Charlemagne Palestine | Interview

Perfect Sound Forever | Daniel Varela

Sensual, physical and visceral music trance

Charlemagne Palestine courtesy by LEM Festival, Barcelona- Spain

Sensual, physical and visceral music trance
interview by Daniel Varela (June 2002)
A long neglected musician, composer, performer and visual artist, Charlemagne Palestine is only recently recognized as a driving force in experimental music scene. Through many years of his recordings have been so difficult to obtain and his performances involving long sound masses could be heard only as an obscure story-telling. His early work with carillon and electronic sustained drones has given place to his better known piano work in the seventies, concerts in which many times Palestine bleed his own hands after an exhilarating playing technique. After years of retirement doing visual installations and traveling, the nineties has been more friendly with Palestine. Many young musicians value his work and some small independent record labels are particularly diligent with remarkable releases of his work. This interview was done in Barcelona, in November 2000 during LEM festival of experimental music. Many quotes will drive interested people to many other items Palestine- related.


Q: I read about your concept of "resonant" music (1), rather than "minimal" music. Under the label "minimal", we can see very different expressions. Could you reflect on this?

For me, some people started to use the word "minimal music" in the seventies about music like mine and I've never thought that it was minimal. I've always thought that my music is about trance... like to be in a trance state. As my voice resonates in certain places, my pieces depend on a definite architecture, so for me, I agree with the question of respecting a "wider concept." Sometimes my pieces are very dense with sound and they are not minimal at all. But it's true that sometimes, the pieces have a very long duration and some people say that they hear very little in the music and other people say they hear very much in my music. So, it's very much up to the listener to decide... some people think it's minimal music and others think that it's "maximal" music, which is the opposite.

Q: A good example is your piano music. Could you tell me about the principles behind your piano approach?

My piano music came about when I was a ringer in a Bell Tower in New York (2a,b). Also, I was using synthesizers around that time, with the oscillators making pure tones (3, 4, 5) and I had decided that the piano was finished for me. I enjoyed Debussy and jazz but as an instrument it was no longer interesting for me until I started to use a Bosendorfer Imperial piano (6a, b, c, d) that I had the possibility to play in 1969 and I could hear a fantastic instrument full of overtones, resonances. Also, you could hear so many things inside it, like the sounds of the bell tower and it inspired to me to do piano music again. My first piano music resembles impressionists like Debussy or Ravel but it's played through four or five hours including some little arpeggios and played over and over again in thousands of different ways... for many hours. Later on, I began to see that I've played the piano like a "flamenco guitar" that many overtones could change and the music that came out had a density and verticality - thanks to the overtones - which was extraordinary. I've started to do my strumming (7,8) technique which is basically a kind of "flamenco" playing of the instrument but by holding down the sustain pedal while playing in this way, it can bring out an enormous amount of different textures within the same tones. It's become more and more complex in the last few years. Since the Bosendorfer has an octave lower - nine tones - than any other piano, I've played these nine tones and it's possible to hear it like an airplane engine, or like some sort of "extreme machines" from an inferno (9, 10)... and so, that's my piano!

Q: Your interest in overtones is also very remarkable in your organ works… How did you start with the organ? Is it since the same period?

With the organ… I also started that a very long time ago. I love the instrument, it's big, it's monstrous and it's (used and heard) in fantastic spaces like churches. That's also if you see the churches not only as religious places and if you don't see the churches as places only to make sounds. These instruments with enormous pipes - sometimes with thousands of pipes- interests me so much: having the thousands of pipes as oscillators. You have thousands of sounds at the same time! In an organ, you can play many tones at one time without a problem. So this was an instrument that was interesting to me and I made many pieces with sustaining tones.

I realized that if you keep the tones down and you have many different pitches that were slightly different, "out of tune" with each other, they start to beat and shimmer and you hear it as if someone else is playing the organ. You think that you're hearing someone playing incredible melodies, harmonies and rhythms but they're not! It's the organ playing itself! I developed music especially for the organ. I chose the tones but the organ plays itself and it's fantastic. People think that they are hearing or seeing hundreds of hands moving across the instrument and playing melodies, harmonies and rhythms but nothing is being played by hand... It's played by the air, the pipes and the tones in that place. It's an incredible phenomena and that's my "organ story"! (11, 12, 13)

Q: In addition to the instruments used, your performances seem very connected to ritual elements (14, 15). Do you have a particular interest or linkage with some religious tradition or ethnic heritage?

I felt so lonely in the Western contemporary music scene. It's very cold, analytical and so it's not existential. It's atheistic, especially the early contemporary music that I've heard, like some Stockhausen and post-Webern music. I felt the desire to bring a certain kind of religious ritual into it without the religious domain. I come from a Jewish religious background. I like the smell of my Kretek Indonesian cigarettes. I like to wear a special uniform when I perform: I wear a hat, I put out many candles, I decorate the instruments. For me, it's like a condiment where music or any kind of performances could be done. I like to make it sacred, which means that it's not necessarily Christian, nor Jewish or Hindu. It only resembles aspects of primitive people when they make any situation connected with the sacred. It's not particularly ethnically related to any culture or religious tradition because I like them all.

