Graded on a Curve:
Glenn Branca,
“Lesson No. 1”

“Lesson No. 1” is Glenn Branca’s first release as a composer, originally issued in 1980 as a mini-LP on the 99 Records label. Not only does it stand as an avant-garde debut of remarkable assurance, it’s also a strikingly prescient document, sounding in retrospect like a harbinger of indie rock to come. Subsequently expanded with a bonus track, Superior Viaduct’s new double 12-inch vinyl edition is befitting of Branca’s masterful blending of tough-minded modern compositional methods with heavy and expansive rock concepts, and it easily reinforces his status as a vastly important musical figure.

It was during the late-‘80s that many young underground rock listeners first encountered the name Glenn Branca, in large part due to the composer/guitarist’s association with Sonic Youth. For folks under the sway of Evol, Sister, and Daydream Nation, those LPs served as a gateway into a subterranean, art-drenched New York City that was extremely alluring, especially to suburbanites who perceived their immediate surroundings as being conspicuously lacking in worthwhile cultural activity.

Those residing in other large US cities often decried NYC’s significance as the country’s art Mecca, but for thousands of young people stuck in towns devoid of an extant scene, reading about and hearing the recorded evidence of the city’s defiant underbelly proved a fascinating antidote to the nagging strains of ‘80’s conformity.

Inquiring minds could browse text on Glenn Branca pretty easily in this era, since his symphonies for multi-guitar orchestras and percussion made for good copy, as did that connection to Sonic Youth and his impact upon Tin Machine, the unjustly maligned crew of the Sales brothers, Reeves Gabrels, and David Bowie (the group once cited their influences as Gene Krupa, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix, Branca, and Mountain.)

But actually getting to bone-up on Branca’s work from this period was a bit more difficult. Most widely available was Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choir at the Gates of Heaven), an LP which landed in numerous record shop import sections due to its ’89 release by the Blast First label. Prior to that, my only good fortune in turning up Branca product came via scoring a second-hand copy of Who You Staring At?, an ’82 split LP with John Giorno issued through the great NYC poet/performance artist’s label Giorno Poetry Systems.

Happily, the march of time has alleviated the scarcity of Branca’s early material. For instance, in ’96 the fine Chicago imprint Atavistic issued Songs ’77-’79, a CD collecting the sole single from The Static, his band with Christine Hahn and noted photographer and future member of Y Pants Barbara Ess, pairing that 45 with a half-dozen selections of his writing from Theoretical Girls, who along with Branca featured keyboardist Margaret DeWys, vocalist/guitarist Jeffery Lohn, and drummer Wharton Tiers (best known for his prolific career as an audio engineer/record producer.)

The Static’s “My Relationship” b/w “Don’t Let Me Stop You” and Theoretical Girls’ “U.S. Millie” b/w “You Got Me” are two of the undisputed jewels in the whole No Wave shebang. The first sits alongside Red Transistor’s posthumously issued “Not Bite” b/w “We’re Not Crazy” as a terrifically disruptive one-shot from the guts of the scene, while the second is a fantastic 45 by one of the very finest outfits the movement produced.

But gleaning a full picture of the Girl’s specialness will require checking out a second self-titled compact disc. Released back in 2002 as the first CD on Dan Selzer’s top-notch reissue label Acute Records, Theoretical Girls rounds-up all of the Lohn-penned tracks from the group. And listening to those cuts and Songs ’77-’79 in one whopping binge not only provides a total blast of punk-derived art-racket, it’s also very enlightening in relation to “Lesson No. 1.”

Bringing knowledge of The Static and Theoretical Girls to a meeting with his masterful compositional debut helps to underline just how groundbreaking and stylistically intertwined Branca’s early work truly was. For starters, The Static’s “Don’t Let Me Stop You” basically forecasts the soon to be signature guitar textures of Sonic Youth, and at a point when Thurston Moore was getting his chops down in his first band (with noted illustrator J.D. King), the decidedly more garage-inclined The Coachmen.

Notably, Branca went on to put out Sonic Youth’s self-titled ’82 debut 12-inch and their ’83 full-length follow-up Confusion is Sex on his own Neutral label. Additionally, Moore and Ranaldo also figure prominently on this edition of “Lesson No. 1”’s bonus track “Bad Smells” (its original title on Who You Staring At? being “Music by Glenn Branca for the Dance Bad Smells Choreographed by Twyla Tharp.”)

Obviously, the stature of Theoretical Girls and The Static is greatly increased through their ties to the composer, but there’s also a sense that many consider both as simply a prologue, the curious stuff he was doing before he became Glenn Branca. Bluntly, this is a mistake. For one example, Theoretical Girls’ “You Got Me” plainly foreshadows the passages of staccato aggression to be found on “Bad Smells,” and both that piece and “Lesson No. 1”’s b-side “Dissonance” stand tall as powerful extensions of No Wave’s loftier artistic goals.

