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.
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