Lesson No. 1
Out of Print (from us)
After playing in the seminal and influential no wave rock outfits the Theoretical Girls and the Static, Glenn Branca made his first strides towards the more ambitious guitar symphonies he’d become famous for with Lesson No. 1. Written in 1979 around the same time as many of the pieces that would later make up the Ascension, Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar is perhaps his most accessible piece of the period. Clocking in at just over 8 minutes, it is a concise yet extended statement of forward motion. Guitar motives repeat in a manner recalling the minimalism of Philip Glass, but like Glass, there is a maximilist approach to sonic density and bombast, a neverending cresendo. Upon it’s initial release as the first record on the influential 99 Records(Liquid Liquid, ESG) Lesson No. 1 was paired with Dissonance, a more daring experiment that explodes sonic dissonance with rock and roll energy. Both tracks were recorded with small bands, Anthony Coleman’s keyboards adding a beautifully melodic pattern to Lesson No. 1 and Stephan Wischerth showing the same power he did playing drums on the Ascension.
Two years later, as Branca was beginning to expand his ideas with his more ambitous symphonies, he was commisioned to write a piece for choreographer Twyler Tharp that would neatly cover many of the styles he’s worked with in the past, and would work in the future. Music for Bad Smells, composed as a dance piece, is comprised of many different sections that range from some of his most freaked-out rock guitar histronics to his most subtle textural ambience, from dissonant discordant funk to driving sonic aggression. In just over 16 minutes, one can hear every style of guitar playing composers and bands would explore for the next 20 years. This is, of course, handled magnificently by the line-up of the Glenn Branca Ensemble, which for this piece is the entire Ascension band, including Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and the addition of Lee’s Sonic counterpart, Thurston Moore.
This CD marks the first time Lesson No. 1 and Dissonace has been released domestically on CD. Music From Bad Smells was previously available on a Giorno Poetry Systems compilation which has since gone out of print. All three tracks have been remastered by Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttanbachers, New York City guitar maestro Alan Licht lends some thoughts for the liner notes. In addition to this, it features a quicktime video of Branca’s Symphony No. 5 as a sign of where he was heading and because, hey, it’s damn cool.
Glenn Branca – Lesson No. 1 (excerpt)
1 Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar
3 Bad Smells
All Music Guide March 2004
Lesson No. 1 was Glenn Branca’s first release as a composer. Originally issued as a 12″ EP, or mini-album, it featured two tracks, the beautiful and accessible title track – composed as a response to listening to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and the frenetically assaultive “Dissonance,” which has lost none of its power. The players on this date were organist Anthony Coleman, drummer Stephen Wischerth, F.L.Schroder on bass, Branca and Michael Gross on guitars and, on the latter track, Harry Spitz on Sledgehammer. This compact disc reissue on Acute contains “Bad Smells,” an unreleased track from the Ascension sessions that came two years later. The band here features five guitarists: Branca, David Rosenbloom, Ned Sublette, Lee Ranaldo, and Thurston Moore, as well as bassist Jeffrey Glenn and Wischerth. There is also a QuickTime video movie of “Symphony No. 5″ included. One of the most compelling things about this release is how fully developed Branca’s ideas were even at this early juncture. His micro- and over-tonal notions as overlooked visceral elements in rock & roll prove worthy mettle here, and even on “Dissonance” with its catharsis and knotty harmonics, rock & roll is never far from the fore in his method. “Bad Smells” has a different, more complex dynamic, especially from the outset, but the sense of urgency is there, along with the shimmering, barely hidden melodic frames that keep the entire thing evolving on the axis of its pulse. Guitarist Alan Licht provides a fine critical history and appreciation in his liner notes, making for a historically relevant package. But in spite of its obvious contribution not only to vanguard music, but to Sonic Youth’s sound, the music here is actually pleasant and compelling to listen to, and does not sound like a relic out of time and space, or a curiosity piece from long ago. Lesson No. 1 is a powerful, wrenching, transcendent piece of rock guitar classicism that, if there is any justice, will get a wider and more appreciative hearing in the new century.
Glenn Branca’s first release of his sprawling guitar symphonies, Lesson No. 1, is glossy compared to some of his later work ’ and is, admittedly by Branca, an exercise in rock minimalism. With a smaller band ’ only two guitars, organ, bass, and drums, in the case of “Lesson No. 1″ ’ Branca turns chiming guitars and a repetitive organ groove into a cascade of utopian sound, updating the work of La Monte Young as futuristic ecstatic ritual. In this case, the guitars are almost new wave, and remarkably similar to the dark and syrupy dance rock of Joy Division ’ which Branca was reportedly listening to frequently at the time. Things take a sharp turn, though, with “Dissonance,” a piercing and uncomfortable track of horror and industrial intensity ’ the would-be collapse of the Romanticism built on the first piece. Two minutes into the 11-minute composition comes a commanding pummel that will undoubtedly sound familiar to fans of Sonic Youth who, after all, drew heavily on Branca’s uncompromising assaults and disorienting detunings. The 16-minute “Bad Smells,” which features Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, is a transitional Branca piece, but also his most unpredictable, skipping from a film-soundtrack gallop to spacious guitar constructions to jerky, no-wave punk funk rhythms and, finally, captivating ambience. Certainly a record that establishes Branca as the ’80s NYC force to be reckoned with, it also shows the great rock scope of Branca’s composing ’ in contrast to Rhys Chatham ’ and illuminates nearly all of the generic modes which he would develop and draw upon in his future work.
Bbc.co.uk March 31,2004
Though left off Brian Eno’s genre-defining No Wave compilation, Glenn Branca’s minimal art-thrash outfit Theoretical Girls were one of the scene’s cornerstones, along with bands like Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus. No Wave was a typically New York phenomenon; it embraced noise, funk, free jazz and anything else it found lying around and grafted it on to the DIY ethos of punk with barely a glance backwards and a complete disregard for musical convention. It sounded like nothing else on earth.
While still a member of Theoretical Girls, Branca (along with rival Rhys Chatham) began to work on music that combined classical compositional techniques with the, er…power of rock. Unsurprisingly the results were some way from the rococo intricacies of prog; instead Branca and Chatham constructed an infernal, crushing minimalism from massed electric guitars that owed as much to The Stooges as it did to Lamonte Young.
This reissue brings together a few previously hard to find Branca items from the early 80s. “Lesson No 1 for Electric Guitar” and “Dissonance” date from 1980 and are played by a relatively conventional band line-up. Spidery repeated riffs (reminiscent of King Crimson’s early 80s work) lock and unlock, eventually coalescing into anthemic, hammering riffage. It’s amazing how polite it all sounds; rendered weedy by an indifferent production.
Less polite is “Bad Smells”, originally composed for choreographer Twyla Tharp. Here Branca shows his deep understanding of the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar; there are five of them here (two are played by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore). Over angular, juddering rhythmic constructions they uncoil celestial drones, metallic clangs and vicious scything distortions into a restless mini-symphony. Branca keeps things on the move; there’s more than a hint of John Zorn’s attention deficit disorder approach to composition as he juggles angular, Morricone-esque twangs with huge, shuddering crunches and cavernous ambience.
Brilliant stuff, but there’s more…rounding off the disc is a video of Branca’s Symphony No 5, recorded in 1984. As the piece builds from distant drones to what sounds like a roomful of guitars being hurled repeatedly at a garage door, Branca gives an admirably literal meaning to the concept of ‘conducting’. Each percussive hit seems intimately connected with his nervous system as he prowls the stage; more Nick Cave than Sir Thomas Beecham. Alan Licht’s superb sleevenotes argue that Branca is the first post modern composer; whatever the truth of that assertion, this is a piece of history worthy of attention.
