Review: Glenn Branca Ensemble at London Contemporary Music Festival

Glenn Branca Ensemble at London Contemporary Music Festival
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

Glenn Branca Ensemble
(LCMF/Bold Tendencies. Rye Lane, Peckham, 27 July 2013. Review and drawing by Geoffrey Winston)

First and foremost this was an event - one of the series of ambitious concerts in the authoritatively curated, inaugural London Contemporary Music Festival held in a disused Peckham car park under the auspices of the Bold Tendencies project - and what better way to utilise the generous sponsorship that the two organisations have attracted, than to make all events free, to bring in an enquiring, open-minded audience to experience new music live, many for the first time?

Mammoth-like bellows periodically escaped from the cordoned-off auditorium to shake the building while the 400 or so ticket holders were held back for half an hour pending resolution of technical issues. The teeming rain, overflowing gutters and lightning flashes added to the atmosphere as the echoey concrete bunker of a venue amplified the enthusiastic buzz of eager, pre-concert conversations. The views over London, veiled in thin mist, revealed a calm beauty, with precise patterns of tiny red lights defining silhouettes of the Shard and other city skyscrapers.

A primeval roar of deep bass, thrumming guitars and crashing percussion ushered in the audience to swiftly pitch camp around the designated stage area. In complete contrast, the opening section of Glenn Branca's new work, 'Twisting in Space', premièred in Berlin two nights earlier, had a preparatory, 'tuning up' feel, with brittle strums and lightly shimmering drum rolls. Branca, at the podium, gradually became animated, jabbing, pointing, calling to his players, hardly pausing to draw on his cigarette, as they cranked up the intensity with staccato guitar chords bouncing around in controlled bagatelle sequences, all eyes scrutinising the detailed scores and the composer's gestures and expressions.

Rampant bass drum rolls rebounded off the low ceiling, cutting through the guitarists' unified rhythms. Branca adopted air guitar gestures and fought demons to articulate the symphonic structure, and the pace accelerated in a curt, upwardly moving spiral of concentrated energy to complete the second movement. With a clipped '1-2-3-4' call from Branca, Libby Fab hammered it solidly into the third, and the guitarists slammed down edgy, chopping riffs in a rich cohesive flow with the frenetic pace of 'Sabre Dance'. Greg McMullen, baseball cap on backwards, nonchalantly chewed on gum, while detonating simmering, metallic charges; a waif-like Reg Bloor (wife of Branca) scourged the fretboad unremittingly, impassively; a sense of morbidity and uplift were intertwined.

The room was unexpectedly plunged into darkness and uncertainty - at first it seemed like a power cut - then high fives were exchanged between the performers, signalling the conclusion of the new composition after 25 rather than the advertised 75 minutes.

This made room for 'Lesson No 3, a Tribute to Steve Reich', which Branca composed for Reich's 70th birthday concert series in 2006 and 'The Blood' from 2009, ideal pieces to demonstrate the strength of the bond between the musicians, so much at home drawing out the drama in Branca's works, the hypnotic, anthemic repetitions, the coruscation and corrosion, and the ebbing patterns that gave way to pools of repose.

With the trappings and outward appearance of a rock performance it could have been the natural extension of the Velvet's 'White Light, White Heat'. One crucial difference was that there were no solos to speak of. It was all set out on paper. The fine individual contributions were subsumed within the larger picture - superb playing all round, resulting in focused, caringly textured, and fulfilling interpretations of the works. Harsh, extreme at times, but executed with great sensitivity.

Branca, in the programme interview states that he wants to write music that is '... a kind of primitivism. Ugly, mean-spirited, vicious and dirty.' Yet, despite his characteristically misanthropic stance - he ungraciously, but perhaps theatrically, briefly railed against the sound when it was actually in very good shape - the quality of musicianship, the unceasing momentum and the density of the aural experience will resound for some considerable time. This was a benchmark achievement for the LCMF - not an easy one to cut their teeth on, but they did it in the right venue, in the right style.

Glenn Branca: conductor
Reg Bloor, Scott Collins, Eric Hubel, Greg McMullen: guitars
Arad Evans: bass guitar
Libby Fabricitore ('Libby Fab'): drums


  1. It was a very brief power cut, I am told!


  2. No. At least 10 to 12 minutes. I went through two cigs. The sound problem was not in the room but on the stage. The monitor mix had been altered in such a way that we could only hear the snare drum. There had been problems all day and this was the last straw. This is not really anon, I'm Glenn. I just don't subscribe to social networking sites.