But just as interesting is how “Lesson No. 1 for Guitar” can be distinguished from that scenario, beginning with a sonic pattern that’s clearly minimalist in nature, with the first moments being quite reflective of Steve Reich’s noted compositional strategy (Branca’s “Lesson No. 3 (Tribute to Steve Reich)” is included on his 2010 record The Ascension: The Sequel.) However, in only ten seconds another guitar is introduced into the setting, and in doing so the piece is quickly differentiated from a specifically minimalist agenda.

That cyclical pattern is slowly enveloped in a hovering dark atmosphere, and for a couple of minutes both elements interweave to strong effect, establishing distinctive qualities that unify into a larger field of sound. Up to this point in the piece that initial Reichian guitar line, rising and falling in the music’s landscape, has served in rhythmic terms, but at just short of three minutes Stephen Wischerth’s drums arrive as “Lesson No. 1 for Guitar” launches into an environment that’s unmistakably post-rock in execution.

It ignites and then it glides, and if the minimalist pattern offered at the beginning is overtaken by highly assured rock momentum and guitar tones glistening and emphatic, the concept of repetition isn’t cast aside. While the resemblance to the guitar based instrumental combos that began sprouting up in the indie rock pasture circa the late-‘90s (notably the point when Branca’s early work became much easier to obtain) and into the new millennium is striking, Branca’s piece also exudes a certain economy.

At just over eight minutes, “Lesson No. 1 for Guitar” isn’t exactly brief, but it also presents a flurry of ideas in a relatively compact timeframe, and the result is a total avoidance of the extended durations that many post-rock outfits employed to ultimately detrimental ends. Branca doesn’t meander and he never succumbs to running ideas into the ground. Instead what one hears is focus and discipline, which is very interesting given that as a No Waver, on his solo albums and as an influence on the ‘80s rock underground, he’s frequently thought of as a stylistic rule breaker.

The flouting of norms often goes hand-in-hand with musical experimentation, but this set really amplifies that Branca ambition wasn’t necessarily the desire to subvert standards. Rather, he’s more concerned with the exploration of new aural possibilities. And that’s “Dissonance” in a nutshell. “Lesson No. 1”’s a-side is markedly easy to absorb, and it’s even accurately assessed as a beautiful piece of music (reportedly inspired by the composer’s encounter with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), but the flip sets out for more ragged, ominous, and abrasive terrain (in turn locating a different kind of beauty.)

“Dissonance” retains Wischerth, bassist F.L. Schröder, and keyboardist Anthony Coleman from the opening composition, but it loses guitarist Michael Gross and picks up Harry Spitz on sledgehammer. If the title and appearance of a tool that’s regularly used for reducing large rocks to mere rubble gives the impression of an operational free-for-all, there’s never a sense of Branca and his conspirators losing control as the track’s shifting and building structure progresses.

And structure is the key. Tonally, there’s a more than passing similarity to ‘80’s Sonic Youth delving into their “out” mode, but “Dissonance” also rapidly attains a compositional complexity that’s diverse from SY’s merger of traditional song-form and expansionist rock elements. With “Lesson No. 1” Branca was still partially connected to No Wave, but his impressive run of guitar symphonies was just around the corner.

They commenced in 1983 with the arrival of Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), though it was actually documented in 1981. But first he completed his ’81 LP The Ascension and the following year lent “Bad Smells” to the aforementioned Giorno Poetry Systems alb. And that sixteen minute cut was first added to “Lesson No. 1” through Acute’s ’04 CD reissue; here it resides on a one-sided 12-inch.

While released after The Ascension, “Bad Smells” inclusion as part of his first solo effort remains a smart decision, for it brilliantly combines attributes of both “Dissonance” and “Lesson No. 1 for Guitar,” being heavy and structurally segmented like the former while integrating short but palpable strands of rock-derived accessibility a la the latter.

However, the dance score’s overall climate is much closer to “Dissonance.” It features an expanded lineup of Wischerth, bassist Jeffrey Glenn, and five guitarists; Branca, David Rosenbloom, Ned Sublette, Ranaldo, and Moore. Yes, the likeness to Sonic Youth is enlarged, but it’s far less overt than one might expect, and the track, which begins in a galloping rock zone, ends not in a rousing finale but with intriguing bursts of almost martial drums and clipped hunks of thickly distorted guitar.

It’s a trailing off that initially seems abstract but is in actuality quite methodical, and “Bad Smells” highlights that Branca’s advancements were coming swiftly during this period. This very welcome vinyl pressing of “Lesson No. 1” couples perfectly with The Ascension to promote Glenn Branca not as an eclectic fringe benefit for the delectation of inquisitive rock fans, but as a central catalyst in the music’s historical narrative.

Indeed, listening to these three pieces makes clear that a major sparkplug for many of rock’s most appealing progressions throughout the last quarter century was living in Boho New York City circa 1980. How appropriate. While Glenn Branca’s value as an artist wildly transcends the boundaries of rock music, that’s how many of us first stumbled on him twenty-five years ago, and “Lesson No. 1” holds the beginnings of his long career as an inspired synthesist.


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