Glenn Branca, a founder of the seventies No Wave music scene and mentor to Sonic Youth, originally composed his Symphony No. 13, “Hallucination City,” for the Paris millennium celebration, where the piece would be played by 2,000 guitars. When that performance fell apart, he pared it down to 100 guitars and one drummer, who played the piece in front of the World Trade Center in June 2001. Three years later, Branca finally has funding to record the beast, and last month 100 new guitarists convened at Kaufman Astoria Studios to lay down tracks. Jada Yuan spoke to Branca, 56, at a French restaurant across the street from his West 14th Street studio. Branca sat down and at once pulled out a cigarette.
Waiter: I am sorry. You cannot smoke.
Glenn Branca: We can’t smoke in the garden?! We’re outside! That’s why we came here! [Putting away the cigarette.] I’ll be all right. I just wanted it to be pleasant and hazy.
JY: Tell me about this project. Was there any significance to the original performance in front of the World Trade Center?
No significance whatsoever. It just happened to be where the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was holding their festival. Though I have to say, the only recording we have is this crappy video, with the guy shaking the camera as he films the buildings, which is a little unsettling. It’s like, what did he know?
Why are you recording Symphony No. 13 now?
I have zero control over what gets recorded and when. The people at this small record company, Cantaloupe Music, came to see the performance, liked it, and wanted to put it out.
Who are some of the guitarists showing up?
A lot of Viacom staffers. A few years ago, I did this piece that was part of some Japanese corporate thing where they wanted the employees to feel happy or something, so they commissioned me to write a sixteen-minute piece for the employees of, like, MTV and Nickelodeon. We contacted them, and now we have a lot of lawyers and accountants who play the guitar. [The food arrives. Branca has foie gras, which he’s never tried before.] Can I get bread with that? You can’t eat pâté without bread. What the hell is this? Is this just the fucking liver? [Waiter: It’s grilled foie gras.] I thought it was the terrine. This doesn’t really appeal to me, but I’ll taste it. Mmmm. I must say, it is the best liver I’ve ever had. Thank you.
JY: What’s your legacy?
At the moment, I don’t see one. I mean, I never started out to be a teacher or a guru. Plus, I don’t like imitators. Now, if somebody takes my ideas and pushes them to a new place, like what Sonic Youth did, that’s a whole other thing. Sonic Youth was my favorite rock band for many years.
What’s the story with you and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo? I heard they got kicked out of your ensemble.
They didn’t get kicked out, but they did piss me off. We were on a European tour for my Symphony No. 4, and they started spray-painting sonic youth on the stage where we were playing. We were touring with a symphony! But that was okay. I mean, I don’t care how big an asshole someone is—and by the way, they’re not assholes—but if their music is good, I don’t care if they’re psychos.
Will you ever sell out?
Oh, I’ll sell out anytime anybody wants me to. There are no buyers.
Symphony No. 13, “Hallucination City”