Glenn Branca keeps rumbling across musical landscape
New York — Glenn Branca's music falls somewhere between elemental rock-and-roll and the all-enveloping roar of a tidal wave. By turns inviting, aggressive, and downright belligerent, it wraps the listener in a cocoon of metallic sound. Hearing it is a visceral experience, like wrestling with a force of nature. Yet there's logic to its methods and structure. It beguiles the mind even as it assaults the ear.
I was awed by the raw power of Branca's work when I encountered it some years ago, but I wondered how durable it was - how many variations he could spin before his thunderstorm ran out of energy. I wasn't reassured when his second symphony relied on a percussion sideshow for much of its impact, and his third seemed a trifle self-conscious in its use of a ''pure tuning'' system based on the harmonic series.
Now his fifth symphony has arrived, and I'm happy to report that it shows no sign of redundancy or waning imagination. Branca is still an eager beaver about his harmonic ideas, and the new work gets academic when justifying its subtitle, ''Describing Planes of an Expanding Hypersphere.'' But when he doesn't get bogged down in the implications of a mathematically tuned ''natural scale,'' he serves up cascades of sound you've never heard before. The instruments include mallet guitar, fretted violin, and sledgehammer. The sighing first section resembles a Tchaikovsky movement stretched out like a sonic rubber band; the third portion sounds like a million monkeys hunting on zithers for some impossible chord; other movements carry primal rock-music rhythms to new extremes.
And, allaying another of my doubts about Branca's work, the new symphony is not languishing in obscure experimental venues. Commissioned by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, it had its premiere in Austria, where it was later broadcast on national television. After opening a new performance festival at UCLA last month, it went north and kicked off a new-music series sponsored by the San Francisco Symphony, then traveled to Manhattan where I heard it during a 12-day engagement. It will be played Nov. 29 in Detroit and Dec. 8 in Philadelphia and next spring will open the Paris Biennale.
Branca has invaded the dance world, too. Twyla Tharp choreographed her violent ''Bad Smells'' to his music, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre has presented ''Pigs and Fishes'' by Elisa Monte, which has a Branca score.
Monte presented ''Pigs and Fishes'' with her own troupe, the Elisa Monte Dance Company, during a recent engagement in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's popular ''Next Wave'' series. The work seemed tamer then in its Ailey edition but still had a strong visual and sonic punch. By contrast, the newer ''White Dragon'' - another Monte dance to Branca music - didn't quite realize its colorful potential, despite the energy of five artfully clad male dancers.
Perhaps this work seemed anticlimactic simply because it didn't equal the excellence of the dances before it, however. ''Indoors,'' with a score by art-rocker David Van Tieghem, continually refreshed the eye. ''Set in Stone'' combined a cemetery setting (by Marisol) with thumping African Head Charge music arranged by Adrian Maxwell Sherwood. There was also a fabulous rendition of ''Treading,'' choreographed by Monte to portions of a Steve Reich composition. More supple and surprising than even in the fine Ailey production, it brought ecstatic applause for Monte and partner David Brown.
In all, it was a rousing program by a very promising troupe. Monte's company will be seen Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in St. Louis; and three times in Montana - Dec. 5 in Bozeman; Dec. 6 in Missoula; and Dec. 8 in Helena.