Glenn Branca, the renegade experimental noise musician whose work shattered windows and battered down walls in the New York avant-garde scene and beyond, died last night. He was 69. The news was confirmed by his wife and frequent collaborator, Reg Bloor, who wrote in a Facebook post that Branca died of throat cancer.
Branca was born in 1948 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He picked up a guitar at 15 and started a band in his late teens, but he was convinced that his future lay in acting and directing, not in music. He studied at York College in Pennsylvania and then Emerson in Boston before moving to London for a short time in the early-'70s. Only when he moved to New York in 1976, as much to witness his punk heroes in action as to immerse himself in experimental theatre, did he begin to play with music more intently. He formed Theoretical Girls with Margaret De Wys and N. Dodo Band's Jeffrey Lohn and Mark Anthol before going on to release his debut solo piece, _Lesson No. 1—_a record that was in turn hypnotic and obtuse—in 1981.
His early records featured a cavalcade of now-prominent noise and left-field musicians. Branca's first album, The Ascension, released later in 1981, featured Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and future author and Guggenheim Fellow Ned Sublette. Early iterations of Branca's guitar orchestra also featured Page Hamilton (later of Helmet), members of Swans, and Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore. In fact, Branca introduced Moore to Ranaldo in the early-'80s before releasing Sonic Youth's debut EP on his Neutral Records imprint in 1982.
But Branca was working on his own music throughout, piecing together intense, strange sounds and working off of theories from long-dead philosophers and mathematicians, combining a range of disparate musical influences. He put together symphonies, each more ambitious than the last, often with his own home-built instruments featuring prominently.
"I was a record collector and I listened to fuckin’ everything," Branca told Noisey of his influences in 2016. "I was listening to Mahler one minute, and then Patti Smith the next minute, and then Miles Davis. I worked in a record store, that’s how I got into classical music. And that’s when I got turned onto Mahler. I had never heard him and my mind was blown. I mean I was still getting stoned in those days. Mahler was taking me places that no one in music had ever taken me."
Branca continued to be a force in experimental music long after the No Wave scene he helped to foster burned out. He started to compose more music for traditional orchestras—though it was rarely straightforward—while pushing his guitar orchestra to its extremes. "Symphony No. 13" was written for 100 guitars. It still makes for a disorienting and remarkable listen. “If I knew what the music was going to sound like before I wrote it, I wouldn’t bother,” Branca told Noisey.
"I feel grateful to have been able to live and work with such an amazing source of ideas and creativity for the past 18 1/2 years. His musical output was a fraction of the ideas he had in a given day. His influence on the music world is incalculable," Bloor wrote on Facebook. "Despite his gruff exterior, he was a deeply caring and fiercely loyal man. We lived in our own little world together. I love him so much. I'm absolutely devastated. He lived a very full life and had no regrets. Thank you to all the fans and all of the musicians whose support made that possible."
Follow Alex Robert Ross on Twitter.