PRINT January 1983


In the spring of 1981 the rock group Public Image Ltd. (PiL) played at the Ritz in New York. That club’s movie-scale video screen, which functioned as a barrier and was used to create or motivate the crowd’s reaction, was the center of the performance. PiL’s three members were projected on the screen, both as shadows (they were lit from behind for the video cameras) and as a video picture. A giant image of John Lydon’s face, laughing, appeared, larger than the Wizard of Oz. He began singing, and then the live image was changed to a pre-recorded tape of a demented commercial rock video. Furious at the ghostlike, ritualistic silhouettes of the group behind the screen—instead of, as usual, directly in front of them—the crowd constantly interrupted the music. They barraged the screen with bottles, finally tearing it down. The group hadn’t intended to cause a riot; in their words, they were trying something new. They did not want to mechanistically continue in the learned role of rock entertainers. As PiL’s Keith Levene remarked in an interview in ZigZag magazine in August 1981, “You’re more honest putting on a video or sending a video round to do 30 dates, rather than sending a band around to do it . . .You’re standing up there and saying ‘after you’ve bought my album for so many pounds and heard how great we are you can now stand in front of us and see how great we are . . .’” PiL has since returned to conventional rock performance.

It is almost necessary for a working rock band on the club circuit to have a booking agent and/or manager. If a club owner deals directly with the band involved, and not with a business peer, then less money is likely to be offered. The large rock clubs in Manhattan all have basically the same policy of dealing with bands. Some of these are real showcases and some are just facades. Mailings are sent out for special evenings; these nights are not actually special, but they do give the appearance of being playgrounds for the art world, thus luring the non-art world to a supposedly chic event for which they will pay. (As in past movements of the avant-garde, these clubs appropriate the “law of assemblage” in the sense that the “real world” and the “art world” become layered.) In order to maintain an elite aura the clubs also offer their space for “art-night” parties or video and film parties which are invitational only. By constantly renovating, opening up new floors, and redecorating, each club vies for the position of “favored art club,” as a yet newer alternative to the art world’s alternative spaces. It seems to be what the art world wants. And on the flip side, the video/music nights at the official “alternative spaces” are designed to replicate the lounge atmosphere of the clubs, with monitors and cushions dispersed informally throughout the rooms. This symbiotic relationship has almost become a formula for a certain kind of success in both the art and the club worlds.

The club atmosphere does as little for the art that’s “crossing over” as it does for the bands, and tends to subordinate the art to the place itself. Even a vision as personal as Jim Fouratt’s when he did the booking at another New York club, Danceteria, can quickly turn into exploitative packaging. The support he gave American bands (with a concentration on local, New York City bands), instead of following the safer policy of booking touring English bands, actually did create an alternative club situation for a short while. His notion of art in clubs—as exemplified by this attitude toward the music—did not merely treat art as interior decoration, but allowed the art to maintain a certain integrity. The main attraction in the lounge-style club is a sort of skyscraper-style sexual voyeurism set up by projections, on different floors, of different eras and stylized “lifestyles.”

Whereas in the club scene of the past there have been what were called “Fuck Rooms,” now the atmosphere in clubs is often designed to be more one of sublimation, to the point of a sterility that has become a new sort of non-sexual eroticism. The notion of resistance—the withholding of contact between people—is a common state in current clubs. Their atmosphere designs distance—from the art, the music, other people, and oneself. The use of mirrors elaborates the already present narcissism, and individuals become spectators of themselves. Video monitors are standard design apparatus; the images are there to sustain the customers, as business dealings become mingled with fantasies—sexual, career, or otherwise. The lounge atmosphere makes the clientele feel at home or at the home of someone wealthy, creating a comfortable extravagance typical of traditional small, exclusive private clubs. The images shown on the videos are more or less unseen, and function much like televisions left on. In his discourse on the disappearance of the tragic as caused by the disappearance of the subject in art, and its subsequent reappearance, Manfredo Tafuri states, “The experience of the ‘tragic’ [in this century] is the experience of the metropolis . . . ” “The ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ induced by ‘the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions,’ were interpreted by [Georg] Simmel as the new conditions that generate the blasé attitude of the individual of the metropolis . . .” (from Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, 1976). Unlike a decadent “Great Gatsby” lifestyle, these people all pay $5.00 to $15.00 for their pleasure and sexual entertainment. The majority of bands booked play accessible Dance Oriented Rock.

When you’re actually on the stage after dealing with the “rock ‘n’ roll bullshit” and noticing how the disco sound system is so much louder than the one you’re playing through, you pray your instruments don’t fall apart and you begin to play. You forget about everything else in the world. You forget how much the pay is and that you’re not really playing for enthusiastic kids but for bored young adults—and it becomes a challenge to try to move them, blow their brains out, put some edge into the atmosphere by using what is now a technologically primitive social tool, the electric guitar.