I like the (use of) candles in all kind of cultures. I like flowers when they're used in sacred ceremonies. I like incense or things that smell special in rituals. I like the clothing used for rituals and I like all the special eating or drinking used as part of ceremonies. When I play certain piano pieces of mine, I like to have my cognac or sometimes, certain whiskies or some wine- they are very important. Some people ask me "What does this have do with Western contemporary music?" Well, I want another kind of culture and departing that, I'm inventingit. I have the right to change it! I found universities to be very cold kind of places, where the people only perform music and everybody is serious and there is no alcohol and it's no fun and nobody gets excited. You can't scream… I found it too boring and so I created a world with my animals, my whiskies, my alcohols, my friends and my music.

I don't see how the form is more important. It's certainly more about sensual and physical and visceral, and for me, it touches that thing ethnic and religious and contemporary art and music can't. It doesn't have this power.

Q: And in this context, how do the Teddy bears and all the stuffed animals fit in? Sometimes, they resemble ancient totems from different cultures.

I like all animals, sometimes I like elephants, like Ganesh - which is the Hindu elephant god. We have bears, we have dogs, cats, and I like these spirits working with me. Also, I found problems with visual arts and sound arts: it's cold, self-analytical, without soul. It's for that reason that many people interested in minimal music tell me that I'm a crazy guy going around with my stuffed animals… but these animals have a real presence! (16, 17) When you are a child, the reason you are given these animals is because it's the child's first contact with some kind of a spirit that will be part of the real world and it's a question of trust and contact. When a mother and father are going to work, a child is left with these presences... like sound can be a presence. Also, when a child is left with a heartbeat, it's something like that of an electrical metronome that resembles the heartbeat of the mother. The child is very upset without it- they need the sound of the heartbeat. A stuffed animal is a kind of creature that is very small-sized and that thing involves a sense of security and power. You talk to them when you're a child - and I still talk to them - and this is a fundamental contact. I took this idea, feeling or reality to its extreme... I'm very extreme in the music that I've created, like the rituals that go with that particular position. I have with my wife a house full of animals, including stuffed animals that were abandoned. It's the only thing that we have in the house and we talk to them… and they talk to us. So, it's a whole way to see the world.

Q: Another artist working with strong ritual aspects related to music is Hermann Nitsch. Also, he has done a very important cycle of organ works with plenty of overtone masses.

He does very beautiful organ pieces (18), so he had another intention than my pieces. I have a funny story about him. In 1974, we were both invited to perform our work for the opening of the art fair in Paris. I performed with piano and he did one of his ritual rooms with cows, cut- ups, blood, etc. (19) and Le Monde- the French newspaper- the next day made a mistake and they put my name to his work. So they said " the group (sic) Charlemagne Palestine cut some animals in a ritual form…" in a full page! Hermann was really angry! After a week, they put in a correction notice that they made a mistake and the retraction was in the back of the newspaper. But the damage was enormous- the original note was an entire page!

Since then, any time that I go to Paris, I'm asked about how my (ritual rooms) work is doing, so in fact, they think that Hermann Nitsch is in action. Also then, I'm not Charlemagne Palestine, I'm Hermann Nitsch!!

Q: A frequently underrated area of your work is your vocal music, but I could be reading that this aspect comes from long time ago. Can you comment on this?

I started singing during my childhood. In fact, I come to music by singing. I've seen that in the synagogue, there's a very special kind of singing (20, 21, 22), long singing that could be for four or five hours on special holidays. The man sings and the choir gives responses and sometimes, the chant is a kind of weeping. That is the basis of my approach to vocal music (23). The singing is so common in Jewish music, like in Russian music. When you hear a real baritone, it's almost a sacred moment in the Jewish liturgy as in some moments of Russian music in which the most deep bass voice sings the most tender parts of the music. It's a remarkable aspect of the Christian-Russian tradition (24). That's is one of my singing styles. I've studied with Pandit Pran Nath (25) for some time and with an Indonesian singer and I like it so much… I'm very influenced by Indonesian singing. I like many kinds of singing. I like it when people sing, in any culture. This hits me, especially when children or when old people sing. It's incredible!

Q: Alter many years of poor documentation of your music, it seems that many young people have a growing interest in your work - including musicians coming from a rock music background. What do you think about this?