Vice April 2004
Raf + Vince
Originally released in 1980, guitarist/composer Glenn Branca’s Lesson No. 1 for electric guitar was a groundbreaking attempt to combine avant-garde classical shit (Philip Glass-style repetitive phrases) with the sonic assault of rock instruments. Over 20 years later, Acute Records (also responsible for releasing a collection of Branca’s early work with Theoretical Girls) has wisely decided that more people need to hear this shit. With its hypnotic blend of loopy, angular guitar motifs that swell to epic, Godspeed-like proportions, the recording is still fresh two decades later. Add to that the aptly title 11-minute head-fuck “Dissonance”, the 13-minute sonic apocalypse “Bad Smells” and the 17-minute original video footage of his “Symphony No. 5″, and you have one wild ride. Essential left-field listening. Also on Acute, look out for the Parisian 70s synth-punkers Metal Urbain’s 80s spin-off band, Metal Boys – noisy, dissonant guitars collide with bubbling keyboards and Euro-accented vocals.
xlr8r May 2004
No one has fused the structures of classical music with the raw energy of rock as successfully as No Wave pioneer Glenn Branca. This latest in a series of excellent Branca-related reissues on Acute Records resurrects the 1980 classic Lesson No. 1. In addition to the two pieces from the original record (the chugging, minimalist title track and the sublimely brutal “Dissonance”), the reissue includes a lesser-known work called “Bad Smells.” Written for choreographer Twyla Tharp, it’s a slice of angular post-funk writ elephantine. Also included is a QuickTime video of a live performance of the Branca epic “Symphony No.5″ with an exultant composer conducting. Essential.
Other Music April 28, 2004
The third installment in Acute’s comprehensive Glenn Branca series is this reissue of his groundbreaking 1980 debut “Lesson No. 1.” Along with Rhys Chatham, Branca helped to give birth to rock minimalism by marrying a compositional style similar to La Monte Young’s with the popular new wave sound of the early-’80s. This disc includes the phenomenal title track, which was one of the highlights of last year’s New York Noise compilation, along with the original b-side “Dissonance” and a recording of a longer piece called “Bad Smells,” which features Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore dueling with three other electric guitar players. If that isn’t enough to get the drool flowing, the CD also features a video of a spectacular performance of Branca’s “Symphony No. 5″ from 1984. This is powerful, overwhelming music in which you can completely lose yourself. Both as a “serious” composer and as a popular musician, Branca was light years ahead of his time and his musical legacy remains unparalleled to this day. Essential.
Time Out New York April 29,2004
Jordan N Mamone
Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham are flip sides of the same modernist coin. The former, an art-punk genius striving for classical cred, has gradually refined his awesome, if somewhat single-minded vision. The latter, a renegad academic swimming in primal waters, favors more eclectic musings, though his dilettantism occasionally backfires. These downtown titans, both of whom have written symphonic works for up to 100 electric guitars, have been engaged in the ultimate high-decibel rivalry for decades.
An expanded reissue of Branca’s 1980 debut EP, Lesson No. 1 bespangles hard-rock tension with harmonic symmetry and steely, glimmering overtones. The lovely title track bursts with euphoric gusto, while “Dissonance” spins off whirlpools of roiling drums and churning, burning chord clusters. “Bad Smells,” a 1982 bonus cut featuring Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, serves as a violent primer for the thundering grace of Branca’s landmark first album, The Ascension (resurrected last year by Acute).
The Wire May 2004
Glenn Branca’s greatest contribution to the post-punk avant garde remains theoretical. Branca was one of the first downtown musicians to make explicit the common ground shared by minimalist composers and reductive punks, allying rock’s monosyllabic caveman “ug” with the unyielding monolithic drones of experimentalists like Phil Niblock and Charlemagne Palestine, and the symphonic bombast of Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky. That said, his music rarely scaled the peaks of contemporary rock operators, groups like Swans, Savage Republic, Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth, who much more instinctive grasp of rock dynamics resulted in a music that was unweighted by the kind of selfconscious baggage that Branca inevitably brought to the table. Their intuitive feel for split second dynamics and elemental use of dissonance far outstrips Branca’s more studied application.
Indeed, Branca appreciation has always seemed more historical that musical, and that’s certainly the case with Lesson No. 1 (Acute ACT005 CD), a reissue of a clutch of Branca’s earliest compositions, featuring 1980’s “Lesson No 1 for Electric Guitar” and “Dissonance”, and 1982’s “Bad Smells”.
The first two tracks made up Branca’s first solo release on Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records, home of ESG and Liquid Liquid, while “Bad Smells” originally came out on a split LP with poet John Giorno on Giorno’s own label.
“Lesson No 1″ is scored for two guitars, organ, bass and drums and is based on a repeating two note pattern driven through by a Joy Division style bassline and propelled by drumming so weedy it sounds like golf balls being dropped into a swimming pool. The hammering on-off guitar riff is undoubtedly intended as a metallic transposition of the dance of Terry Riley’s alternating reed streams, but here it sounds closer to a new wave rethink of the 12 bar boogie. “Dissonance” is more atmospheric, with worrying bass and pneumatic guitar working spidery patterns over more skimpy percussion, this time augmented by a sledgehammer that sounds as cleaving as the polite impact of a cup and saucer. The final track, “Bad Smells”, is the most interesting. Featuring an expanded line-up of bass, drums and five guitarists, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the group generate a slow river of foggy electronics, over which they detonate spurts of new wave clang. The whole package also comes with a particularly hilarious Quicktime video featuring Branca conducting his Symphony No 5, although precisely why such elementary dynamics and slight timbral juggling requires this kind of performing monkey as navigator is beyond me.
Rockpile April 2004
Finally, in April Acute will rerelease Glenn Branca’s landmark 1980 LP Lesson No 1. Originally distributed on the legendary 99 Records label, Lesson No 1 uses repetitive harmonic changes and subtle hidden motifs to construct layered symphonies of amelodic clatter and drone. Fusing uptown minimalism with the visceral impact of the Velvet’s “White Light/White Heat”, Branca creates an adventurous and intoxicatingly original kind of music – later branded and franchised by his proteges in Sonic Youth. Also included on Lesson is “Bad Smells”, a separate piece originally written for a Twyla Tharp production and later released on a split LP with poet John Giorno. (For those of you playing at home, the track features Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore). Contort Yourself!
Dusted Magazine April 30, 2004
While much of Glenn Branca’s work was easily available from Chicago’s Atavistic Records by the end of the 1990’s, from his early work with his no wave rock groups (Theoretical Girls and The Static) to his microtonal guitar symphonies, the music that represented the transitional point in Branca’s career was much harder to search out. The original vinyl releases of his debut full-length, The Ascension, and the preceding Lesson No. 1, were hard to find, and CD reissues on Italy’s Newtone Records weren’t much easier to procure. Luckily, Acute Records, a label which has already issued a compilation of Theoretical Girls compositions by Jeffrey Lohn (all of Branca’s work for the group appeared on his Songs ’77-’79 disc) as well as The Ascension, is finally bringing this stage of Branca’s work to the masses, and with bonus material to boot.
Lesson No. 1 was Branca’s first release in which he delved more fully into instrumental sounds that melded the dissonant rock of his former outfits with the heavy, massed sounds that he would later explore with groups of anywhere between ten and a hundred guitarists. Originally issued on 99 Records in 12″ format, Lesson No. 1 contained two songs, one on each side. This cd reissue contains those tracks, “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” and “Dissonance,” as well as “Bad Smells,” a dance score previously available on a split LP with poet John Giorno. In “Lesson No. 1’Ä¶,” Branca first exhibits the formula that would serve as the basis of his next LP, The Ascension, a combination of heavy, repetitive, rhythmic statements overlaid with a chorus of guitars that begins in an almost stately mode before rising into a celestial frenzy. The more aggressive “Dissonance” also builds on a straightforward, repetitive rhythm, though the clangy interjections from the guitars and percussion, and the mechanical yet furious strumming that follows take the track in a new direction in which the different parts of the piece hurtle along together like a locomotive, then battle in and out of rhythmic phase with one another.