The club is the mediator or frame through which the music is communicated. The band literally plugs into the technology of the club in order to magnify the sound, turning a possibility into actuality, making what is heard by the musicians themselves accessible to an audience. People pay to see others believe in themselves. Many people don’t know whether they can experience the erotic or whether it exists only in commercials: but on stage, in the midst of rock ‘n’ roll, many things happen and anything can happen, whether people come as voyeurs or come to submit to the moment. As a performer you sacrifice yourself, you go through the motions and emotions of sexuality for all the people who pay to see it, to believe that it exists. The better and more convincing the performance, the more an audience can identify with the exterior involved in such an expenditure of energy. Performers appear to be submitting to the audience, but in the process they gain control of the audience’s emotions. They begin to dominate the situation through the awe inspired by their total submission to it. Someone who works hard at his or her job is not going to become a “hero,” but may make just enough money to be able to afford to be liberated temporarily through entertainment. A performer, however, as the hero, will be paid for being sexually uncontrolled, but will still be at the mercy of the clubs and of the way the media shapes identity. How long can someone continue to exert intensity before it becomes mannered and dishonest?

The notion of merging avant-garde and popular culture (multimedia technology) by an artist is found in its most successful form in Laurie Anderson’s recent performances. The position that Anderson represents, as one who has transcended the isolation of the art world, involves a different kind of heroics from that of the rock ‘n’ roll persona, who represents, even if mythically, a sense of real sexuality, real life and death. Anderson’s androgynous appearance and mechanical voice create an impression of organized perfection, expressing the ideal as nonsexual. She has created her own atmosphere of mastering and mimicking a technology that is usually mystifying. Wherever she performs, she accomplishes what the clubs cannot; she manipulates the audience by the unseen, creating moments that change and move along effortlessly. As in the multimedia presentations of religious organizations and corporate business, Anderson’s seduction suggests, “Sit back and relax, don’t think, let us do it for you, let us show you how.” She is identifying with a higher order of technology-power. The technology that creates the conveniences for a certain kind of “survival” (and with that the appearances of life—eroticism, pleasure) within the commodity system is available to scientists, corporate advertising, and other commercial media, but not to artists. In an effort to attain the same degree of authority as that achieved through a technological seduction, the original intent of the art/artist is exchanged for the “other’s” ends, that is, for the appropriation of people.

Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Darby Crash, and Ian Curtis all died for our sense of “heroics” as opposed to Anderson’s conceptual representation of neo-heroics. Using their egos to shape the music—in some cases believing in their media-created image and in others shaping the image themselves, whether or not they believed it—they used that image to destroy, within their own framework, the standard of what had gone before, giving rise to new forms. The audience paid to see them do this, as well as to witness the destruction of the artists’ own lives—the illusory freedom becoming an actual freedom.

In whatever hellhole a performance is given, no matter how bad the world outside seems, rock music has always offered a refuge from it. Through rock teenagers and young adults attempt to retain their purity in the face of the contradictions and compromises of the adult world. Glenn Branca, in that tradition, succeeds in turning the so-called evil, sexual power of rock music, in its primitive state, into a form of resistance. Rock ‘n’ roll as big business produces its own heroes through the record industry much the way movie studios created a star system. For Branca the art world offers a certain independence to pursue his work, although even within the art world the media playas important a role as they do in the commercial world. In this moment, after a few success stories of transcendence of the boundaries of an isolated art world—but before the final story—Glenn Branca is one of the most interesting figures to be “crossing over” (going back and forth, actually) from rock culture to art culture. His music reflects the dilemma of artists caught in the traditional sacrificial role of performers before an audience, but extends this dilemma to include the position of the artist in relation to technology. When one views the tension between Branca’s enforced closeness to mass culture and distance from it, instead of simply referring his emotionalism back to romanticism, his position becomes unique. He is a nonpurist within the pure tradition of new music. Branca slips in and out of a conceptual position. The fervor and emotion in his music gives the audience, as believers, a sanctuary within a sterile pop environment, while also allowing an abstract reading. Over the last five years Branca has moved through various levels of entertainment, from a basic rock-band structure to a symphonic mode. His use of the dialectic of opposing forces of good and evil, submission and domination, yields a wide range of emotions; these shift back and forth as backdrop and foreground to an extensive range of fundamental tones and varying harmonics, which in turn create a final, intense resolution. Metaphorically this might be thought of as a kind of summoning of gods to earth in times of need.