I'm always taking things, and every day is a new day for me. I feel that always I can make something different or even that I could take things that I've never done before. I like to work with people of the new generation: it's really interesting for me to work with Pan Sonic, Scanner or Thomas Köner. I've played with Rhys Chatham but I've never played with Glenn Branca. They know that I haven't played for many years and they take some of my concerts as a big inspiration. I stop playing for some time and when people asked me to play my music, I got angry and I didn't touch an instrument for almost fifteen years (26a,b). When I came back, this new generation had taken some of my musical elements and created a new language. For them, this is a very natural language and they knew that I was doing. For these people, the idea of sound continuum come from synthesizers and now you can hear these people in many clubs, in radio or even in a car!

I'm very happy that all these people are experimenting and I love to play with them because they love sound. They hear my music better than any other people of my own generation: they know exactly what things to hear in my music. More people play with me, I'm open to play with more people. When I played with Pan Sonic (27, 28), I've seen that they concentrated very hard. We didn't rehearse before the concert we did and it was fantastic!

People like Lee Ranaldo, Branca, Mark Webber... I've never played with him but he has dedicated a piece to me! It's great and I'm glad to be useful too! I think in (terms of) music all the time. I think that it's not like making a sculpture or making drawings. Sometimes a collector buys it or eventually you go to a museum and some people look at it. A plastic work of art only needs one supporter and then, it has a reason for being. But music needs to be useful in a larger social level and that's not so easy and that's what I think about the music I made. Many people think that it's useless and that's very painful to hear, but now it seems to be useful for the young generation. That's important, so I'm very happy.

Q: It's remarkable that some small record labels are committed to rediscovering your works (29), as with other musicians from your generation. I mean the work of labels like Italian Alga Marghen or Organ of Corti from California releasing archive materials or it comes to my mind the long neglected work by Angus MacLise (30).

I love Schönberg, but not all the crap!! Thousands of pieces of post-Webern crap! So many records in the world and hardly any of our works! I propose only hundred and fifty records of post-Webern crap and hundred and fifty more from people like us! It's great to see these releases: Angus MacLise was a friend and Cortical Foundation released one of my organ records. They also released the records that Terry Riley made in California and they're great! Of course, many of these small labels have no money but they do it!

We have my archive recordings for Alga Marghen (31). I'm preparing new piano recordings for Christoph Heemann's label soon as a double album made in the new Sonnabend Gallery and a carillon record for Staalplaat in Holland. Thanks to this, I'll have ten more discs in the next two years. I'll have near ten discs after twenty years!!

Special thanks to Jorge Mancini, Andrea Fasani & Victor Nubla


Notes/Further Reading:

1) Zimmermann,W.: Charlemagne Palestine, in : Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Composers. Aethetic Research Centre of Canada. Vancouver, British Columbia, 1976.

2a) Pouncey,E.: "Charlemagne Palestine. Divine Insurrection." Wire magazine # 154. December 1996.

2b) Duguid,B. : Interview with Charlemagne Palestine. EST magazine (1996).

3) Johnson,T. : "Charlemagne Palestine's Perception." Originally printed in The Village Voice March, 15, 1973. Reprinted in The Voice of New Music, Apollohuis, Eindhoven. 1989.

4) Johnson,T.: "Charlemagne Palestine: electronics, voice and piano." Village Voice 31, January, 1974. Reprinted in The Voice of New Music, Apollohuis, Eindhoven. 1989.

5) Webber,M.: "Looking for Mr. Godbear. Charlemagne Palestine interviewed." Resonance vol.7 # 1, 1998.

6a) The Boesendorfer's lowest 'normal' note (A) is right in the centre of the soundboard, while on the Steinway, the lowest note is much nearer the edge of the board. Steinways sound pretty murky in the last two or three notes, while the Boesendorfer is clean-sounding right down to the lowest A. The extra notes make the ordinary notes sound better. They must also resonate when the pedal is on. Boesendorfers have a much thinner and lighter case, apparently with the idea of projecting more sound dowm the concert hall, and less towards the pianist. Dyer,J. Mon. 17 Aug 1998. Message to Mechanical Music Digest Archives.

6b) Bösendorfer has been making hand-crafted pianos in Vienna since 1828. The "Imperial" model is seven inches longer than most full-size concert instruments and has nine extra keys in the bass. The "extra notes" were originally added as an experiment when composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni asked Ludwig Bösendorfer to make a special piano with a low "C" to simulate a 32-foot organ pipe. Busoni used this instrument for his famous piano transcriptions of the Bach organ repertoire, and Bösendorfer permanently adopted the new design because of its added depth and richness of sound. AcaMedia. News for the Smith College Community. Sept 25, 1997,html#anchor76820


6d) Pinsent,E.: "Interview of Charlemagne Palestine." Sound Projector #5.1998

7) Palestine, C.: Strumming Music (1975). Liner Notes to New Tone CD NT 6742.

8) Duguid,B.: Strumming Music. Review of the CD New Tone NT 6742. The Wire # 147, May 1996.

