Glenn Branca made it to my hometown relatively late in his career; as I recall, he stormed the stage rasping approval after a performance of the first movement of his fourteenth, then most recent, symphony — an overture of ambient menace, moving through the harmonic series in cascading waves. Wild-haired and foul-mouthed, long since an institution, Branca took his time in praise of the neo-romantic program in which he appeared, spitting anachronistic condemnation of musical systematizers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez. I recall thinking this attempted relitigation of musical modernism extremely telling; no one is a context unto their own, and more often than not an adaptive grudge outlives its object as a useless negativity, festering resentfully.
Nonetheless, the output of Glenn Branca, an iconic avant-garde noise composer who died this past May, was animated by this oppositional energy for decades. Watching Branca premiere The Third Ascension at the Kitchen in 2016, I found him undiminished, conducting with a clenched fist. Branca was a master of hardcore minimalism, collating the latent energies circulating in New York of the nineteen-seventies in a profound synthesis, disputing the furniture music of his contemporaries and anticipating too many other groups to name. He was a presence, which poses its own difficulties.
In an infamous lashing out, the crux of which has become central to Branca’s cultivated reputation, John Cage lamented the preponderance of personality in the music: “David Tudor’s music now has to have David Tudor with it, otherwise it doesn’t get played. And I think Branca is the same way, it has to have Branca.” A great deal has been written on Cage’s ornery appraisal, and theory profits from a close comparison of these mutual antagonists and their respective anarchisms. But without Glenn Branca to ongoingly conduct the din that bears his name, it seems worth taking the question seriously by way of tribute. Missing Branca, we could ask after the implications of his legacy for the future, and in doing so, reconsider controversies past.
To start, we could revisit the letter and substance of Cage’s critique. After attending a 1982 performance of Branca’s composition, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, Cage gave a series of lengthy remarks to Wim Mertens in a recorded interview, subsequently included on the compilation Chicago ‘82: A Dip in the Lake, and reproduced in full by Branca himself on a later official release. Was Branca’s use of this recording entirely provocative, or does its reproduction imply something of an assent to Cage’s description?
Cage’s language is so emphatic that this would be a risky thesis. Most accounts reduce his critique to the simple statement that Branca’s demands of musicians and listeners alike, if transposed to the realm of the political, would resemble fascism. However provocative, this appears a somewhat contentless pejorative claim in retrospect, insofar as it would simply denote a reflexive terror of forceful collectivity, one deeply ingrained in the American political imaginary, without any political agenda per se. Furthermore, per Walter Benjamin, fascism may be defined as the aesthetic saturation of politics, such that Cage’s taunt appears tautological — any merely artistic model of society would pose a similar difficulty. Anyone who has read anything about Branca is familiar with this in paraphrase, so we could start by attending to what Cage actually said:
I felt negatively about what seemed to me to be the political implications. I wouldn’t want to live in a society like that, in which someone would be requiring other people to do such an intense thing together … The Branca is an example of sheer determination, of one person to be followed by the others. Even if you couldn’t hear you could see the situation, that is not a shepherd taking care of the sheep, but of a leader insisting that people agree with him, giving them no freedom whatsoever. The only breath of fresh air that comes is when the technology collapses. The amplifier broke, that was the one moment of freedom from the intention.
Where vulgar political analogies are concerned, Cage appears to oppose a modest voluntarism to Branca’s large-scale productivism; a free-range to a factory model. On this description, the listener Cage holds out for something like industrial sabotage, and his pseudo-Luddite critique smacks of an obverse technologism, stalling upon determinate materials. Certainly Branca’s use of the guitar obliges him to a cult of the hand, and a particular kind of lumpen tool-being. But Cage’s accusation of instrumental overdetermination has merit only from a programmatic standpoint of instrumental underdetermination, rather than from a stake in the musician’s license as such. Cage ascribes special significance to the moment of rupture wherein the amplifier breaks. For Cage, this conspicuous gap in the intended performance is rife with subjective meaning. When the tool breaks, thwarting one’s intentionality, it may be seen anew.
