Charlemagne Palestine | Interview

EST Magazine | Brian Duguid

one of minimalist music's unjustly neglected figures

Like Phill Niblock, Tony Conrad, Philip Corner or Yoshi Wada, Charlemagne Palestine (born plain Charles Martin in New York to Russian Jewish parents in 1947) is one of minimalist music's unjustly neglected figures, known to the lucky cognoscenti but perhaps too austere to survive the commercial crossover of late 70s minimalist music. This year, Robi Droli have reissued Charlemagne Palestine's long out-of-print Strumming Music (originally on Shandar in 1974), while Dutch label Barooni have reissued his Four Manifestations On Six Elements (originally put out by the Sonnabend Gallery).

Palestine's earliest musical memories are of singing in a synagogue choir, a sacred drone that resurfaces throughout his own music. By the early sixties, he played carillon (the church bells) at St Thomas Church, near the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and performed music for the carillon by John Cage and Oliver Messiaen. He says: "I lived near the bells, played them right next to my body. The sound became physical, visceral, each crack of the clapper was like a small earthquake". This later led to an interest in tubular bells. At one performance in New York in 1973, he used a set of seven tubular bells, striking at different points along the length of the bells to bring out overtones.

As well as becoming closely aware of the New York avant-garde (minimalist painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still; musicians such as Cage, Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, Tony Conrad and Morton Feldman), he retained an interest in impressionist music and art (Debussy, Rabel, Monet, Gauguin etc). In the same period, he created the Spectral Continuum Drones for church organs, lasting up to four hours where he would explore the penetrating resonances of the instrument.

Palestine met Morton Subotnick at the New York University Intermedia Center, who gave access to electronic oscillators and introduced him to Don Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin, who designed a "drone machine" for him.

He created tape pieces, with droning electronic tones changing gradually and minutely. Writing about these subtle pieces, Tom Johnson suggested "It is similar to Op Art in that it deals with perception, often creating illusions of motion, even when no motion is actually taking place." They also owe a debt to colour-field painters such as Rothko, who also sought a spiritually entrancing, resonant effect in his work. Four Manifestations On Six Elements includes two such electronic drones, titled Two Fifths and Three Fifths. At first hearing these seem to be almost constant in tone, but soon it becomes evident that the combined harmonies create gently pulsating rhythms. You can tune into minute variations until even the smallest details seem hugely magnified. Throughout, they maintain an engrossing, beatific serenity.

A 1971 trip to Indonesia with fellow-composer Ingram Marshall gave both an interest in the tonality and rhythms of Indonesian gamelan music. Indeed, Palestine bridles at any suggestion that his drone-based music owes much to American contemporaries of the period such as LaMonte Young: "I never knew his music. When I began, my sources for a continuous sound were the oscillator, the Indian tambura, the sruti box, Tibetan chant and countless other ethnic Asian and African sources that I had found as a student on Folkways Records in America during the early sixties".

There's another parallel to La Monte Young in his vocal pieces, often inspired by Indian singing or devoted to exploring particular overtones. While singing a sustained drone, Palestine would also walk or run around his concert space, exploring different resonances in the room. A similar interest in space is obvious in a tape piece he played at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1974, where the speakers were hidden in other rooms, a stairwell and closet, to filter the electronic tones and create a denser, more complex sound.

Other vocal pieces would see him singing gradually louder while throwing himself at the walls and floors, emulating an almost shamanic trance state. At times, this seemed closer to performance art than music. Vito Acconci's confessional performances had included masturbating at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1971, and other points of comparison from the early 70s include Chris Burden's endurance tests and Gina Pane's ritualistic self-laceration. Perhaps the closest comparison is Terry Fox, whose shamanistic, cathartic performances of the early 70s have since given way to an interest in the minimal drones that can be produced by long steel wires.

Even Palestine's piano pieces involve a similarly ritualistic confrontation with pain. Descending / Ascending is a lengthy three part composition which uses his favourite Bösendorfer piano to explore the creation of overtones. Palestine would perform it with violent power, hammering alternately at keys on the piano for nearly an hour until a volcanic mass of sound builds up, shaking the floor and walls. On occasion he even managed to break some of the piano's steel strings, all the time dulling the pain in his fingers with cognac and cigarette. Palestine has stated that he developed his technique without having heard La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano, which relies on similar repetition to create its harmonic effects, but in any event his manic intensity sets him apart. Palestine suggests: "I'm the living hybrid in my own work of the physical gesturality of Jackson Pollock and the spiritual colour chemistry of Mark Rothko. Also, both have a relationship with danger and death that is very close to me".

Strumming Music, the Robi Droli reissue on CD, is a similar piano piece. The CD inlay contains a fine photo of Palestine at the piano, surrounded by stuffed teddy bears, apparently a frequent sight at his concerts (as was his flamboyant cowboy hat). Rapidly repeated groups of notes combined with carefully chosen rhythms optimising the potential for bizarre harmonic effects to occur. The sustain pedal is held down, allowing all the piano strings to resonate with each other. All of this is here: the glorious energy combined with beautiful, intricate tonality, the progression from simple charm to shimmering complexity, and I'd definitely recommend it. Quite apart from anything else, it's a fine antidote to the clean-surfaced artifice that some of the other minimalists specialise in.

