Glenn Branca had been asked by the French government to write a piece for 2,000 guitars for their year 2000 celebration in Paris. This concert, of course, never happened because that’s completely absurd. The soundcheck alone would’ve taken a week. But he was paid handsomely to write the piece, which he did not do.
However, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) in New York had heard about the project and they were interested in staging a large-scale piece of that sort. They initially proposed a more realistic 200 guitars, but Glenn talked them down further, to 100. The piece became Symphony No. 13 “Hallucination City” performed at the World Trade Center Plaza on June 13th, 2001.
I had started working with Glenn the previous year, just a few months after arriving in New York, but this was the first project I worked on with him completely from beginning to end, and it was when I solidified my role as concertmaster and right hand in his operation. This is a role I would serve right up until his death in 2018, and still continue in his absence.
Glenn never started working on a piece before contracts were signed and advances were paid. The contract was signed on May 5, which meant we had five weeks for him to write the piece (which the LMCC didn’t know he hadn’t yet done), for me to copy the parts, recruit the musicians, and photocopy and send the parts to the musicians in time to work on them (not to mention learning my own part). It would encompass every waking moment.
He wrote the piece on graph paper. Each horizontal square was an eighth note and each vertical square was a half step. He could actually draw the lines of the chord motion. I copied them by hand onto the parts in staff notation because he didn’t have time to teach me Encore, the music notation program he used at that time. He’d been using it for so long, he had a two-digit serial number. We never did make a full staff notation score for this version.
This piece was written for nine guitar sections in unison octave tunings :
four alto sections tuned to two octaves of high E,
three tenor sections tuned to two octaves of middle B,
two bass sections in standard tuning,
with ten or eleven people assigned to each section.
I played the tenor part, the B tuning, as I had for Symphony
No. 12, the first live show I did with Glenn in 2000. B is the more difficult tuning because guitar players are so used to E, but it didn’t take me long to get used to reading for it. It was similar to reading for the second string on the guitar in standard tuning. The notes on the staff were either played as unison bar chords, or if they had a squiggly line next to them, as half-step clusters. Lee Ranaldo, who cut his teeth in the Glenn Branca Ensemble in the early 1980s (including on Glenn’s seminal records Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension, among other early pieces, as well as his first three symphonies), called this chord “the staircase chord,” as it was played on successive frets on successive strings in a staircase pattern. The written note was the lowest note in the chord, though you could play it on the top string or on the bottom string of the chord ; either way works in this tuning. The clusters in the bass sections were all written either to use one fretted note against an open string or high enough on the neck to play on two strings. But he would stack these clusters into huge walls of dissonance.
The strumming technique was what Glenn called “double-strumming,” which was like fast tremolo strumming, but not rhythmic. This was to be done close to the bridge where the string is tight. The effect was a continuous smooth tone, almost like strings. The notes were then let ring and sustained through the rests.
We set about recruiting the musicians by contacting friends, friends of friends, and their mailing lists by email chain. They had to be able to read staff notation, attend two day-long rehearsals in addition to the soundcheck and show day, and bring their own amp. It was a mix of former and then-current members of the Glenn Branca Ensemble (who served as section leaders), downtown luminaries (when downtown was still a thing), strangers who just heard about it, and even some of my old friends who traveled down from Boston, where I lived during the ’90s, to participate. We couldn’t audition all of those people, so we relied on the prospect of looking like an ass in front of 99 other guitarists to weed out people who couldn’t read. We also weren’t able to pay them because multiplying anything times 100 becomes a lot very quickly ; but we did promise to feed them two meals a day on rehearsal days and on the show day. There must have been about 400 people who contacted us in order to get the 100 we needed to agree to all of the requirements. I wish I’d kept a record of all the excuses. That would be a whole book in itself.
We communicated with musicians by email but had to send the parts by Priority Mail since we didn’t know how to make a PDF in those days. I remember feeding quarters into the Xerox machine at the Staples on Broadway in Soho trying to get them all copied before they kicked us out.
This is the first time Glenn had done anything like this with volunteers, so we had no idea if anyone was going to show up. I’ll never forget walking around the corner of the North Tower onto the World Trade Center Plaza for the first rehearsal and seeing people sitting there on their amps waiting for us. This was really going to work.
Eighty-five musicians showed up to play the piece. We learned that if 100 people confirm and reconfirm that they will definitely, absolutely, 100% be there, 85 will show up.
The stage was between the towers, with the North Tower behind us and the South Tower on our right. We sat in rows according to section, altos on one side, tenors on the other, basses on a riser with the drums in the back. Glenn was conducting the piece himself, in his manic, interpretive dance style that was more to pull the performance out of us by sheer force of will than to give us any cues. Fortunately, he had long-time Ensemble member John Myers giving a cue every ten measures for when the musicians lost their place. Yeah, that’s when not if. Playing with Glenn is like stumbling after a freight train; no one’s listening back to you and no one’s waiting for you, you just have to keep up—for 960 measures.
The piece was a swirling cauldron of consonance and dissonance, like a giant swarm of bees trapped in a cyclone, the single movement a long, gradual build of dynamics, pitch, and tempo to a crescendo bouncing off the towers and ringing through the plaza, spilling out onto the streets of Lower Manhattan. It’s a sound that stays with you for the rest of the day after the piece is over. You hear it coming out of the subway tunnel or in the air conditioning. You can’t get it out of your ear until whole world starts to sound like Glenn.
We got a rousing standing ovation from the crowd. The corralled-in seating area was full, standing room only, though not nearly as many people as the number who claim to have been there. Security tried to keep spectators in the designated area, but they were unable to stop bystanders and passersby from gathering to find out what this sound was.
Afterwards, Glenn held court in the green room inside the North Tower. He answered questions and expounded on his theories of music, literature, politics, and whatever else he felt like, while a gathering of the musicians listened intently. Glenn was a talker. He could go on for hours and people wanted to listen to him for hours. He had a kind of charisma that made people want to follow him, even though he had no interest in amassing followers.
Glenn was initially skeptical of this 100 guitar format. He assumed it would be too muddy sounding to write a piece of too much complexity, so he approached it the same way he would have one of his nine guitar pieces. However once he heard it, he realized the parts were a lot clearer and more transparent than he thought they would be.
After years of trying to break into the orchestral music scene to no avail, he realized he finally had his orchestra.
Glenn completely re-wrote the piece from scratch in 2006 (and continued to tweak it for two years) using tricks and techniques that he had wanted to use with an orchestra.
The original version of the piece was only played once more in a 2004 recording session that was never released because of technical problems, but was notable for including the very young Annie Clark and Tyondai Braxton.
For nearly three years we played the new version of the piece all over the world with what must’ve been nearly 1,000 musicians. A live recording from the 2008 performance in Rome was released in 2016 on Atavistic Records. That version has nothing in common with what we played in 2001.
If you weren’t there, you didn’t hear it.