going to take a long time for mathematics to find a true analog for macro-scale natural processes.
ES: That’s the problem. It always comes down to mathematics, which deals in curves, whereas nature always comes down to discrete moments. In the real world, one never really finds an ideal fractal. One finds fractal situations — things that can be analyzed down to fractals.
GB: Because of their self-similarities.
ES: Yeah. Have you ever seen a Broccoli Romanescu?
GB: What the hell is a Broccoli Romanescu?!?
ES: I was in Seattle, going through the outdoor market, and I ran into a hippie farmer with this pile of large, round, green things that turned out to be a type of broccoli that is completely self-similar. It’s right out of Mandlebrot’s book! The first time you lay eyes on them, you think you’ve found some sort of hallucinatory vegetable, or hallucinated vegetable. And if you slice them in quarters, they yield perfect Julia sets, these self- similar curves. A little bland-tasting, sadly. [Laughter]
CHAOS: NOT JUST A GOOD IDEA…
GB: But I don’t think we have to have an actual, real-life analog for cyberpunk fiction. What’s great about it is that we can only live in it in the writing itself.
ES: Well, if we had implants, we could just go direct, brain to CD.
GB: Sure, and it would probably sound like a fucking mess! [Laughter]
ES: Well, maybe. The brain isn’t delineated into these neat little sections, contrary to pop psych right brain/left brain models. It’s a very large-scale integrative system. There’s order, there’s chaos, there’s intuition, and there’s formality, all operating simultaneously.
M2: Speaking of chaos, does chaos theory resonate with either of your musics?
ES: My music was always about that even before I knew about chaos theory because I always liked the idea of that borderline where things get…funny.
GB: James Gleick’s book, Chaos, only gave you the surface while deluding you into thinking that you could understand what this stuff was about. The reason I liked Infinity and the Mind was that it actually led me into higher mathematics, to places I had never gone, especially transcendental numbers.
ES: Does God Play Dice?: The Mathematics of Chaos, by Ian Stewart, contains a better description of chaos than the Gleick book. He quotes Gleick in some places, but he digs far deeper.
DOWN THE BRAIN-DRAIN, OR COGITO ERGO SUMP
GB: And the deeper you get into this stuff, the more you realize you have to be deeply into it to have even the slightest idea of what’s going on. If there’s ever an analog for the human brain, it will require a computer that works at light speed, at the very least.
ES: Because the brain is not a digital machine. I’m reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. He would look at a problem and rather than getting down to any equations, he would imagine models in the real world, going right to whether or not something made sense intuitively. So if you think about the brain and how it works, and then you think about the nature of digital processing and what we know about how we think, it seems unlikely that thought processes can be reduced to a series of on/offs no matter how many connections you have, or how fast they are.
M2: Cognition is non-binary and non-linear, the great revelation people come to after scouring their brainpans with blotter acid.
ES: Exactly, and it’s also why the hard AI guys are barking up the wrong tree. The techno-geeks can’t even figure out what “I” is.
I think we’re coming to the end of a cycle, the end of our type of unimaginably large numbers, numbers which are really processes themselves, but manipulating them as if they’re discrete entities. Once you bump your point of view up to another scale, you can see the forest and the trees, and you become aware of the syntax of these processes and their interaction. They become graspable, usable baby blocks and things like AI become easy (although the phrase AI itself would probably have to be redefined). We’ve reached a conceptual barrier. It’s time for a quantum leap.
GB: It’s going to be a hell of a leap.