glenn branca at le poisson rouge, 2010click image to enlargephoto by Lori Baily
Last weekend Michele and I saw a screening of the musical performance film "135 Grand St., 1979", a set by the excellent Paranoid Critical Revolution, and a solo performance by Glenn Branca at Le Poisson Rouge in NY. The occasion was celebrating the film's release on DVD.
Branca: Glenn Branca played a guitar with two bodies, a single neck, and no head. The setup (pictured above) was such that the guitar body farthest from his picking hand (the one up where the head piece of the guitar usually is) was the one plugged into the amp. Up there was where the active pickups received whatever impulses came through. In between his active pick and the pickups at the far end, his left hand touched, muted and intervened, mainly with a glass slide. The sound he worked with was exclusively composed of everything but regular strummed guitar string vibrations: feedback, overtones, chiming and clinking. It was at times exquisite. The overall feeling of the performance was of an improvised something being alternately forced out or allowed to escape. The body language and attitude was clownish, staggering, ironic. The performance ended abruptly, he took off the guitar and did a sarcastic hip-shaking dance with his back to us. There is a perversity about this guitar as a physical object, a weirdness in its conjoined-twins shape, and what Branca does with it, that interests me. Maybe one could imagine that Branca made this thing just to get certain sounds, but there is a conceptual and sculptural gesture here. He has turned the guitar around against itself. The object doesn't know if it is coming or going. The part of it he touches and manipulates isn't the part the sound goes through-- is he distancing himself? Is he making room for some kind of inspiration or unknown thing to enter? It strikes me he is certainly finding a way of continuing to 'dance with the one that brought him'. He is wringing something out of the neck of this object. It is still the iconic convention, still a man on a stage thrashing around with an electric guitar, but he's an older man now, and the guitar has become freakish. He might be trying to coax a little more beauty out of the thing, or he might be trying to kill it.
The film: The performances on the film are mixed in terms of interest. A few came across as weak, slightly out-of-the-mainstream rock songs from that moment in time (boring), but the standouts were sublime. Rhys Chatham's solo performance was shattering, fantastic on every level, as performative gesture, as entrancing drone, as intelligent, even self-critical minimalist exploration of that primary iconic image of rock, a young man ecstatically hitting power chords on an electric guitar. In this case, it was the same, single chord for the duration of the entire piece. Branca was also excellent in the film, as were UT, and Youth in Asia (Taro Suzuki killed with his charismatic hysterics.) We had seen bits of this filmed document of the NY 'no wave' scene when it was screened as part of the "Pictures Generation" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was good to see it in full. Even the low points had the charm of somebody's no-production-value home movie snapshot of the time, and the high points were incredibly high.
Paranoid Critical Revolution: Two women, an electric guitarist and a drummer, played a very exciting set. Viscerally powerful, musical, precise. Their wordless "songs" followed each other rapidly, no time or anything else was wasted. We will see them again.