Symphony No. 13, “Hallucination City,” for 100 electric guitars
Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, GLENN BRANCA studied performing arts at Emerson College in Boston, and after graduation formed two bands, Theoretical Girls and Static. The first Glenn Branca Ensemble featured four guitars, bass, and drums. Later versions of the ensemble added mallet guitar (a Branca invention), keyboards, and an additional drummer. The most recent Ensemble features 8 guitars, bass, and drums. Branca has recently been writing for symphony orchestras, but continues to work with his guitar ensemble. He has received commissions from the Twyla Tharp Company, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, the Elisa Monte Company, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, among many others.
Each guitar is strung with two pairs of three strings, tuned an octave apart. (The soprano guitar is tuned to B, the tenor guitar to E, and the alto guitar to G.) The unrecorded Guitars D'Amour, performed at Expo 94 in Seville, Spain, was Branca's first and last piece for guitars in standard tuning. Symphonies No. 8 and 10 featured an octave guitar tuned to E, but covering 3 octaves, with 2 pairs of strings per octave. The bass guitars are in standard tuning, except on the final problem, where all guitars use a microtonal variation of Branca's normal tuning.
In his work with electric guitars, Branca has experiemented with density and volume, and the unpredictable acoustic phenomena generated through sound fields. He has invented new instruments and a compositional system to express his discoveries about the harmonic series.
Branca originally wrote his Symphony No. 13, "Hallucination City," for the year 2000 celebrations in Paris, hoping for an ensemble of 2,000 guitarists. When that performance did not happen, he premiered the work on June 13, 2001 outdoors in front of the World Trade Center in New York City with 100 guitarists. He has recently recorded the work, and last month he performed it at the Montclair State University School of the Arts in New Jersey.
"Structurally, it was perhaps Branca's most impressive work ever, filling out 62 minutes with no movement breaks. It started out purely consonant, repeating simple rising motives," Kyle Gann wrote in his review of the premiere for The Village Voice. "Starting at a deafening level, the work got louder almost throughout, and - after a stasis of a few minutes that could have signaled an ending - suddenly burst into tensely rising chromatic scales."
"It's true that the sheer loudness of Branca's guitar symphonies tends to overwhelm all other considerations," Gann wrote in an essay for American Mavericks. "But it's equally true that his rhythmicized, repetitive conflicts between harmonies preserve the heart of the symphonic tradition, especially if you compare them with Branca's 19th-century symphonic hero, Anton Bruckner."