Jae Wook Lee uses this Heideggerian problematic to unpack Cage’s iconic composition 4’33”, in which “the piano is expected first as ‘ready-to-hand’ (functional tool). Yet because the pianist does not play the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the piano becomes ‘presence-at-hand’ as a malfunctioning tool. Our awareness of the piano dissipates as noises from the audiences start to reveal themselves.”1 In this description, the factical bulk of the piano-as-factory appears only when forlorn of the virtuoso’s touch, gradually calling an attention that would otherwise be gathered in an idiomatically conditioned appraisal to the oddness and actuality of one’s surroundings. Likewise, according to Heidegger, “we never hear noises and complexes of sound,” rather perceiving our own lived associations with sonic information; “the creaking wagon, the motorcycle.”2 The listener, one could say, “always already maintains itself together with innerworldly things at hand and initially not at all with ‘sensations...’”3 A certain movement of close listening traverses these poles, from readymade association to estrangement and back, affirming a Zen-like ideality or ‘is-ness.’ The kind of cultivated, affirmative acquiescence termed broadly ‘Cagean’ today concerns this self-replenishing store of already-aural meaning.
In his critique of Branca, Cage appears to fear the imposition of a single technological will, such that music cannot endure the interpretation of surroundings: “They make circuits and so forth on which they become habitually dependent, and if the circuits don’t function, the music collapses.” A literal reading of this critique is less than impressive, insofar as only a caricatural programme of post-instrumentalism can accommodate this idealized independence. While Cage may reflexively reject the electric guitar as a physicalist programme, his immediate remark allows that ‘circuitry’ may correspond to any self-referential regime whatsoever: “It’s very different from writing a music which can be used by a stranger, someone you don’t know. Or at least you cut the, what’s it called, the cord that connects us to the mother.”
Cage’s reference to the umbilical cord is plainly intended to evoke the cable that obliges guitarist to equipment, in a Freudian displacement where, ironically, the signifier of motherly proximity stands for something else entirely. But the accusation of authoritarian Oedipality, to which Cage opposes an ideally motile individuation, is itself of interest, considering how often fascist desire is referred to philosophical figurations of an irrational feminine essence, in the work of Adorno for example.
In this sense, his programme of individuation is arrested at the level of the spectacle. Cage himself says as much: “Even if you couldn’t hear you could see the situation.” Cage’s critique is immediately visual, and his misgivings about the cultic aspect of the music have largely to do with a presumed theatricality. In a fascinating metaphor, Cage describes his physical exhaustion in optical terms: the sound was “like a bright light reflecting off a building,” evoking the literal architecture of the modern city by way of condemnation.
Cage isn’t wrong to notice that the electric guitar is a sign of bodily agon, and the exhortatory representations of socialist realism aren’t far afield from rock iconography. This workmanlike involvement appears to repulse Cage, and in an alarming moment of confusion, he fixates on the fact of whether or not the musicians were reading sheet music as a special point of condemnation: “I didn’t see any music. I must ask some other people,” Cage says. The lack of music is a special sign of impermeable collectivity, the composer’s will so perfectly imposed that even the Kantian notion of freedom in lawful obeisance to a rule no longer applies.
“I don’t think though that the image of that power and intention and determination would make a society that I would want to continue living in,” Cage admits, stalling on the spectacular dimension of the performance. Certainly there is an element of Branca’s work that appeals, or repulses, on the theatrical level, and the asphyxiating strength of the music may account for the strength and defensiveness of the listener’s response. At this point, Cage interrupts his diatribe, asking after the appeal of Branca’s music for his interlocutor. Unsurprisingly, Mertens is not immediately forthcoming with his approval, but he finds the music to be laudably noncommunicative, a hopeless scream: “It’s an accumulation of energies without content, without dialectics in it, without communication, without feedback. It’s very libidinal.” On this point, Cage challenges him directly; for if the music is about desire, he says, then it is in fact dialectical, “because desire is for something other than itself.”