“Bad Smells,” though it was composed for dance, has its beginnings in material similar to “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar,” though, more than the two original tracks on the 12″, its defined sections, mini-movements that begin to forecast the progressions Branca would favor in his larger works, create shifts in atmosphere and timbre that break up any building momentum into smaller pieces, most likely to the benefit of dance composer Twyla Tharp. The addition of an almost eighteen-minute quicktime video of a performance of Symphony No. 5 serves as an intriguing, though somewhat out of place, addition to the disc, but it’s hard to fault Acute for its inclusion, as the musical recording of the symphony exists on a different imprint, Chicago’s Atavistic Records.
It’s not hard to see where Lesson No. 1 fits into Branca’s oeuvre. Remnants of Theoretical Girls material are rampant in these pieces, sometimes even what sound like they could be exact quotes (something Branca would continue to do in Symphony No. 1). The transition from rock music to more “classical” territory wouldn’t take place until Branca extended and transformed the ideas of The Ascension into Symphony No. 1, but this disc represents the beginning of that change. Listening closely, one can hear ideas which would come into fruition later in Branca’s career beginning to gestate in these pieces, a composer’s first bold forays into music which must have been even more thunderous then than it is now. Glenn Branca is not yet recognized adequately for the steps that he (among a select group of like-minded NYC composers) took towards the immersion of the rock vocabulary into classical music, but the reissue of this EP, as well as the earlier re-release of The Ascension on CD, can only be steps in the right direction.
URB May 2004
What is it?
Carpark’s specialty reissue sub-label brings back this seminal work by early 80’s guitarist-composer Glenn Branca, who, among other things, brought the world Sonic Youth and the idea of feedback and distortion as a means unto an end.
If you think a full-length made up of three untitled tracks featuring up to five guitars at a time (and a sledgehammer) sounds pretentious, you are correct. But similar to other “serious” musicians like Steven Reich, this stuff is essential for understanding contemporary music. Plus, all those guitars can be breathtaking.
Blender May 2004
Orchestral guitar composer’s first stab at the Great Big Noise
In 1980, Glenn Branca, a veteran of arty punk bands, was dreaming of being something bigger: a new kind of composer, whose chamber groups and orchestras would harness the volume and energy of electric guitars. The song “Lesson No. 1,” his statement of purpose, is a magnificent synthesis of the New Wave, disco and avant-garde aesthetics of that New York moment. It was originally a single, paired with the aptly titled “Dissonance,” whose huge, ugly tone clusters are underscored by an actual sledgehammer. This CD appends Branca’s gruff 1982 epic Bad Smells, on which his group includes half of the New York noise masterminds Sonic Youth, who had just formed, and a 1984 video of Branca conducting his roaring, punishing “Symphony No. 5,” with a guitar orchestra including future Hootie A&R man Tim Sommer.
Vital Weekly 421
A very very long time ago I saw a TV programme in which a guy conducted a guitar orchestra, with in his hands a cola bottle. It was quite loud, as members of the real orchestra, who were also on the same TV show walked out. It was Glenn Branca performing his third Symphony. (Later on I went to see a band that two of the guitarists formed, which was more a rock version of Branca – that band was SonicYouth – but that’s a different story). ‘Lesson No.1′ was Branca’s first record – how appropiate for a start. Unlike his later symphonies, Branca is close to rock music here, but at the same time it forecasts his later more minimalist approach. Branca took the whole minimalist school (Glass, Reich, Young etc) into the world of popmusic and started a whole movement of cross-over between rock and ‘serious’ music. ‘Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar’ is a startling minimalist piece with hammering guitars and pounding drums and the original b-side. ‘Dissonance’, is more loosely and experimental, less focussing on the minimalist aspect. As a bonus there is ‘Bad Smells’ (with the same aforementioned guitarists of Sonic Youth) from 1982. In less than two years (‘Lesson No.1′ was from 1980), Branca started composing much more serious music, dividing a lengthy piece into various sections, with abrupt changes while in each segment the element of minimalism is much more apperent. The line-up contains at that point five guitars, bass and drums. About a year later he played Dutch television. To get an idea how that looked, there is a quicktime movie of his ‘Symphony 5′, recorded at The Kitchen in 1984 enclosed. Crank up the volume and you have an idea. Essential music from a time full of musical changes and this record surely did make a change.
The Onion May 13, 2004
Predating the torrential epics that mark his legacy, Glenn Branca’s reissued Lesson No. 1 (Acute) shows the fabled guitar maestro working out his form in short order. First released in 1980, Lesson No. 1 features two lead pieces that drum up minimal no-wave chug and drone in a rock-band context’ just two guitars in a five-piece lineup, as opposed to the 10 or so axes of later Branca symphonies. The resulting tracks breathe better, rolling over train-track rhythms and trading monolithic terror for sweet release. An added track from 1982 features guitar-slinging by then-youngsters Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth…
Kerrang! April 3, 2004
Reissue of Early Work From Seminal Avant Guitarist.
The Lowdown: As a composer whose chosen medium was the guitar rather than the orchestra, Glenn Branca should be every rock fan’s hero. His symphonies were less exercises in Yngwie Malmsteen fret-widdlery and more a celebration of dense walls of sound, nervy tunings and the kind of unhinged punk spirit that would later inform the work of Sonic Youth. Recorded in 1980, “Lesson No1″, is one of his most diverse recordings and a great entry into his limit pushing world of noise. Best Track: “Lesson No 1 for Electric Guitar”.
Observer April 18, 2004
Glenn Branca’s first solo experimental guitar workout Lesson No.1 (Acute Records) brought him many admirers on its release in 1980. While not dissimilar to the minimalism of Philip Glass, Branca’s guitar symphonies had the added extra of propelling sonic momentum. The result was edgy and metallic, and in many ways recalled, with a guitar, the metronome style electro glide of fellow New Yorkers Suicide.
Now reissued, the album includes bonus track Bad Smells, featuring Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, together with 18 minute video of Symphony No.5.
Q Magazine June 2004
Post-Modern guitar concerto from 1980. Crikey. Glenn Branca was always the most avant of New York’s late 70s/early 80s avant garde set. This, his first release, was initially a two tracker. The remarkable Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar was a beautifully layered guitar symphony, heavily influenced by Joy Division, while Dissonance lived up to its title and remains as hypnotic as Paul McKenna. This thoughtful reissue adds the sprawling Bad Smells, which features half of Sonic Youth and a video of the entrancing Symphony No. 5. Whilst it’s really just some blokes standing still, playing their instruments, the hamster-cheeked Branca conducts like the maddest of mad professors.
Uncut June 2004
New York punk goes classical. Or vice versa.
Following Acute’s reissues of The Ascension last year, it’s wonderful to have Glenn Branca’s early work available again – not least because they show how his reputation as a “proper” composer does him something of a disservice. On his first solo release, 1980’s Lesson No.1, Branca’s music is actually closer to muscular, intensely adrenalised rock n roll.
The title track begins with incantatory ringing guitars, a kind of rock transcription of Phillip Glass’ systems music. After about three minutes, the drums arrive and propel Branca’s quintet towards a series of crescendos that betray his love of Joy Division. Nearly as gripping, two further pieces ’Äìone, “Bad Smells”, featuring Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore as part of a five-guitar frontline-prove Sonic Youth owe many of their mesmeric, discordant innovations to the groundwork done by this most rockist of modern composers.
Record Collector June 2004
You and Whose Guitar Army?
Glenn Branca’s music may have been forged in the crucible of No-Wave, but his ambition stretched way beyond. As last year’s reissue of The Ascension demonstrated, minimalism’s mind and rock n roll’s heart can be combined for visceral thrills.
Lesson No.1 was Branca’s relentless 1980 debut for 99 Records (home to Liquid Liquid and ESG). Opener Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar is a brittle, chiming assault, underpinned by organ drones and Stephan Wischerth’s glorious Mo Tucker drum stomp. Dissonance does what it says on the tin: Harry Spitz’s sledgehammer adds to the tension of the breakneck guitar assault. Bonus track Bad Smells introduces Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, deploying techniques they would use on their own releases.