After moving to New York in 1976, from Boston (where he was involved in theater), Branca met Jeffrey Lohn. Together they formed Theoretical Girls. As were many of their contemporaries the two had basically been inspired by the emergent punk scene, the localized “No Wave” bands. It is well known that many of the people involved in No Wave had gone to art schools. Their involvement in music, spurred on by the cynical, anarchistic aspects of punk rock, was an alternative to alignment with the art world. Ironically, the art world in turn wanted to embrace the movement (as it seems to want to incorporate all things outside itself—especialIy phenomena from outside the mainstream of popular culture, such as graffiti art, rap music, or break dancing). When Brian Eno produced the No New York LP he brought No Wave, and specifically the bands on the record, a lot of attention; this effectively put an end to the movement because it singled out the four bands on the compilation as the definitive No Wave, causing bad feelings all around.

From the No Wave days: James Chance has gone on to achieve a certain amount of commercial success in Europe. Lydia Lunch has been through a number of band situations and musical genres; her notoriety has been based upon the persona she developed during the No New York days with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and later with the more commercially acceptable 8-Eyed Spy. Recently she has been performing with various members of other groups. DNA survived and flourished as true exponents who never failed to deliver—but have recently split up. By New York standards, Pat Place has achieved commercial success within the Bush Tetras. Adele Bertei formed the Bloods, a critically acclaimed, straight-ahead R&B group. Jeffrey Lohn, ex-Theoretical Girl, has been composing and performing his own classical pieces. Margaret DeWys, another ex-Theoretical Girl, has been composing formal music. Nina Canal, ex-Gynecologist, is living and playing with Ut in England. Miranda, an ex-member of Arsenal, is recording music under the name Thick Pigeon for the Belgium-based record label Les Disques du Crépuscule. Rhys Chatham, another Arsenal graduate, has been performing “loud guitar” pieces under a variety of different band names. Paul McMahon presents a solo music/performance act. Wharton Tiers has formed Glorious Strangers. Barbara Ess has formed Listen to the Animal, and Christine Hahn plays drums with the Berlin-based Malaria. Mark Cunningham and China Burg, from Mars, have formed Don King, while Rudolph Grey, who performed with Red Transistor, now works under his own name, collaborating with various musicians.

In 1978 Branca went on to form the Static with Barbara Ess and Christine Hahn: Here he began to discover the structures of sound on which much of his current music is based. The music he made with the Static may have been his most theatrical and radical. My notes from that time read:

They begin to play; both women have their eyes stuck to him [Branca]. Suddenly he takes off his guitar and begins to writhe on the floor covering his face and body with the dirt. The women continue to play, very cool, as he rises to the side, looks into a mirror, and proceeds to pop blackheads from his face. He returns to his guitar and joins Barbara and Christine. Barbara and Glenn’s voices stagger over each over. “It’s not over, just the beginning. It’s not over, just the beginning.” The music climbs melodically and challenges itself with deadpan stops and jarring single beats from the bass drum. Starting slow and ending fast, sometimes just winding itself out, the lyrics more like film dialogue. The man: “Breathe in Breathe out.” The woman: “Inspirez . . . Expirez.” Spoken in softness against the heartbeat (bass drum). Then the guitar starts its upward progression, winding in-out of the driving bass. Christine hasn’t broken her gaze off Glenn; the drum repeats 1, 2, 3 with controlled resistance, teasingly. He says, “I can’t eat . . . I can’t sleep.” She repeats that in French. Again the music speeds up; “You’re hurting me . . . you’re hurting me.” He then falls to his knees forming a cross with his guitar to hers, up against it, playing, pressing it, holding it. He rises.

In the Static there was evidence of the highest degree of resistance between Branca and the two women, expressed in the music as tension and suspense. Branca competed with himself—rock being primarily male-oriented—making it nearly impossible for the other two to keep up with the music. In this way he drove the music. The abrupt starts and stops and up-and-down interweaving speed of Branca’s guitar and Ess’ bass characterized the music, creating an atmosphere of high sexual tension, of frenzied contact and momentary withdrawal inducing a state of sustained expectancy.

Next Branca began to articulate his music further within the structure of an all-male band that played under Branca’s name, gradually gaining support from within the art world. He would play mostly in clubs around New York rather than in art spaces—partly out of choice, partly out of necessity. At a concert given in 1980 at Irving Plaza, New York, Branca stood,

his back to the audience, legs slightly parted, looking down at his guitar, the soft white hands picking over the notes; the small movements, if slow, would be a light caress. His eyes and body are alert, moving from one direction to another. Six men span across the stage, five guitars and one bass guitar, playing at different times higher and lower intertwining tones. Their poses shift with the music which is muggy, then hot/cold, alluring. Legs cross and uncross, torsos twist slightly. A deep pulse beat penetrates the dissonance, the double strumming of the individual guitars is indistinguishable from each other. Isolated by their own timing, the knobs of their guitars are turned up as they lean forward into the resounding notes. Stilted and gliding by an order imposed from without . . . slowly, bam, bam, bam . . . the back of the hand swings against the neck, casually caressing it. Six men stand frontal, one beat resounds.