The Case of Branca
This overabundance of energy contradicts intelligence, Cage continues: “there is only power and energy.” Furthermore, it smacks of an old-world romanticism: “One of the things I dislike most about European music is the presence of climaxes, and what I see in Branca as in Wagner is a sustained climax. It also suggests that what is not it is not climactic.” To properly indulge this anachronism, we could note that Friedrich Nietzsche (and others who fare less well in posterity, such as conservative critic Eduard Hanslick) accused Wagner of something similar in the nineteenth century; of a doctrine of unending melody that effectively banishes levity and relief in a suffusive oceanic feeling: “Gradually one loses one’s footing and one ultimately abandons oneself to the mercy or fury of the elements: one has to swim.”4
Prior to this romantic annexation of the listener’s autonomy, Nietzsche says, musical variation obliged the listener to a requisite “sobriety of thought.” Wagner transgresses the physiological basis for music, abolishing rhythm, or measure, for an elemental stasis. In this case, novelty culminates in “rhythmic paradox and abuse,” which gripe resembles Cage’s invective. (“There are men who try in vain to make a principle out of themselves,” Nietzsche says of Wagner.) By his own account, for what it’s worth, Wagner rejects the rhythmicity that Nietzsche recommends as a physical prompt to intellection, attempting an absolute rather than formalist, or architectural, music.
In Wagner’s philosophical self-defence, music operates from within, as a will preceding objectivity, a dream life that brooks no outer obstacle. In Kiene Brillenburg Wurth’s description, the ideal is “to wander off into an oceanic formlessness that cannot be pictured or overseen,” a sublime intimation of transcendence.5 Philosophically speaking, this striving for transcendence derives from a noumenal limit that can’t be simply overcome, insofar as any threshold experience depends upon this obstacle. In this respect, Wagner has a vexed debt to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose description of the sublime entails a painful oscillation of subject and object. However, Wurth notes, Wagner’s own writing associates the experience of the sublime with “an easy and imperceptible gliding into oblivion.”6
In Wagner’s description, rhythm is an architectural rather than musical ideal, such that pure music heralds timelessness. In this sense, Wagner is the perfect object of polemic for Cage, whose compositional program of time-based indeterminacy invites a kind of mindfulness. A dialectical relationship of quantity and quality operates here, as the innerworldly time of subjective appreciation contradicts the clock’s chronology.
In Wurth’s description of Wagner’s music, tonal uncertainty rather than evental indeterminacy is the rule. Wagner subverts the expected relationship between dominant and tonic, unresolved and resolving, chords, such that one chord becomes the dominant of the next. This deferral accords with Schopenhauer’s description of desire; that, where any object is concerned, “possession takes away its fascination; the wish, the need, reintroduces itself in a new form.”7 This is an harmonic representation of the narrative arc of Tristan und Isolde, a narrative of infinite longing.
What It Is Not
In Branca’s music, this is taken to extremes of irresolution. There is no melodic development whatsoever, only an important tension between a driving rhythm section, often delayed in entry, and a glacial harmonic movement. In this respect, the rhythm has a subdivisory effect. The driving beat, borrowed from rock music and a white-washed new wave more specifically, obliges one to bodily motion, even in the absence of any horizontally elaborated theme.
The shimmering opacity to which these pieces quickly mount may be that dread thing, the permanent, impermeable crescendo — and I mean dread in the precise sense of sublime apprehension — but Branca arranges with this obstacle productively in mind. Mertens is conflicted in his appraisal, offering a merely nihilistic caption for a Schopenhauerian, if not Wagnerian, endeavour, where the top-down stasis Cage perceives does indeed have some relationship to difficulty, even pain. Branca’s compositions may seem monolithic, but they retain and develop an internal tension. Contrary to Cage’s claim that Branca’s work imposes unity, the two do not unite in one; the one divides in two.
Cage’s own dialectical remark as to the fearfulness of climax is that such music diminishes whatever is “not it.” Cage’s moment of appreciation for the broken amplifier tells us something of his musical, and social, ideal; that an immanent “not-it” ought to persist amid intention. In this, Cage is an exemplary thinker of totality, “not just the discretely chosen social conventions” but their outer conditions, too.8 It is by this account that Branca’s music appears falsely whole, pending irruption.
Cage’s program of expanded listening may presume too much by way of inclusivity, however. The obvious contradiction is widely remarked upon: as Cage sought to expunge idiomatically overdetermined material from his work, his proscription against the popular made it more rarefied than ever. The lush austerity of his most aleatory works absolutely retains a determinative relationship to that which it is not. To be less abstract, this negativity includes the music of urban enclaves at mid-century specifically, a distaste hardly innocent of race and class.