All this, plus comprehensive sleevenotes and a video of an 1984 performance of Symphony No.5 provide a fascinating peek into NYC’s art-rock explosion.
Play Louder May 6, 2004
Glenn Branca Esq has got a lot to answer for. This is the New Yorker who took the legacy of punk and turned it into a symphony. Not just one either. A whole bloody cycle. What with young Messrs T Moore and L Ranaldo strumming away in the early guitar orchestras, Mr Branca can lay the claim and take the blame for Sonic Youth making punk noise pretension acceptable. Oh, the horrors that resulted.
However, we should forgive. This is mainly because Mr Branca rocks in the manner of a horde of speedily advancing Super Nova steamrollers. Being a pretentious New Yorker (for evidence, check the included video clip of Glenn’s brain-damaged octopus “conducting”), and a fan of original minimalist and drone-king LaMonte Young (also John Cale’s sometime mentor) there is science to this madness. The science in question is the elegant mathematics of sound which, if applied just so, not only give you lots of notes all jumbled together, but make them hysterically interact with one another in the manner of an arena full of Justin fans who’ve been carpet bombed with extra hormones and ecstasy. Cue mathematically perfect exponential noise increase.
This re-issue collects some of Branca’s earlier efforts. ‘Lesson No 1′ and ‘Dissonance’ are classics of his kind, big poly-limbed beasties of roaring, soaring, angelic guitar noise with quaint punk drumming to steel-capped boot. Amassed cloned My Bloody Valentines having right hoot. ‘Bad Smells’ is more dislocated, angular and all over the place gangly sprawl. Not so hot. But while ‘Lesson No 1′ is a classic, it’s not the definitive Branca moment, an honour that should probably go to either ‘Symphony No 3′ (slow and grand) or ‘6th Symphony’ (elongated thrashings ahoy). ‘Lesson No 1′ also appeared on last year’s ‘NY Noise’ compilation on Soul Jazz, alongside a whole raft of other fabulous tracks from Liquid Liquid, Material, Branca’s old band Theoretical Girls and a hell of a lot more. That leaves this disc with ‘Dissonance’, ‘Bad Smells’ and the video of ‘Symphony No 5′.
Listen and learn: you need some Branca. But this is one for the fans.
Sunday Times May 9, 2004
In his sleeve notes for this expanded reissue of Branca’s 1980 solo debut, Alan Licht explains how “avant-classical types would go to CBGB and connect the three chords of the Ramones with the monochords of La Monte Young”. Branca’s application of punk aesthetics to minimalist composition theory gave rise to two lengthy tracks where ugly-beautiful massed guitars build around simple signatures to sustained crescendos. Bonuses include Bad Smells, commissioned for a dance piece by Twyla Tharp, which shows Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo learning the cross-fertilisation tricks that would characterize their work with Sonic Youth, and a video of Branca frenetically conducting his Symphony No. 5. New York bands such as Liars or Oneida are heavily indebted to this astonishing era. It’s the perfect time to rediscover the source.
Logo Magazine May 2004
The one welcome by-product of the recent re-awakening of interest in late 70’s/early 80’s no-wave is that it has encouraged a spate of vault mining, reintroducing the world to artists whose influence was enormous despite minimal commercial returns. Glenn Branca is perhaps the most important of them all, working with tone-clusters, dense, progressive/regressive chanting guitars, minimalist cyclic rhythms and anything else you might like to label ‘difficult’. His work isn’t difficult though. ‘Lesson No. 1′ – originally released in 1980 – is merely a sustained drone around which notes and melodies dance; it provided a template for Sonic Youth, who have always acknowledged their debt. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo accompany Branca on 1982’s ‘Bad Smells’ (also here), a roiling mass of thundering drums, rattling melodies and gently escalating sonic mass; within its sixteen minutes you’ll find a gobsmacking miniature history of 20th Century music.
Musique Machine May 2004
Glenn Branca is one of the most important guitarists of the no wave period. Less known than Rhys Chatham, he is probably as important. Lesson No. 1 is a CD reissue of a 1980 release, and it features a bonus track.
Branca played in two very important bands, Theoretical Girls and The Static, typical but essential no wave outfits. Lesson No. 1 is his first solo releases, a first step in his symphonic work for guitars. The first track Lesson No. 1 for electric guitar is rather short by symphonies standards. It features Anthony Coleman on organ, a man who will later make himself known as a regular fixture in the NY Downtown Jazz scene. It’s a sort of minimalist celestial piece, repeating over and over the same rhythm and chord. Yeah, celestial is the word: it makes you feel rising up towards the sky.
Dissonance is just what it claims to be: dissonant. The rhythm patterns are more varied and there is a quasi industrial feel to it. It is aggressive, almost mean. Certainly an interesting track, but it’s not the best thing I’ve heard by Branca.
The bonus track is called Bad Smell. It features four guitarists beside Branca, among whom Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. The piece was written for a dance company. Angular riffs, “ascending” guitar harmonies, galloping western-like rhythms, dissonance, feedback, this piece has it all.
Lesson No. 1 is a really interesting document, a testimony of Branca first attempts at a guitar symphony. Besides the history factor, the main thing is that the first and the third track are just beautiful and will be enjoyed by a lot of people. And let’s not forget the very nice second bonus: a video recording of Branca’s Symphony No. 5.
Tandem Newspaper May 9, 2004
(longer version from author’s mail order catalogue)
More New York art-rock history is revealed by the Acute Records crew, as Glenn Branca’s first recordings under his own name are remastered and’Ä®released on cd for the first time. Like the Kitchen gallery’s composer/curator Rhys Chatham, Branca had the idea to apply the minimalism of La Monte Young to rock music. Branca’s involvement with the group Static in 1979 (heard on the Atavistic label release Songs 77-79) was his first attempt, but it was the Lesson No. 1 twelve inch and The Ascension album released by 99 Records (who have an interesting history as a steadfastly independent label) where a new form of music for massed guitars jelled and became the blueprint for the noise-rock of New York bands like Sonic Youth. “Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar” featured two guitarists and began like the minimalist-inspired arpeggios of Robert Fripp at the time (1980) before filling out with strummed bass and pounding drum beats. His later guitar symphonies (and their thick clouds of ghostly harmonics) would be better recorded but “Lesson No. 1″ was a seminal moment when several eras of rock & roll (the Neu-style garage drumming and post-punk “melodic” chords) met the static chromaticism of La Monte Young or Terry Riley from the minimalist camp, or Ligeti or Penderecki from the European avant garde. The b-side “Dissonance” was indeed more shrill and clangorous (courtesy of hammer and anvil percussion), previewing the kind of extended frenzy of the pieces on The Ascension album, due a year later. Also on this disc is a seventeen minute Quicktime video of his Symphony No. 5 featuring a larger group including seven guitarists and a sixteen minute piece, “Bad Smells,” commissioned by renowned dancer Twyla Tharp. “Bad Smells” features five guitarists, including Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and is a powerful, if little heard, step towards the fuller, mature works like Symphony #6 (Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven) (1989).
Minneapolis City Pages May 20, 2004
Watching the 1984 performance of “Symphony No. 5″ on the CD-Rom footage that accompanies this reissue, it’s easy to see how Glenn Branca was a different cut of composer. Forgoing a baton (it would only gouge an eye out), he directs an ensemble of guitar, organ, metallophones, and drums, conducting the way a live wire does, crackling with unfettered electricity. Flailing along with the music, Branca moves like a Miami Vice drug dealer in a slo-mo Uzi mow-down (peep the early-’80s sports jacket), or an Aerosmith-loving air guitarist nailed to a third rail. The energy shooting through his body is palpable, charging the performance even as 12 musicians stand stock still before him, focused on the music’s demands.