The movements necessary in creating certain sounds from the guitars, combined with the dirt produced by the sound system and the acoustics of the club/hall, unrefined and raw, defined the movements of Branca and the band, lending to them the same gut and pulp sensibility as that of rock ‘n’ roll.

Unlike Branca’s earlier works, Symphony no. 2 (The Peak of the Sacred) shows a stunning split between the machinelike appearance of the performers and what is heard. This work was first performed last spring at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, As the composer/creator, conductor/master Branca separated himself from the musicians, placing himself between them and the audience. Following his primitive arid unorthodox method of conducting-one that is, however, known to the musicians, who are also basically “untrained”—the score and the performance set up the resolution. Homemade four-tiered guitars were used, allowing for a greater volume of sound and range of tone than guitars held in a conventional manner. The musicians had four guitars each placed in front of them, on which they hammered out the notes, What sounded melodic was actually derived from hitting the open strings in percussive beats. The extraordinary occurrences of sound were in sharp contrast to the workmanlike appearance of the orchestra. The music evoked a feeling of immateriality, suggesting homeless spirits in search of their lost bodies, ruled by technology. At the New Music America ’82 festival in Chicago, John Cage, after having heard a piece for ten guitars by Branca for the first time, was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying, “Branca had me shaking . . . I found myself responding in ways that brought me back to my ego. My feelings were disturbed. I recalled a piece composed by La Monte Young that was a recording at the highest volume of a gong scraping on cement. But there had been a change, The gong is no longer a thing but a performance group . . . . I found in myself the willingness to connect the music with evil—with power. I don’t want such a power in my life.”

Branca has placed what was once merely a reductivist formalism in a social context. He makes the audience aware of the context of “the gong” or thing, and thereby reflects the hierarchies in society. In Symphony no. 2 the musicians represent the repressed majority—the workers who shape the object/music for their supposed later use and pleasure. Branca, as the conducter/master, composer/owner, counts on their sensitivity to, and belief in, his vision. The only musician who had apparent freedom of movement was Z’ev, the solo percussionist, who thrashed and swung his homemade instruments. Branca presented Z’ev in the role of star entertainer. Appearing in semi-bondage gear, Z’ev expressed the notion of the artist/entertainer/hero not really as master but as someone enslaved and restricted within his role, his only expression becoming one of frustration and deliverance through sacrifice. An image of repression, he also became a representation for the majority. In “Basic Banalities,” published in Internationale Situationniste #8 (January 1963) Raoul Vaneigem writes,

Model of gods and heroes, the master, the owner is the true reality of Prometheus, of Christ, of all whose spectacular sacrifice has made it possible for “the vast majority of people” to continue to sacrifice themselves to the extreme minority, to the masters. ( . . . isn’t the case of Christ really the sacrifice of the owner’s son? If the owner can never sacrifice himself except on the level of appearance, then Christ stands for the real immolation of the owner’s son when circumstances leave no other alternative. As a son he is only an owner at a very early stage of development, an embryo, little more than a dream of future ownership.

The primitive instruments Branca uses symbolize the state of the artist within the complexity of urban technology.

Branca’s latest work, Symphony no. 3 (Gloria), will be premiered this month (January), and will be performed on many different instruments—some of them constructed specifically for the music. Included will be various keyboards built with resonating bars each tuned to one or more octaves, a harmonic keyboard, motorized keyboards, mallet guitars, and harp-mallet guitars. The keyboards make it possible to move quickly and easily over a wide area of the strings; the conventional guitar involves a greater limitation. The tuning will be a reflection of the actual complex tones that make up the harmonic structure of the sound resonating from the strings. There will be little or no enharmonic distortion. This will make it possible to determine and produce specific resultant (or differential) tones. All of the instruments will be tuned directly to the intervals of the first seven octaves of the harmonic series, which constitutes 128 notes.

Branca has yet to make a record that replicates the intensity of his performances. So far there is a profound difference between a Branca record and a Branca performance. Live, his basic tool—the electric guitar—sets up a grainy atmosphere of acoustics, not electronics. His high consciousness of the visual implications of the movements required to get certain sounds means that watching the work is part of the experience of listening to it. When he threw his body around with the guitar in his earlier performances there was a sense of freedom as well as of the ever-near possibility of injury. The guitar seemed like an extension of his body.

Now, with his expanding sense of music, this metaphor has extended to what has been called “an army of guitars.”

Kim Gordon is an artist and a member of the group Sonic Youth.