Bracketing Cage’s aversion to jazz and R&B, we could immediately note his umbrage at Branca’s technological populism, shored in the instrument itself. Cage professes interest in the broken amplifier with a slightly revengeful affect, directed at the musicians by way of the faulty tool, as though it were the exhausted technology’s own revenge on the composer. So many projections culminate in this pathetic fallacy: the music wearies the listener, who presumes an inordinate demand placed on the performers, who are thwarted in turn by overworked equipment, an electric refusenik in which Cage sees his own desire for release.
All of this is again mediated by the visual, by the hand, by the demands of the charismatic composer, which is the proper object of critique; for Cage himself is a pioneering electronic artist, hardly innocent of circuitry. His Williams Mix includes almost as many tape players as Branca had guitarists in 1982. The difference, Cage would likely say, is that these recordings are themselves notational, insofar as Cage himself needn’t attend their interaction. In a 1954 lecture, 45’ for a Speaker, Cage had already warned that one of the dangers of magnetic tape was “feeling obliged to have an instrument.”9 And Cage’s work with tape specifically obscures its references over the course of their instrumentalization. This is a key difference between Cage’s electronic pieces and Branca’s alleged technological dependency. Cage’s visual bias, discussed above, can immediately be seen as a reaction to the literal suggestiveness of the prop, as a prompt to interpretation. This contradiction, between theatricality and “unseeing, unknowing dreaming” of sound also ironically cleaves Wagnerian opera.10 Cage decides in favour of the latter, interior program, which is betrayed in the naming of electroacoustic works such as Imaginary Landscape one through five. After the suggestiveness of David Grubbs’ book on Cagean aesthetics and recording technology, Records Ruin the Landscape, one might suggest that Cage’s preference for the concert format necessitates attachment to a host of visual factors unacknowledged in many of his musical remarks.
This tempts a series of extremely open-ended questions as to the consistency of non-aural Cagean space. Having minimally defined music in terms of its categorical requirements, Cage’s temporality becomes a megastructure within which musician and audience alike enjoy unprecedented spatial freedom of attention and interpretation. In this respect, Jae Wook Lee’s description of 4’33” misses that the piano is not the most conspicuous object of Heideggerian presence-at-hand in this piece. Rather, the time of the performance itself, which as a space for sensuous involvement far exceeds any rigidly quantitative measure, becomes an object of apprehension, mechanically estranged. This tension enacts a miniature sublime, immanent to musical experience.
Insofar as part of the effect of this piece derives from its naming (which is to say, from the application of a mathematical standard incommensurate with subjective experience), one could portray Cage as crypto-Kantian, and Branca as a properly Schopenhauerian nemesis, conducting overwhelming turbulence. Furthermore, Cage’s program presumes a recuperative intellection at every moment and Branca’s firmly does not, summoning all manner of mentally undermining and physically overpowering energies. But this would be to stop at a theoretical level of interest. Seeing as the totalizing demand that Cage brings to bear on Branca is a social question — what kind of society does this music implicitly project? — we could ask the same, and attempt to extrapolate a Cagean civics.
Branden W. Joseph writes of Cage’s theoretical dalliance with Buckminster Fuller, whose ultra-Modernist housing designs project a future of infrastructural flexibility and mass accommodation. Cage, in a bout of futurological fervor, endorses this pending re-organization of the world, perhaps such that its inhabitants “will be able to take great advantage from being ourselves disorganized. We will be able to socially be anarchists individually to live in chaos.”11 This is closely related to Cage’s final remark on Branca’s concert, that his own music strives by comparison to create conditions such “that each person can place his attention originally rather than in a compelled way or in a constrained way, so that each person is in charge of himself.”
In Joseph’s description, Cage remains wary of the mass-produced homogeneity of the impending geodesic housing regime. But the theoretical rapport of these two contemporaries has to do with the postulate of an “unrestricted mobility,” perhaps related to the unplugged musician or the individuated, an-Oedipalized socius described above. Here Joseph registers a suggestive critique, that this demand accords all too well with the networked contexts of liberal capitalism.12
Of Resultant Masses
However indeterminate, Cage’s music insists upon a privileged relationship to architecture, insofar as it presumes an articulate space. This decidedly non-classical ideal nonetheless opposes Wagnerian absolutism, of which Branca stands accused. But is it possible to imagine a differently productive, comparatively pro-social, interpretation of Branca’s music? Is this a symptomatic din, only as brutal and utilitarian as the social strictures that he would confront?
