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Glenn Branca | The Ascension

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Rock: No Wave Avant Garde: Experimental Moods: Type: Sonic
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The Ascension

by Glenn Branca

Branca's most well known recording. Released in 1981 on 99 Records it has been considered a classic of the NYC experimental rock scene. It includes Lee Ranaldo on guitar and is considered to be a major influence on Sonic Youth.
Genre: Rock: No Wave
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Lesson No. 2
4:55 $0.99
2. The Spectacular Commodity
12:39 album only
3. Structure
3:10 $0.99
4. Light Field (In Consonance)
8:18 $0.99
5. The Ascension
13:10 album only
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes

Sacred sacre bleu. A vision of Glenn on the Sistine Ceiling. High above, in the vault with the young men, the prophets and the sibyls. Body in motion, twisting in sculptured space. Carving the air, slowly, hovering. Revolving in a mad rush, yet slow-motion filmed. Silently turning, the sound so loud it becomes silence, the two as one. Thousands of voices crying out as one voice, and then their echo across the gulf. But Glenn on the Sistine Ceiling remains. Possessed. Immortal. Mute. Poised for eternity, about to issue an endless command – any century now – to shatter the silence and crash down on the patterned tiles below.


The rubble and dust of those times has nearly all been cleared away, replaced by something more antiseptic. The city in which this music was made was populated by a hungry crowd of eager young seekers – grown up on rock‘n’roll, educated about film, art and poetry – looking for a way out of 9-to-5 and suburban tract housing. Willing to live, as artists always have, on the edges of things – amidst the decaying brickwork and dirty tenements that always exist somewhere inside a great city. Back then rents were cheap – it was still possible to find some undesirable hole in a wall to live in, somewhere no-one else wanted to set foot – where you could light a few candles and set about your purpose: to survive the city – to secure a vision - to make art.

We’re talking here about a group of well trained young people – not outcasts but middle-class wanderers who grew up in decent homes for the most part – who went to universities and knew what had come before them. Kids coming of age in the 60s and 70s – not the grey darkness of 50s isolation but a multicolored world of possibilities which was further expanded by bright-hued psychedelics, good weed, a soundtrack equal part Beatles and Varese, Velvets, Stooges and Cage, Tudor, Stockhausen – a visual array of all the art of the 20th Century available and knowable – Goddard, Cassavetes, Varda, Sirk, Brakhage, Fassbinder opening eyes – Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer moving across dusty Judson Church dance floors and elsewhere – Kerouac, Ginsberg et al not the only literary game in town but just one open window among many thrown in the face of mid-century conformity and reticence. Everyone was informed, everyone was hungry, out to try their luck at something new.

Glenn Branca came to NYC mid 70s, a few years before I did, ostensibly to make radical theatre pieces but soon got caught up, like so many others at the time, in the surging music scene and all its various energetic offspring that had sprung forth in the wake of ‘hippy’ – 8mm films on loft walls, new expressionist art and drama, radical lifestyles in celebration on every street corner.

Punk music had made a big show, and opened many new doors, although in some circles it was just louder, snottier retread of 60s garage rock (although nuthin’ wrong w that!), NYC artist wanted – as always – to push further – into more uncharted territory than the newspapers and magazines were prepared to map. New Wave music married some aspects of punk’s new ambition with college-educated evocations of Rimbaud, Artaud, Plath, Schiele, De Kooning and Pollock. The misfits of the No Wave immediately attempted to take all that shit down – they didn’t care if they couldn’t actually play – and it didn’t matter either – these were the groups that were the most vital fleeting entities on a scene hungry for the NEW – and still possibly the best kept secret revelation NYC has witnessed in the 20th century. These guys and girls broke ‘music’ down to its elements: A beat. A voice. Rhythm. Volume. Just what the greatest city on earth deserved – a mirror held up to its dirty face – a more truthful reflection than the nightly news.

Branca’s early groups – Theoretical Girls and The Static – were part of this scene. I remember seeing The Static – in the back of the room at A’s – and being bowled over by the abandonment and atonal ecstasy in the music. They were playing punk rock (weren’t they?) but, uh hey – are they singing in French?? Inspirez… Expirez….

As this scene rapidly shifted and mutated Branca began composing the first of his publicly-noted extended forays for instrumental electric gtrs. First came ”Lesson #1” and “Dissonance”, followed soon after by the music on this record. I was on hand to witness those first 2 ‘numbers’ live at the Kitchen – w the guy on sledgehammer and anvil for “Dissonance” – and it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before – or at least like nothing I expected to hear at a ‘rock’ event. It was powerful and new, beautiful in its ugliness.

By the time The Ascension recordings were made, I was core member of Glenn’s ‘small group’ – 4 gtrs, bs, and drums. We had played NYC clubs and art spaces and, in December 1980, set out on a USA coast-to-coast tour, aided in part by a big gig at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and also by Eastern Airlines $350/3 week unlimited flight tickets. No one in America was ready for this music. Not many are ready yet today, for the most part, to understand the importance that those No Wave groups and their spawn had on those amongst us who were there to experience it first hand. It was an indelible stamp on what art could attain, thru poverty of means. So no one was prepared, when Glenn’s group took the stage before a bank of ratty amplifiers and drums, for what would unfold. We came out and unleashed the music that you hear on this album.

