Interview: Glenn Branca on His Crash Ensemble Commission

Ian Lamont
Posted September 24, 2012 in Music Features

“I should tell you right up front, at the moment, I’m in a bit of a haze because I just delivered the piece to Crash last night” admits Glenn Branca. “There’s always a whirlwind of activity towards the end of writing a piece.” Trying to track the musical contours of Branca’s drawl in type would almost make you run out of italics. And while lack of sleep may have made his voice more grizzled, it certainly didn’t suck the drama or passion from it. Here, the composer famed for his massed guitar ensembles and his no-wave roots explains how he’s come to compose his new work Thought for Ireland’s foremost chamber ensemble, Crash, as they begin their residency in Temple Bar’s Project Arts Centre.

How did you come to be commissioned by Crash Ensemble? Were you familiar with their work and with Donnacha Dennehy’s work before?

Well, I can tell you, the whole thing was utterly accidental and classically coincidental in a New York sense. I had just happened to go to a show in a club a couple of years ago. And I had no idea who the Crash Ensemble were, I was just coming to hang out and hear some good music and when I heard this piece by Donnacha, I was completely blown away. To me it was one of the finest pieces music that I’d heard in a very long time. I mean, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more critical, jaded you might say and to me, this was the composer that I’d been waiting for! I usually don’t ever go backstage to compliment the composer, but in this case, I just had to. I just ran around the club trying to find him to tell him how incredible I thought the piece was. And it turned out that one of the musicians in my group had studied with him, in Dublin, and knew him!

So they had heard that I was extremely interested in Donnacha’s work but also in the performance of the group, which was one of the most sophisticated I’ve ever heard by any chamber ensemble anywhere.

What scale is Thought on? I know you write for your own ensemble which is slightly smaller and then say Hallucination City was for 100 parts.

Well at this point it doesn’t make any difference to me. I take the instrumentation that’s available to me and create something from it. I have a number of pieces that are in progress and they’re all very different from one another. There’s a piece for symphony orchestra, there’s an opera there’s a record for my ensemble, there’s a piece for 100 violins, there’s a solo percussion piece, there’s a piece for solely metallic instruments – so I write for anything at this point. I could write for chainsaws!

But one thing that was interesting for this particular ensemble is that they have a group that is basically a reflection of an orchestra. This is a piece that I could see expanding into an orchestral piece at some point, because they are using a reflection of the orchestra in their ensemble.

Can you explain a little of the thought process behind it?

Well, the way I always approach every single piece that I write that I want to hear something I haven’t heard before or I want to develop something that I haven’t quite gotten right, a full realization of the idea in my head. In this, there is definitely an overall arc, but the piece is just jammed with all kinds of ideas. But I also like messing with peoples heads, so the thing has a lot of surprises in it. That’s something I love to do – play against peoples preconceptions of whats going to happen.

I don’t want to give away some of the surprises in this piece so I’m not gonna give you some of the technical things that we’re doing with the piece that are a little unusual, but it should be pretty surprising to hear, to say the least. People are either going to love it or hate it. That invariably has been the case with my music as long as I can remember.

Glenn Branca’s Thought will be premiered by Crash Ensemble in their first major concert as Music Ensemble in Residence at the Project Arts Centre, on November 2nd alongside works by Nico Muhly and Kevin Volans. Tickets are €20/18.

You can help support this commission by contributing to their Fund:it campaign.

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