That same power audibly courses through these three audio tracks (spanning 1980-82), documenting Branca’s early attempts to marry thuggish Bowery punk with lofty compositional conceits. The eight-minute “Lesson No.1″ stands as a monolith among the rest of the no-wave scene’s one-minute shards. These strafes of open-tuned guitars from Branca and Michael Gross continue to ring out nearly 25 years on, paterfamilias to dirgy guitar groups from Sonic Youth to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The first recording of a no wave instrumental composition, “No. 1″ features churning overtones that vaguely invoke “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Glenn’s obsession at the time.
The other two pieces show a less monochord/monolithic side, as “Dissonance” finds Branca’s overdubbed guitars jagging upward like an Ennio Morricone-scored Metropolis. These same malevolent guitars get down with the shockingly funky middle break of “Bad Smells,” a plexus of downtown musical strands that was originally scored for a Twyla Tharp dance performance and issued as the flip side to a John Giorno spoken-word record in 1982. The twitching rhythms suggest Was (Not Was) and James Blood Ulmer, but the five guitarists, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, revel in the darker side of the naked city, sinister and slashing.
As the Alan Licht-penned liner notes attest, “Bad Smells” is the closest Branca got to the jump cuts of peer John Zorn. (Keyboardist Anthony Coleman, a mainstay for both Zorn and Marc Ribot, appears on Branca’s earlier pieces.) Such disparate luminaries all get focused by Branca’s laser-like intensity, and despite two decades’ worth of assimilation and dilution into alternative rock’s guitar vernacular, his molten rock core still smolders with a fierce light.
Junk Media May 25, 2004
New York’s Acute Records continues its reissue project of the early solo works of experimental composer and No Wave icon Glenn Branca with 1980’s Lesson No. 1. Twenty-some years after its original release and countless progenies of noiseniks later, it seems the students have learned well. Originally a two-song 12″, Lesson No. 1 began with febrile ecstasy and concluded in a fierce haze. Working with only one guitarist other than himself, these twin compositions present Branca in relative bareness. (That is, considering that two decades later he would have one hundred axes at his command.) The original divide between the translucent, nearly anthemic A-side “Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar” with its crystalline zips and chiming trebles and the opaque smudges of side B’s “Dissonance” is thrown off on the reissue by a third construction for amplified microtones that’s been sandwiched between.
With future Sonic Youth founders Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo churning along with three other guitarists (the composer included), “Bad Smells” drones its way through a dizzying, detuned labyrinth. For added stimulation, the reissue also includes a Quicktime video of Branca directing an expanded version of his multi-guitar ensemble through the spellbinding chromatic jangle of “Symphony No. 1.” Altering the act of conduction to a convulsive, quasi-shamanic performance art, Branca doesn’t so much gesture through the notes as much as throw himself headlong into the sound itself. When the clattering storm – and some cheesy post-production slo-mo sequences – subsides, he picks up his sheet music and stumbles off stage in a daze. Class dismissed.
Stylus Magazine May 25, 2004
Glenn Branca’s first solo album could hardly have predicted the raw, unfettered trajectory his career would take throughout the rest of the 80s, when his rock “symphonies” splattered feedback and amplifier buzz all over the modern composition palette. In comparison to the blurting dissonance of Symphony No. 1 or the elongated drone of Symphony No. 3 (both recorded just three years later), Lesson No. 1 is a simple but vibrant album that provides only a skeletal blueprint of where Branca would be heading.
This reissue gives this material, at last, a much-deserved return to the spotlight for curious Branca fans who weren’t around to snag the original vinyl. Revisiting Lesson No. 1 almost 25 years later, the opening title track is revealed as the most poppy and accessible 8 minutes of Branca’s career. Alan Licht’s informative liner notes draw parallels to Joy Division and U2 as well as the obligatory mentions of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, and the connections are obvious in the chugging melodic drive of the dueling guitars. The guitar sound is uncharacteristically chiming, and settles more often than not into traditional rock riffs, rather than the blurry feedback grind of later Branca compositions. This is a crystal-clear rock song, stripped down to the barest element of a denuded riff, cycling around and around and building intensity as the pounding drums ascend into a motorik rhythmic pulse. The music stays the same, but escalates in emotional intensity: the basis of rock from its earliest days to the present, and here it’s only translated into a slightly more avant-garde (but never academic) context than usual. Hardly Branca’s most complicated work, but right there at the core is the essence of everything in his music, offered in its most accessible form.
The second track, “Dissonance,” lives up to its name by presenting the more confrontational aspect of the composer’s music. Taken together with “Lesson No. 1,” these two tracks’ the two sides of the original vinyl album’ complete the picture of Branca’s rock deconstruction. Whereas the “Lesson” taught the pure cathartic power of a poppy guitar motif, “Dissonance” strips away such songwriterly concerns, concentrating on the raw unmelodic potential of the electric guitar, reveling in its string pile-ups and escalatory flights of uncontrollable feedback chaos. Unfortunately, this piece presents too incomplete a portrait of Branca, and it ends up sounding a bit empty and sluggish when placed against the gleaming liveliness of “Lesson No. 1.”
Thankfully, the CD reissue adds a third track, “Bad Smells,” which was originally released in 1982 as one side of a split between Branca and the poet John Giorno. This piece is similar in sound to the first two, positioning it closer to Branca’s early experiments than to the more assured work he would do later on. Accompanied by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, among others, Branca charges through an ever-shifting collage of styles and sounds. After about six minutes of thrashing pop-punk that bears a close relation to the glorious thrust of “Lesson No. 1,” the music utterly shifts gears into a more threatening riff-fest, as slow-moving chords gather into dense clouds of feedback over the fast drumming. Then the composition unexpectedly segues into a funky interlude of spastic stop-start rhythms and elastic guitar bends, before an extended ambient break gives way to another dissonant explosion at the end. It’s a chaotic and fractured piece, a true departure from Branca’s usual coherent build-ups.
This album is primarily interesting as a historical curiosity that provides deeper insight into the genesis of Branca’s music’ though “Lesson No. 1″ itself would certainly be an unqualified joy in any context. This is the music of a punker trying his hand at composition, filtering primal rock fury into extended suites of beauty and impact, forging battles and unlikely alliances between rock’s twin impulses of melody and dissonance.
Paris Transatlantic Magazine June, 2004
This isn’t the first time Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No.1″ and “Dissonance”, originally released in 1980 on Ed Bahlman’s mythic 99 Records label, have appeared on CD, but even if you did invest in the first reissue you might want to consider picking this up too, since Acute’s package also contains “Bad Smells”, Branca’s 1982 ballet score for Twyla Tharp (originally on a split LP called Who Are You Staring At? with John Giorno on his GPS label) and a 17-minute Quicktime movie of Branca conducting (if that’s the word) his “Symphony No.5″ in 1984. Moreover, the music has been remastered by that doyen of No Wave connoisseurs Weasel Walter and comes with a snazzy set of liners by mainman Alan Licht. I make that four damn good reasons to get your wallet out and your earplugs in.
I’ve only seen Branca’s band once in concert, but won’t forget the experience. As the guitarists filed onstage and plugged in, the amp buzz alone was as loud as most of music that ever gets performed in Paris’ genteel Theatre de la Ville; once Branca brought his fists down and the whole band kicked in, the sheer volume was absolutely terrifying. Thank God we were sitting near the back of the hall, an excellent vantage point from where we watched well over half the packed house run for the exits, fingers stuffed in bleeding ears. Two other events from that evening stick in my mind, one the sight of Branca anointing himself with the contents of a Coke bottle, the other that I couldn’t hear a fucking thing for three days. Goodness knows what they were playing, but it wasn’t “Symphony No.5″, because that piece starts quietly before building to its inevitable surging climax. The sound quality on the Quicktime video isn’t all that wonderful, but there are plenty of shots of Branca in full swing. Literally. And I used to think Lenny Bernstein overdid it.