Glenn would hold his hands up for the first cue, back to the crowd, Collar upturned against all opinions – we had our scrappy sheets of music scores spread around us. Stephan Wischerth would start pounding the beat. Stephan – the bearded manimal who would come out like some concert tympanist or Shakespearean actor – often in precise suit and tie, every hair in place – and who by set’s end would be reduced to a goggle-eyed, sweat soaked train wreck in a stained wife beater, trying desperately to maintain the pile driving rhythms w/o faltering. Glenn would goad him – indeed all of us – through one sustained height of frenzy after the next as the music demanded it – arms outstretched like some demented Bruno-Walter-on-peyote summoning the gods above – coaxing forth the unique sounds of his compositions for multiple tuned electric guitars at ultra-high volume. In a very real sense Glenn would be coaxing his musical visions (and demons) into actuality right there on the stage, in front of both band and audience. It was more than impressive. Beyond insane. It was really high art.

The gtrs were tuned quite specifically for this music – usually with multiple strings tuned to the same note – and we often played in the format baritone/alto/tenor and soprano gtrs, like a traditional chorus. Different pieces demanded different tunings – these were the first of my many years spent lugging untold number of cheap gtrs thru airports and train stations.

Jeffery Glenn, lanky good-natured bass player w very little angst, would hold down the bottom end beside Stephan. We guitarists were a ragged group from down below 14th Street: Lubbock, Texas cowboy Ned Sublette, David Rosenbloom – studied leader of downtown trio Chinese Puzzle, myself – aspiring art/rocker, and Glenn. The four of us on gtrs and the other two as rhythm section came together in a special way thru the power of the music and Glenn’s will to see it made extant. Glenn had seen many players pass thru the ranks of his group – and would continue to see many more over the years after this band split – but for the brief year or two which saw the creation of this record, that US tour and a subsequent European leg – he had had no more focused ensemble to tackle and interpret his musical visions, and to really take it all the way out to the extremes of control and abandon that it needed. We were that group. Audiences sat stunned while something violent, beautiful, ecstatic and visionary unfolded before them. We were all leaning into the music, Glenn quivering and gyrating in raggedy suit jacket and fucked up pompadour. Sometimes his guitar and mine would clash, I would step forward, his strings would grate against my strings in a crucifixion pose until he forced me down to the ground, guitars grinding away all around us.

Those who stayed – those audience members not driven out by the volume or unexpected nature of what they’d come to see – found themselves moved in a way that few other musical performances had ever left them. All of the supposed transformative power of art was made visible to them, through the music. Few who heard this music have forgotten the experience.

The group would go on to swell in numbers and tour Glenn’s early symphonies – expansions on the potential of the music on The Ascension, with powerful results – but in terms of a tightly focused distillation of where Glenn – and by confluence the whole ‘New Music’ scene – was at, nothing really even came close to the power of this sextet.

This record was recorded between that first US tour and a trip to Europe. When these tours were over, and the record was out, and we were once again back in our dingy apartments and lofts in NYC the world seemed somehow changed. New art of all sorts was exploding around us. The music that Glenn and other ‘downtown’ composers were making was being talked of in the same breath w more legit and recognized forms of ‘minimalism’ – Reich, Reilly, La Monte Young, John Adams and others – and rightly so. Electric gtrs were another means to realization. The potential for creativity had been expanded, from ‘underground’. As the 80s unfolded the creative scene in NYC would fragment into various factions – the musicians more separate from the artists, the filmmakers from the writers – everyone went off to do their own thing and that brief enlightened sense of community came to a close. We didn’t even realize it existed until it was no more.

A word about the recordings: this music was extreme – and recording engineers weren’t exactly equipped to know how to deal with it in 1981. Lucky connections meant that this album was recorded at NYC’s famed Power Station – where ‘big time’ rock artists from Springsteen to the Stones had worked - but somehow the engineers couldn’t always deal with the music. It was hard to fully translate its power and magnitude to disc. It’s partly the ever-present problem of trying to take something extreme and capture it for repro out of gentle stereo systems – but also partially about focus – the technicians who made this record approached it as ‘rock’ music – which in one aspect it surely was – but they understood little or nothing about the other antecedents of this music – the massed tone poems and clusters of modernist composers such as Penderecki, Legeti Messiaen or Xenakis, or the lush quality of 19th century romantic music, which equally plays a part. I’ve always felt some essential quality of the work was missing from these recordings, and listening back to them recently, I believe I know what it is: room tone. This record was made ‘close-mic’d’, like rock music, but it ignored the fact that this music only really opened up when it was performed live in an enclosed space – when it could activate the volume of air in a concert hall or club and allow the instrumental sounds to blur and smear together to fill the cavity with sound. Maybe you just had to be there? To experience the theatre of this work – which was also an integral quality I’ve not gotten into here – was certainly another part of the equation as well. All I can offer by way of advice – and it’s seldom as warranted as it is here – is to turn it up as loud as she’ll go, close yr eyes, and …imagine.

Lee Ranaldo
New York City, March 2003



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