The New Wave isn't fair. Laurie Anderson records for Warner Bros. and enjoys the success of a rock musician. Talking Heads go Hollywood with a first-run movie. Philip Glass presents his opera "Akhnaten" in Lincoln Center.
Yet Glenn Branca, the art-rock musician whose 13-piece band has been called the best in a movement that includes Anderson and Talking Heads, and the most original since Philip Glass and the minimalists, cannot fill a concert hall -- even when he pays for the space with his own money.
"Our favorite romantic is back," coos the Village Voice.
"%! *!!!" exclaims Branca over the phone from his SoHo loft.
Translation: "Why can't a musician make a living?!"
Part of the problem may be the generally accepted definition of musician. Branca's fusion of rock and classical may be the work of a genius to critics, but to others it is a pummeling by rude heavy-metal rhythms, like being strapped to the wing of a 747 -- in flight.
His new composition, Symphony #5, subtitled "Describing Planes of an Expanded Hypersphere, a Tone Drama in 7 Movements" -- performed every night through Saturday at 512 W. 19th St. on a setup of five modified guitars, four organs, two clavichords, a sledgehammer and a trap-set -- is no exception. A formal instrumental work that deals in extended time-spans and sound-colors, the symphony challenges the contemporary ear to call Beethoven a wimp or The Who a string ensemble.
Part of the problem may be Branca himself. An enfant terrible whose Byronic good looks defy his 36 years, he is stubborn, perhaps even obstinate. While Anderson and Talking Heads may have sold out, Branca has alienated many of the supporters who have crammed into rock clubs for the past 10 years to hear him. A recent tangle with the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival got Branca blackballed from the avant-garde venue.
So every night this week, in an abandoned sound studio off the Hudson River, he starts all over. It's like 1974 again, only instead of the crowds of artists and art types that first linked him with the "art-music" movement, less than half the seats in the makeshift auditorium are taken. Since he has not been able to properly promote his concerts, few have responded.
But when the music begins, everyone seems to take collective pleasure in this exclusive secret, like a group of recent converts to some new religion. As Branca contorts himself into what look like the last throes of ecstasy, the relentless, harmonious thunder takes over all other thoughts.
In a quiet moment after the concert, the roar of Manhattan muffled to a whisper following the sonic onslaught, Branca waxes philosophical about the woes of a troubled artist.
"I probably shouldn't complain. The situation has really gotten much better. College radio stations play my music. Tower Records sells my albums. But I really want people to hear this composition. I think this is the best I have ever produced."