Back in 1979, after formative experiences in No Wave outfits Theoretical Girls and Static, Branca’s music was more angular and rhythmically defined. “Lesson No.1″ is defiantly tonal (well, if tonal means sitting on one major chord throughout) and rocks out. In a recent email Branca took issue with Alan Licht’s mentioning an anecdote of keyboard player Anthony Coleman to the effect that the composer at the time was “listening heavily to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (“you can almost sing Ian Curtis’ melody over it”, Licht states.. well, yes, along with several Velvets, Ramones, Voidoids and Stooges songs if you give the matter some thought), but put that down to Licht’s mission statement in the liners that Branca was (is?) “the first post modern composer”. “Dissonance” is much more, erm, dissonant, but what became the trademark ugly clusters of late 80s Branca were still intercut with more varied rhythmic patterns, including a part for sledgehammer. As Licht points out, it doesn’t quite compare to Z’ev’s sheet metal bashing on Branca’s “Symphony No.2″ – in fact it sounds more like someone playing a contact-miked metal ashtray with a ballpoint pen – but its irregular punctuations open up the structure and make “Dissonance” one of Branca’s more accessible works. Accessible, yet uncompromising. The same can be said of “Bad Smells”, which kicks off with a raucous gallop sounding like a cross between Ennio Morricone and Phill Niblock. Change comes thick and fast, huge slabs of punk drum power (courtesy Stephen Wischerth) slammed into your earhole. Shame they couldn’t have dug up a film of the Tharp ballet – I’d love to see this kind of thing danced – instead of the “Symphony No.5″, but I’m certainly not complaining. I don’t know whether I’d qualify it as “post modern”, but I sure love the way it kicks ass.
Sleaze June 2004
When it comes to guitar contortionist Glenn Branca there are only two sides to the fence. One side is strictly for those that know Branca the other is reserved for everyone else. So thanks to these three “guitar symphonies”, recorded back in 1980 it becomes quickly apparent to the unitiated listener just how influential and groundbreaking his sonic exploration was. Building layer upon layer of guitar, pacing and reverberating, chasing each other to an ever-lasting crescendo, Glenn and co. (including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo on “Bad Smells”) charted the unknown so we didn’t have to.
Plan B May 2004,
Frances May Morgan
The first time I felt hatred and confusion towards a guitar was aged six, learning to play a John Dowland piece called “Lesson”. My small hands and sabotaged nails didn’t want to do what the music said, and even when they did it sounded too small and too showy at the same time. Twenty years later, I still can’t get away from and get my head round guitars. I even have one. And no, I still can’t play it. And for a whole week, in a nicely synchronous meeting of titles, I get obsessed with Glenn Branca’s own Lesson, “Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar” (Acute Records), a mysterious document of guitar fundamentalism and art-rock pretension whose re-release is one of the good outcomes of the current fascination with early-80s New York. I listen to it everywhere, even at the risk of being knocked, disoriented, off my bike – and you should never, ever cycle to music. In the supermarket it causes me to walk too fast down the aisles, bright packaging dissolving into a Pop Art blur and my feet stepping in time, not to the rhythms but to the intervals between the notes – which are familiar, with hindsight, from too many years listening to Sonic Youth and all the not-so-good bands that came after them.
What also is familiar, as this 8-minute mini-epic gathers pace again and again, is the centrality of the guitar, crying out to be heard with a slight crack in its voice, a tired and triumphant tone, a polite shout rather than a power-rock roar. The same with the layering, the intricacy married with a distorted, disjointed stumble, the notes that won’t let themselves be discordant but occasionally fall charmingly out. And the resolutely un-grooving groove. It’s like every good and bad rock guitar line of the 80s, 90s and zeroes distilled into a succinct, serialist sampler.
Only it’s something like the other way around. Because Branca, of course, wrote this at the tail-end of the 70s, for the small and insular audience of the No Wave movement (the fact that, years later, it’s become a term to name-drop shouldn’t belie how small it actually was at the time); an audience as comfortable with contemporary dance and installations as they were with feedback and dark, tiny-staged venues. Branca’s illustration of the lines blurring between the (at the time) new, sparse, angular rock guitar style – a departure from the florid solos of the early 70s – and the more energetic and inspired American minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich is exactly what it says it is: a lesson; that is, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, the better to be learnt from. The other tracks on the re-release, “Dissonance” (a startingly fucked-up industrial tour-de-force) and “Bad Smells”, featuring Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo as part of an unashamedly rocking six-string pantheon that brings to mind Quickspace’s classic “Precious Mountain” before dropping into jerky, utilitarian junk-funk and avant-garde abstraction, show a more experimental mind at work, and are in many ways more rewarding as a result. But there’s something studied about their restless energy and something cerebral in their playfulness. That’s fine, and in places, that’s wonderful, but there’s something about “Lesson”‘s uber-simpicity that makes it timelessly listenable. Partly it’s because it has a nice tune. Partly it’s because you feel it should be somehow more than it is – and it never is. It’s never more.
Only Angels Have Wings June 1, 2004
Now it’s really hot. I’m not going to complain, mind you. I feel like something good could happen, and this possibility is much more than i need to feel good.
I received the reissue of Glenn Branca’s Lesson No.1 a couple of weeks ago and i instantly enjoyed it. I was a bit frightened, because some of his symphonies sound a bit hermetic to me, but it turned out that his earlier work is impressive.
Lesson No.1 was Branca’s first release, a 12″ single featuring “Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar” and “Dissonance”. This reissue also features “Bad Smells,” the soundtrack to a Twyla Tharp dance, originally released on a split release with poet and spoken word artist John Giorno in 1982. This reissue also features a video of a live performance of “Symphony No.5″ shot in 1984.
“Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar” is impressive. I like this piece a lot, and the relatively small band (in comparison to his Symphonies’ line-ups) features two guitars, a bass guitar, an organ and drums. Riffs intertwine and suddenly the bass kicks in and everything grows a bit wilder. It reminds me of Television and foreshadows Sonic Youth and the whole NYC no wave scene. Branca was deep into Joy Division at the time, and you can hear it in this piece, with steady drums and bass and epic, oppressive guitars intertwined with a minimalist organ. It’s an 8 minutes long crescendo, a blueprint for all the Sonic Youths, MogwaˆØs and GYBEs to come.
“Dissonance” sounds, well, a bit more dissonant. Bells, panzer drums and repetitive riffs create a haunting, oppressive atmosphere. It’s not as melodic as “Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar”, but it’s easily as impressive. It’s structure is somehow looser, its speed fluctuates throughout and as a result it sounds less “poppy” (ok, hit me) than it’s original 12″ buddy. There again the influence of Factory bands can be heard, it’s as cold as Russian blizzard and, well, quite dark.
“Bad Smells” features Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. It’s a soundtrack to something i have never seen, so i can only speak about it out of context. There again repetition is the key. A mean bass riff leads the band, oppressive (i know, i have counted) drums sound like horses running, or a machine that goes fast and sounds like horses running, guitars make steel noise that sound like an old train whistle. Then things change a bit, the bass plays something more minimalistic (the drums stick to the horses thing though), and the crescendo can start. Release, then things grow a bit calmer, cymbals and guitars and ouch, it’s “Dissonance” all over again, mean and ferocious, with violent, tribal drums and repetitive motifs. Things grow a bit more industrial, with guitars accompanying drums with steel sound and feedback.
My computer is getting really tired so didn’t get a chance to watch the Symphony No.5 video, but i bet it’s nice.
This record is a precious document, one of the keys the whole post punk/no wave scene.