Four of the pieces on Barooni's Four Manifestations On Six Elements also explore Palestine's piano music. On One Fifth In The Rhythm Three Against Two it helps to know your harmonic series, as one rhythm sets up a simple harmonic fifth while the other picks out twinkling overtones. I've met at least one person who was completely unable to see the point of this music, but as with a great deal of minimalism, the secret is to listen not to the sounds that are played, but to those that aren't. One + Two Fifths takes a similar rhythm with the sustain pedal only gradually introduced, allowing pitter-pattering austerity to gradually be trapped within a submerged labyrinth of warm, golden sonority. One + Two + Three Fifths is much closer to the sound of Strumming Music, with intricate and relentless rhythms serving as the base for more pinpoint harmonic exploration. Although it's easy to concentrate on the search for overtones, the trance-inducing properties of these rhythms are every bit as invigorating. The final piano piece, Sliding Fifths highlights Palestine's interest in impressionism, applying a translucent, fluid approach to the repeated patterns. There are moments where the lush sound appears far too complex to originate from a single piano, even though it evidently does.

If Palestine remains relatively obscure (compared to Reich and Glass), he's even less well-known in the UK than at home. Undoubtedly, given his small number of recordings, this is because he never performed in this country (despite knowing people like Michael Nyman, John Tilbury and Cornelius Cardew). "It's a bit strange, don't you think?" he asks. "Perhaps at the time we were a bit anti-establishment, as far as the music scene was concerned, and British avant-garde music was still very much tied to 'legitimate music'."

In the late seventies, Palestine mostly gave up his very successful career as performer and composer to focus on visual art. In an interview with Alan Licht, he noted: "around 1977 I became very ... negative, I began to do things unconsciously that I didn't understand, and they were very sabotagistic and I didn't know what I was doing. I was pissing everybody off, I was breaking my bridges. I was hostile to people, I was doing performances and insulting people there - I was doing whatever I could to destroy whatever world I had created ten years before, without knowing, really, why". Later, he suggested that this was his unconscious reaction to the increased commercial and reduced spirituality of late 70s minimalism, something he found nauseating.

Intermittent musical activities included a 1982 carillon concert at the New Music America festival, which Lee Ranaldo (who digitally remastered Four Manifestations) described as "very beautiful - shimmering clusters of bell-tones ringing out across green lawns from the bell tower of a church" in the Sonic Youth fan magazine "Sonic Death". A 1988 concert on a computerised Bösendorfer was recorded by Glenn Branca's Neutral label but never released (Neutral went bust before it could happen). Dutch label Barooni now plan to release the recordings later this year. Palestine says: "I took several pieces from different periods from the early 70s to early 80s for piano, and condensed them into 20 minutes each, and then played them on the computerised Bösendorfer that the company offered me to experiment with. After they were encoded, the sound engineer used the computer versions several times in the middle of the night to record the works when traffic noise was least disturbing".

Apparently, he has recently been creating music again, including a piece for the Kronos Quartet. "It reworks a piece called Birth of a Sonority for sting ensemble that John Adams commissioned from me in 1976-77, when he was chief conductor of the San Francisco Conservatory Ensemble. I did a 40 minute piece for 24-odd strings that was very successful. I thought to do a string quartet version with real-time digital overlays building up gradually from four instruments, to eight, to twelve, and finally to sixteen. At the moment, Kronos and I are at a sort of stand still on the concept".

I asked him what had attracted him to back to music, after his concentration on sculpture. "Wherever I go now there are people who have heard about, or themselves heard things I once did. By the end of the 70s I found myself in direct competition with the commercial minimalism of Reich, Glass, Adams; lots of little cutesy New Age composers who were diluting minimal piano music to Richard Claydermann-like spiritual pissings; and the newer post-minimal rock scene. I still believe in the pure sound approach to minimalism. I would like the 'hidden history' (which is merely the unhyped history) to emerge, so that people can listen and enjoy and understand how this kind of music really evolved, and give listeners alternatives to these pompous operas and pseudo-minimal symphonies, and the pop wrestling matches between these overblown minimal pop gorillas. That's all. I think that given the right circumstances, I could again in a climate of pure spontaneous sacred spaces present and perform music and activities that would curl their hairs and knock their sacred socks right off their little sacred feet".

There's a transcendent timelessness about Charlemagne Palestine's music that makes me feel as if it will always be around. Unfortunately, recording history suggests otherwise. Strumming Music and Four Manifestations On Six Elements are essential not just as documents, but as inspirational icons, and you shouldn't hesitate to snap them up Here and Now.

Interview by and © Brian Duguid March / April 1996, with thanks to Renzo Pognant, Roland Spekle and Ingram Marshall. Robi Droli / New Tone, Strada Roncaglia 16, 15040 San Germano (AL), Italy; Barooni, PO Box 12012, 3501 AA Utrecht, Netherlands; Barooni distributed by Staalplaat, PO Box 11453, 1001 GL Amsterdam, Netherlands.