Loud, Proud, and One Helluva Crowd

A symphony—yes, a symphony—for 100 electric guitars.

The announcer introducing us reminded the audience to turn off their cell phones, and we stifled giggles. We were playing in the world premiere of Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City,” Symphony No. 13 on June 13 at the World Trade Center, and we knew there was no chance somebody’s ringer would spoil the mood. Branca writes his symphonies for electric guitars (click here to listen to samples and here for more on Branca), and he’d originally written this one for 2,000 of them. By the time it got to the WTC, it had been scaled down to a mere 100, almost all played by volunteers. Actually, the head count at the two rehearsals and the performance was more like 85 or 90—still one king hell of a noise.

We were an odd cross-section of guitarist types: long-haired tweedle kings, serious young avant-gardists, Branca fans awed and terrified at the chance to play with him, a friend of mine who’d just learned to read a score the week before, and at least a couple of bassists who kept breaking into Led Zep while we were trying to tune. (I was the guy playing the ‘82 Harmony Piece-of-Crap, way back in the Bass 2 section.) What we all had in common was that we were used to playing very, very loudly. At the first rehearsal, Branca announced that we were going to start with the triple-pianissimo section at the beginning and counted us in. We sounded like the inside of a jet engine. Branca looked delighted. The subsequent piano, mezzo, and forte dynamics came out as “punishingly loud,” “indescribably loud,” and “my ears! my ears!” respectively. And that was from where I was sitting, behind the speakers.

At that volume, phantom notes appear and hover in the air—the hallucinations of the title, perhaps. The Village Voice’s Kyle Gann wrote that “Branca’s handling of overtone masses remains the most important innovation in the symphonic genre since the middle of the last century,” which is probably true if you bear in mind that the last century just ended. Halfway through, I pulled out my earplugs so I could feel the thing instead of concentrating on my part. “Hallucination City” is physically demanding—the entire piece is “double-strummed,” which is roughly like playing tremolo for an hour straight—but the actual notes proceed slowly and easily. Even so, we’d never played it in a single continuous pass before the performance, and we sweated our way through it.

But here’s a secret of orchestras, and it was as true at the World Trade Center as it had been when I played cello in high school: They’re very forgiving. Miss a cue? Flub a note? Skip a few measures to turn the page? Unless you’re playing in formal dress, nobody notices; there are eight people around you who’ll get it right. That goes double for “Hallucination City,” built on open tones sustained for minutes at a time. Pretty much the entire orchestra got badly lost a couple of times, and the audience was none the wiser. (A “concertmaster” did the big One-Two-Three-Four rock star move to count in every 10th measure and get strays back on track.) By the end of the symphony, our individual guitars’ tunings were wrecked, but we were collectively pretty much on the mark. Anyway, we’d been told not to tune too carefully, or the tone clusters wouldn’t be, uh, clustery enough.

Does that sound unprofessional? It was, and thank heavens for it. There was once a tradition of the amateur orchestra—big groups of musicians who played for the pleasure of it, and audiences who weren’t expected to receive them in sanctified solemnity. It’s mostly vanished now, which is a terrible shame. Contributing to the sound of 100 (or, OK, about 90) instruments working together is an experience every musician should have, and hearing that sound is a reminder that making even the most powerful and complicated music isn’t a pleasure available solely to highly trained experts. “Hallucination City” was written specifically to sound glorious in the hands of an orchestra of immoderate amateurs. It did, and no matter how loudly we played, it was humbling to be part of something that was much bigger than ourselves.