Where Ya At June 2004
Composer and provocateur Glenn Branca was an important part of the confluence of high and low culture that was New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For too long now he’s been relegated to being a mere footnote in the Sonic Youth story (both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo played in Branca’s ensembles), so this reissue of some of his strongest early sessions should go a ways toward enlightening listeners to the maniacal power of his music. Basically speaking, Branca’s intent was to mate the symphonic grandeur of the orchestra to the nerve-rattling joys of rock ‘n roll, with the infectious repetition of Minimalist composers Steve Reich and LaMonte Young as the thread linking these two disparate worlds. Stravinsky meets the Stooges? Well, not quite; instead he arrived at something more his own, and contrary to what you may have been led to believe it’s also fun as hell to listen to, rocking as all get-out, and now – 20 years down the line – not so strange sounding at all. Maybe it’s because massed guitars in drone tunings are all around in contemporary rock (be it Radiohead, Mogwai or Godspeed! You Black Emperor) or that no wave and art punk are back in a big way, but I think Branca sounds just about right in 2004. As the empire crumbles, Glenn’s guitar army gallops at you like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Welcome them into yr home.
Phosphor Magazine June 22, 2004
Lesson No. 1 is a re-release of an old Branca record released in 1980 on which some of his earliest works are presented. The three tracks and additional quicktime video track provide a glimpse into what was to become an acclaimed compositional methodology – today Branca is one of the more usual suspects in the field of contemporary classical music. In the liner notes, Branca¬¥s output from the early 80s is related to joy division and U2, but also to Terry Riley and Lamonte Young. On this album, Branca operates on the razorsharp edge between dissonance and tonality. The opening track is exemplary, and may even be called downright poppy. Here, and also in the somewhat harsher second track, the melodic drive of the guitars remind of a rock song, but one that is stripped down to the bare bone, revealing some of the basic ingredients that were to be explored in Branca’s later work. The third track comes in addition to the first two, and was released in 1982. Here we find both Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth playing with Branca. This track is different in its use of more drone- like sounds. angular rhythmic patterns are combined with more ethereal sounds that results in a strange restless brew.
A reminder of the early work of what has become a well-known composer with roots that have perhaps remained not known enough for too long. Here, we find an interesting chance to catch up, and even experience a great record in doing so.
There’s your standard set-loose on-Friday-night excitement and then there’s a Glen Branca piece two years of Fridayish exhilaration collapsed into an overwhelming tryst of so-many de-tuned guitars cavorting for extended periods of hell-ahh-baloo.
“Lesson no. 1 for Electric Guitar” and its original flip-side “Dissonance” were reputedly the first pieces for multiple guitar ensembles issued on record. Regardless, they throw down the trump to any contrarian’s pairing of avant-rockists or flirting with pop classicalists. Branca’s pied minimalism proves him the piper wooing crowds to the potentially perilous cliff above rock’s savage abyss while prancing with the sure feet of classical composition.
By any standards, the three early works presented in this re-issue should be considered utter rubbish throw away and jocular stabs at blending Wagnerian and Black Sabbath bombast in order to expand the classical catechism. But whether fault lies with composer, conductor, or performer, “Lesson no. 1 for Electric Guitar” subsists as a crowning achievement in stunning, dynamic music regardless of genre or form. Spark-spitting guitars butt and clamor over droning organ monoliths and resistant, structural bass rings; yet, a calm results from the composite. “Dissonance” agitates with staccato poundings from guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums augmented by sledgehammer (unfortunately resigned to a “plink” due to the hands-full production). Both pieces allude to the sort of modern, mechanical apocalypses and freedom cries portrayed in works by Branca and the variety of those artists following his lead or inspired by his charm. “Bad Smells”, originally composed for Twyla Tharp’s dance company, expands on the rhythmic and sonic pallet of the earlier works. Leaden ghosts of guitars haunt a solid house of bass and drum until the whole community collapses. (The Sonic Youth ep seemingly spawned from Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s participation on this recording.)
Acute, again, impart a historical document exhibiting a revival preacher donning Glen Branca dress to summon forth just the sort of maelstrom required to prove, once and for all, the likelihood of hell. Unfortunately these serpent’s songs steer the sinning multitudes away from that promised stairway and straight to the devil’s door.
Slate June 29, 2004
No Wave, Reissued
Songs you should have listened to the first time around…
Glenn Branca, who in the 1980s became known for the monolithic “symphonies” he composed for dozens of electric guitars, has based his career upon one essential theme: the prismatic sound of a single note multiplied and refracted into a dazzling spray of harmonics. The three pieces here, recorded between 1980 and 1982, run from eight to 16 minutes apiece and are written for guitars, bass, drums, organ, and “sledgehammer”; they translate the minimalist cycles of Steve Reich’ who in the 1960s revolutionized classical music by obliterating linear melody in favor of extreme repetition’ into maximalist chimes that sound like amplified versions of the music of the spheres. The sour chords and trashcan clang on “Lesson No. 1″ sound like Sonic Youth’s live jams, which makes sense: Both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo did time in Branca’s ensembles, and both appear here on the 1982 track “Bad Smells.”
Pitchfork Media July 16, 2004
When Glenn Branca’s “Symphony No. 8″ was performed in Denmark at an arts festival attended by the queen and several dignitaries, the press described the effect of his music as “sound terror.” For Branca, there is no such thing as “too loud”: His most recent composition is an ensemble for 100 electric guitars. But Branca’s album releases are far less grandiose than his live performances. While works such as “Symphony No. 1″ for sixteen performers have overwhelmed audiences with their disorientingly high volumes, oil-drum percussion and Branca’s spastic conducting style, the live sound is too large to be even approximated through two speakers, leaving a listener to wonder what the big deal was about. In contrast, last year’s reissue of The Ascension and this year’s Lesson No. 1 contain earlier works for small ensembles. They may not have shattered as many eardrums, but on CD the sound remains close enough to grab hold of you and lift you into Branca’s intense world.
The first two pieces on this album, “Lesson No. 1″ and “Dissonant” – originally released in 1980 – comprise Branca’s first solo release after leaving punk/no-wave outfit Theoretical Girls. The liner notes quote him as regarding “Lesson No. 1″ as a simple experiment in minimalism. Simple or not, it is most certainly huge. It begins with two guitars picking out pulsating Reichian riffs, before introducing a triumphant one-note wall of sound with organ and bass shifting underneath to give a sense of harmonic movement. It contains the seeds of Branca’s future work with cells of tonal noise, and today can’t help but bring to mind everything from the seared distorted walls of My Bloody Valentine to the triumphant crescendos of Godspeed You Black Emperor! to Oneida’s ultra-repetitive jams. The guitars increasingly bend in pitch as the piece continues, exploring a microtonal world of detuned strings. Like minimalist composer Rhys Chatham – with whom he briefly played before they became rivals – Branca was interested in highlighting the harmonics extant in battling waveforms and the sounds that naturally emerge from repetition.
As “Lesson No. 1″ encapsulates the ecstatic drama of future instrumental post-rock, “Dissonance” foretells the broken industrial sound of many composers to come, especially that of the Bang on a Can collective with whom Branca has associated himself in recent years. Scored for guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and sledgehammer, “Dissonance” replicates the pounding honking perpetual motion of city life, shifting in and out of polyrhythmic experimentation and more chugging guitar work. “Dissonance” dispels any notion that Branca’s complexity might only be rhetorical. Whether you want to call it punk-fueled anti-prog or recontextualized art music, it is complicated stuff, requiring great practice from the instrumentalists and mental engagement on the listener’s part.
Some classicists proclaim rock incapable of the emotional subtlety and variation of orchestral music. The extra inclusion of “Bad Smells” – a piece written for Twyla Tharp’s dance company in 1982 and played by an ensemble including Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo – spends 16 minutes dispelling that notion. Though still a relatively early composition for Branca, it contains an overwhelming variety of moods and textures – reverie, humor, triumph, anger, struggle – and makes this CD worth considering even if you own the previous reissue of Lesson No. 1. This release also includes a video showing Branca conduct a part of his “Symphony No. 5″, and it is a powerful thing to watch as this composer frantically embodies the electric energy of his own music – or maybe it’s the other way around.