Growing up in the communitarian micro-climate of punk, it would never have occurred to me or any of my bandmates to self-criticize on the basis of uniformity, let alone unison playing, which we didn’t always achieve. But this youthful milieu set forth a fetishistic, yet instructive, practice of mutual commitment, an inter-objective training upon intransigent physical and social material. There is some distance from this slacker voluntarism to the aesthetic conscription that Cage decries, from the isolated insurrectionary cells of individual punk bands to a public institution; but I wouldn’t fear the intensity of the collective, much less on purely formal grounds. Against this backdrop, Branca made intuitive sense to me, as an attempt to generalize rather than restrict the accessibility and cathartic power of sound.
As Kiene Brillenburg Wurth suggests, the power of organized sound to outstrip the individual and evoke elemental forces aligns it with the sublime. Wurth entreats us to imagine the rising voice of the participants of the French revolution, congregating on the lawn of the Champs de Mars: “They sing, they shout, they merge into a massive voice. The sound of this voice alone is staggering and uncannily irresistible ... It is no longer a multifarious whole, louder here, dissonant there, but rather extracts itself from its parts, rising higher and higher until it becomes a voice hovering above the crowd — bodiless, de-composed, singular.”13 The rousing, rising chorus conducts a revelation of the mob to itself, as an alien strength. Branca’s music has similar physiological effects, anonymizing masses, though the signatory gesture of the composer as cause sets it apart from the realm of authentic political experiment.
But the author-catalyst is not the most salient agent in a performance, as John Cage’s own radically aleatory compositions suggest. (As Nietzsche says, some men make a principle of themselves.) In the revolutionary period, the composer Étienne-Nicolas Méhul arranged for thousands of participants, divided into quadrants, to sing a major chord. This willful unanimity remains politically exultant if momentarily suppressive, and Wurth’s study of instrumental music finds the empty sign to be politically rife in its ambiguity.
Glenn Branca’s thirteenth symphony, Hallucination City, was written for 100 guitars and convokes participation in sections titled ‘March’ and ‘Chant.’ A massively glistening sound supplants the supple orchestral tissue of Branca’s more conventional symphonic work, in consummation of the energies unleashed in 1982 with only ten guitars. This is city music, corresponding to the roar of traffic, soundtracking the glare of sunlight on a glass facade. It is, whatever Cage suggests to the contrary, a music of creative cohabitation, mediated by the tremendous strictures of actual existence. As in navigating cities, a libidinal undercurrent — the lopsided swagger of the third movement bears the title ‘Drive’ — becomes sublimated in the intensive publicity of performance.
In a 2011 interview, Branca says as much, contradicting Cage’s criticism in precisely amenable terms: “In a sense, I almost think of this as being political, because I believe in the individual mind. I don’t like the mass mind … I want people to think. That’s what I do, and I don’t see why everybody else shouldn’t do that too.” Branca’s music sets forth, and even thematizes, a dialectical interplay of repression and expression, where power is both keyword and pivot. Then a serious question ensues: is there a contradiction between mass action and the individual mind? Furthermore, as Cage projects a social organization in which it is possible to practice anarchy, to live creatively in chaos, there is a question of transition, for we live nowhere near that destination, yet. In timely fashion, then, we could take Cage’s criticism absolutely seriously and affirm the force and collective power modelled in Glenn Branca’s work as an aesthetic for the present, absent politics. Perhaps the listener-participant, if moved to enrolment, can start to imagine how that work might proceed.
Jae Wook Lee, Thing Thinks. https://www.tk-21.com/Thing-Thinks
Martin Heidegger, translated by Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time (New York: SUNY Press, 1996), 164.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner. 62.
Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 81.
Quoted in Wurth, 89.
John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 80.
Quoted in Branden W. Joseph, Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture. (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 96.
Cam Scott is a critic, poet and improvising musician living in Brooklyn, New York. His writing about politics and aesthetics has appeared in The Believer, Sounding Out!, 3:AM, and revolutionary socialism in the 21st century. More of his words can be read at coldcatcher.wordpress.com.