9) Johnson,T.: "Charlemagne Palestine Ascends. " Village Voice, April 18, 1977. Reprinted in The Voice of New Music, Apollohuis, Eindhoven, 1989.

10) Palestine,C.: liner notes to Godbear. Baroooni CD, Bar 019 (recorded in 1987).

11) Marshall,I.: Liner notes to Schlingen Blängen CD. New World Records 80578 (released 1999).

12) Pinsent,E.: "The Labradford first annual Festival of Drifting 24 Sept - 4 Oct. 1998, South Bank Centre & St John's Chruch, London." Resonance Vol.7 # 1, 1998.

13) Henderson, R.: "Charlemagne Palestine. USA, Los Angeles, Hollywood Methodist Church." The Wire # 170, April 1998.

14) Spekle,R.: Charlemagne Palestine. Liner notes to CD Four Manifestations in Six Elements. Barooni Bar 14 CD (recorded 1973)

15) Letourneau, E.: Charlemagne Palestine Interview , October 1998. Le Naviré " Night " , Radio Canada. Transcription at :

16) German Teddy bears ' creators in 1902.

17) http://www.planet-teddybear.comThe definitive site about stuffed animals.

18) "In 1968 I got a harmonium as a wedding present from my wife. From then on I sat at the harmonium and played almost exclusively long notes that never wanted to end. I tried to listen into the infinite structure of stars, into the unimaginable spaces searching for sound. The joy of beautiful colors, of (almost intoxicating) combinations of sound was most important but at the same time it was carried by the almost presumptuous task to conjure, to sing of, and measure the extent of cosmic space. the course of the stars were to be put to sound." - Hermann Nitsch, Depth of the Universe.

From 1984-89, 40 volumes of Hermann Nitsch playing harmonium were recorded in Prinzendorf Castle and issued privately by O.M. Theater Verlag in an edition of 15 copies in 1990. This series is an open door to experience the long drones and overtones in Prinzendorf. Includes photography of the cosmos from the Hubble Telescope courtesy of NASA. Hermann Nitsch, born in 1938 in Vienna, rose to notoriety during the 1960s as a result of his actions in his hometown, and later in Germany, the USA and Italy. In 1971 he was able to purchase Prinzendorf Castle, the home of his Orgies Mysteries Theater, where he has staged his 6-Day-Play, his magnum opus that required 40 years of research and preparation. One of Nitsch's central concepts, realized thru O. M. Theater actions, was adapted from Freud and Breuer: that of abreaction ... which leads to what Nitsch refers to as 'primal excess'. It is worth quoting Nitsch on this: "In abreaction ... not only are the individual's blockades released, but] also the floodgates are opened to the immeasurable. from bottomless abysses there streams a vitality that amounts to the metaphysical, procreative rage of creation.' Apart from his actions, Nitsch has gained international acclaim as an artist and is a prolific writer. His writings include not only play texts and scores, but also theoretical and speculative philosophical works. The complete Harmoniumwerk is being issued in a series of 2CD sets in editions of 500." - Hermann Nitsch, Oct. 1986. From the Forced Exposure Catalogue.

19) Hermann Nitsch's own website

20) Segal,E.: The Jewish Cantillation of the Bible. Available at:

21) Cantillation/ Nusach websites at

22) The Chazzan (or Cantor) and his Cantillation. Entry in History of Jewish Music.

23) Karenina (on Durtro label) was conceived in March 1997 in Paris at Galerie Donguy as a work to be played during a retrospective exhibition of his sculpture and photographs. The work is for his Falsetto voice and Indian Harmonium. In this work the use of the name 'Karenina' and also other words and sounds from the unconscious trance magical sources. The male falsetto has a very special sacred significance. As a young singer in Synagogue music the singing Rabbi or Cantor as he is called sings only a few times a year in a falsetto and only for the most sincere and sacred declarations. The Indian harmonium and the organesque sound in general dates from Charlemagne's earliest musical outings and were inspired by Herman Helmholtz's book On The Sensations Of Tone." Forced Exposure catalogue.

24) Holland,S.: The Tonal System of the Orthodox Church (2002). At

25) Pandit Pran Nath:

26a) Licht,A.: "Interview to Charlemagne Palestine 9/17/1989." Sonic Death #7 No publishing date.

26b) Gann,K.: "Blast from the Past. Charlemagne Palestine Returns." Village Voice, October 4 - 10, 2000.

27) PanSonic & Charlemagne Palestine Mort aux Vaches. Staalplaat CD without number. 1999.

28) Mika Vainio, Pita, Charlemagne Palestine Three Compositions for Machines. Staalplaat CD STC 035, 1997.

29) Duguid,B. : "Early Minimalism." The Wire # 206, April 2001.

30) Angus MacLise Virtual Shrine :

31) Pinsent,E.: "Universal Minimalism." The Sound Projector # 9. 2001