Village Voice July 20, 2004
Metal from guitarless Norwegians, New Yorker with many
Of the many revelations in the 1986 cult film Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the best is how much metal dudes used to hate punkers. The subsequent bland fusion of those genres makes one wish punk and metal would return to their opposing corners, rising only to trade blows instead of hugs. Or as Zebraman screamed in HMPL: “Heavy metal rules, all that punk shit sucks!” If only Glenn Branca had been in that tailgating Judas Priest crowd, yelling “Punk rules, all that classical shit sucks!” and waving his arms as if conducting a guitar symphony.
Point being that some genres mix best when they’re fighting. Lesson #1, Branca’s debut solo 12-inch from 1980 and the first release on 99 Records (but a bitch ain’t #1), is a punch-drunk battle between minimalist classical and no-wave punk. The title track Reichs before it rolls, with mirrored guitars feinting rhythm like a basketball game made solely of pump fakes. Tribal drums pump blood into the wounds, cresting into some joyful divisions. That forward motion spills into “Dissonance,” a chugging train of metallic linearity that builds momentum through intermittent halts. Acute’s CD reissue of Lesson #1 adds the filmic “Bad Smells” (or as participants Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo might’ve called it, “Xpressway to Our Sound”), a map-hopping collage of Branca’s best bombastic moves, showing how his splitting of classical and punk atoms begat a mushroom cloud of possibility. The Ascension and Branca’s symphonies prove that point more eloquently, but as Alan Licht’s liner notes detail, the aptly titled Lesson #1 was Branca’s Big Bang.
ITR #11 Summer 2004
Elsewhere this issue you will find the latest opus by Sonic Youth covered. This is kind of the other end of the story. Stepping back to the beginning of their career we find Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo thrashing their guitars as part of the band on the Glenn Branca penned “Bad Smells” (the bonus track on this reissued debut) doing’Ä¶well’Ä¶doing pretty much what they have been doing for the last (almost) quarter century. To say that “Lesson No. 1″ invented Sonic Youth would be to understate the obvious to such an extent that I would be insulting both Branca AND the Youth if I did so. Second track “Dissonance” is a far tougher listen but is ultimately more rewarding if you give it some time as Branca and a small band take us from almost random clanking right through to a white noise freakout that will melt the heart of even the most luddite Clearfall fan. It just goes to show that music from 20+ years ago doesn’t ALL have to be overearnest rock bollocks and that Glenn Branca has had more influence on modern guitar music than Kurt Cobain, Black Francis, J Mascis and Kevin Shields put together.
Post-punk, no-wave, post-funk, noise rock, death disco, funk punk, Glenn Branca. Spot the odd one out. OK so maybe it’s more, spot the root number. This re-release of Glenn Branca’s first solo composition – as he tiptoed away from the effective rock restrictions of The Static and Theoretical Girls – contains two of the most revered guitar compositions existent.
A musical Ying and Yang, ‘Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar’ and ‘Dissonance’ serve not only as reminders to New York’s cultural necessity, but as painful shots into the heart of our current guitar fancies.
‘Lesson No.1 For Guitar’ is a musical evolution in progress: the meticulous unwinding of Krautrock and it’s careful weaving into minimal drones and diced polyrhythms. It sways endlessly forward like some bastardised highland-rock-fling, Reich-esque until the sail is raised and the music transposed to the modern day, still essential after twenty years, still beaming.
From the euphoria of ‘Lesson No.1 For Electric Guitar’, the comedown of ‘Dissonance’ is a G&T hangover. Solid and unmoving, a series of musical collisions throb like a rapidly expanding haemorrhage root. It’s petrifying: the horror soundtrack. Schizophrenic in pace and texturally coarse with muted guitar thrash and chinking metal’Ä¶ awesome.
‘Bad Smells’ concludes the release – though not on the original LP – and has the rag-tag duo of a (genuinely) youthful Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore strumming out the chaos frequency. As the endless buzz and hum morphs in and out of thickened harmony, the future of Sonic Youth lies blueprinted before them: the dissonant funk of Goo, the birth of no-wave, the bloody mauling of prog rock.
Skyscraper 17 Fall 2004
How old it makes me feel to remember how exciting it was tracking down Branca’s first release when it first came out in 1980. I had this dream of a band based on the inner-sleeve photo of Blue Oyster Cult’s On Your Feet’Ä¶live album, where all the members of the band are at the edge of the stage deep in the throes of guitar playing ecstasy. The thought of four guitarists up on stage, all playing at once, is one that has haunted me ever since as the ultimate musical situation. The closest I ever came to finding perfection in this quest is the work of Glenn Branca and his guitar orchestra works. Lesson No.1 seems like a more embroyonic phase for what would follow, but it sounds refreshingly clean and honest now, the ringing of guitars in unison, primitive but heavenly as well. The extra track, “Bad Smells”, features the earliest playing of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore that most will ever hear, and it’s so easy to follow how this would lead to Sonic Youth. Indeed, I only discovered Sonic Youth in 1984 because of the Branca connection. An important perspective for any avant Sonic Youth devotee!
Cosmik March/April, 2005
Despite Glenn Branca’s influence on modern guitar music, his recorded work is often difficult to obtain. Lesson No. 1 is a particularly rare, until now, recording of his early work. The New York City composer began his career as a rock guitarist, most notably with the Theoretical Girls; he then went on to compose numerous symphonies for the guitar, frequently with eight or more of the instrument at the center of the composition.
The music for Lesson No. 1 is not as ambitious in orchestration, but it is effectively realized as a piece of music. The title track was originally released on 99 Records in 1980. The instrumentation is a rather typical rock line up of two guitars, bass, drums and organ, but with several compositional twists. During the course of the eight-minute instrumental Branca explores a wide swath of musical territory. The composer added multiple guitar overdubs in the recording process. The simple guitar pattern is layered; it closely resembles the minimalist keyboard compositions of Terry Riley. After a few minutes Stephen Wischerth’s drums commence, and they alter the song by propelling the music. Gradually the instruments build in volume and intensity before a dramatic crescendo concludes the track.
“Dissonance” is a musical study based on its title. Relatively tame by today’s standards, it is a more structured version of late 70s New York No Wave music ala DNA. Branca is accompanied by keyboard, bass, drums-and sledgehammer! The sledgehammer provides fills like an extra percussion instrument. The guitars are again paramount in presenting the music. During the almost twelve-minute track plenty of stunts are performed, from high speed trilling to cacophonous muted clangor.
“Bad Smells” is not as well realized as the other tracks. Clocking in at over 16-minutes, it points in the direction of his later guitar symphony work; five guitarists create a loud and menacing multi-layered track. There are numerous cool parts, but as a composition is not as well integrated. Instead, it is a collection of guitar freakouts cobbled together. It does, however, show where several of the tricks in the Sonic Youth guitar arsenal came from. Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo perform on this track, and it’s a far cry from Moore’s work with the Television inspired power pop of his other pre-Sonic Youth group, the Coachmen. This is a must have recording for aficionados of the No Wave or those who are curious about the roots of Sonic Youth and experimental indie rock guitar.
Glenn Branca was arguably the first musician/composer to merge post-punk with avant garde classical and – to be honest – there haven’t been many artists to do that since. ‘Lesson No. 1′ was the first result, originally released in 1980 as a 12″ EP. Listening to the title track is like hearing an instrumental version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ stretched out to eight minutes. ‘Dissonance’ is just that, a ferocious rhythm section, relentless guitars and the occasional sledgehammer thrown in for good measure. Incredibly there’s not one moment of slack in its initial seven minutes. The extra track ‘Bad Smells’ enlists the help of two of Sonic Youth with suitably caustic results. This time there’s more variation of pace and occassionally shafts of ambient light emerge from the darkness. For fans of discord, disharmony and general disillusionment, this will not disappoint.
Official Web Site
Home to many other fine Branca releases
Review on Julian Cope’s site
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