Charlemagne Palestine

Amanita Records | Brian Duguid

approaches a piano like a climber approaches a mountain

He does not play the instrument so much as he lets it test him: he starts each performance like an ascent, knowing that somewhere ahead there are the limits of the piano, and also the limits of him. It is entirely possible that he will reach neither, or both - when I saw him play in 1998 he finished the piece exhausted and the piano finished the piece with two of its strings at the lower end broken from the relentless pounding waves of music Palestine had forced from it. We heard the strings go, a sudden cracking sound after maybe fifty minutes of the music building. I had been looking at Palestine at the keyboard, swaying back and forth, drumming his leg relentlessly against the piano's leg to try and fight off the pain in his arms and fingers. Had been looking at the light catching the glass of brandy next to him and the shadows on the ten or so soft animals clustered upon the piano and round the stool: his real audience, the rest of us watchers reduced to shades as the ritual progressed. A ritual was what it felt like, cryptic, private and profound, and when the strings went I caught my breath, because in the midst of the vast sonorous cloud it sounded like something opening. The performance was immense but it wasn't loud. It was not quiet either - Palestine hit the notes again and again, never letting a single one fade, until the room became full of noise, each half-second sending fresh sounds into the ringing, pulsing music. Palestine was strumming the keys, rolling his hands over them again and again, never pausing. Repetition in music is often called 'agonising': this was literal for Palestine, as he bit his lip, rolled his head, twitched and shifted in his chair, looked at his animals - anything to keep on playing. I have seen people play instruments before and since of course but this was special: there was no difference, no skin of performance, between the player and the sound. When Palestine tired the music wobbled and shifted, the intensity lessoned a little, and then you would watch the man on stage grit his teeth and push himself against the keys again, and as he did you would hear the music swell and throb with his new effort. Though the noise being made was magnificent, this was not a 'piece' of music which you could measure a performance against: when Palestine tired or perhaps fainted or the piano broke, it ended. The piano broke. It ended. 2. In the sleeve notes to Palestine's Four Manifestations On Six Elements, one of the twentieth century's more curious meetings is described, between the composer/performer and the cartoonist Herge, inventor of Tintin, after a concert Palestine gave in Belgium in the 1970s. Something about the music he had heard touched the ageing artist, who apparently told Palestine than his performance had been like the "telling of enormous legends", similar to Herge's own stories. Palestine was struck by the metaphor: he had spent a decade on what he termed the 'Golden Quest', looking for a pure, all-enveloping sound world or sound field. Herge meanwhile had spent the 1960s wrestling with his own personal infinite, plagued by dreams of a pure and horrifying whiteness, which led him to create the mystical, redemptive Tintin In Tibet. It does not seem to fanciful to suspect that he saw something of these preoccipations in Palestine's sacred music. It seems less fanciful still when you listen to Four Manifestations..., one of the grandest and most serene records I know. At first I preferred the stern, hovering Godbear, which attempted it seemed to me to recapture the intensity of Palestine's live performance, but repeated listenings to Four Manifestations.... showed it to be not only a stronger work, but a record of humbling beauty. Palestine conceived the record, in 1973, as an art installation, each 'manifestation' the equivalent of a wall in a gallery room. He had been very influenced by Rothko, and saw aspects of his music - his Golden Quest among them - as being similar to the kind of purity of expression Rothko had achieved. But while the art world has moved away from Rothko's high spirituality, and in so doing given his paintings a monumentalist undertone worryingly close to kitsch, Palestine's record retains its power. This is partly because of the medium, partly because of the artist, and partly because of the work itself. It is possible to experience a painting for less than a minute and still have experienced it, albeit perhaps shallowly: whereas if you played a Charlemagne Palestine record for a minute and thought it sucked and turned it off, you would simply not have experienced it. This is why minimalism and music go together so well - minimalism (a movement Palestine was associated with) by its economy of means and sources forces the listener's attention back on themselves, making them aware both of the music and their reactions to it, how the very same held sound can for instance be enrapturing one minute and hellish the next. Clearly the longer this kind of attention can be held the better, and putting on a record like Four Manifestations is committing yourself, ideally at least, to a seventy-minute session. There can be no temporal negotiation as there can be with a Rothko painting: either you listen to all seventy minutes or you have not listened to Four Manifestations. (For a listener like me, more used to pop, this kind of surrender of autonomy is oddly liberating). Palestine's music has held better than some of his contemporaries' because he is an obscure artist and we have not, collectively, had an opportunity to get used to him in the way that we have to Philip Glass (or for that matter to Mark Rothko). His music seems starker and scarier and funnier for not having been explained, or turned into narrative, like Rothko's paintings have. Steve Reich's music, while radical, has been tamed in this way: we read about "Different Trains" and think ah, a work of art about the Holocaust, and know broadly how we are meant, at least, to react. But we don't know how to place Charlemagne Palestine, with his soft toy magick and his clove cigarettes, and his double albums about dead dogs, and the frightening physicality of what he does. And then there is the music. Put crudely, Four Manifestations On Six Elements consists of two 'drone' pieces - fragments from Palestine's Golden Quest - and four piano tracks. All are 'minimal' - they do not change or resolve in any recognisable melodic way. They could be called repetitive, though for me that would not be wrong so much as irrelevant. I won't say anything else about the structures of the music because I am a fool in musicological terms and my understanding or not of what Palestine is doing on the record has little to do with the extraordinary effect it has on me. The sounds let you do the work - on the drone tracks you find yourself heading shifting rhythms, tiny melodies even, your ear trying to make sense of what is happening: when the electronic sounds seem to slip out of phase it's almost shocking. All drone-based pieces have this in common, though no two are quite identical. The piano works, though, are more immediately striking and more immediately recognisable as Palestine. Compared to his more famous minimalist contemporaries, you notice a lack of clarity in the playing, a willingness to let notes melt and tumble into each other. And Charlemagne is not interested in the kind of phase-shifting trickery and perfect clockwork development Reich or Glass bring to their tracks: changes in a piece once it's started happen at a micro level. But even so the range of emotion the four pieces evoke is remarkable: stateliness, playfulness, fear, sorrow, resolve, mystery. All done within the simplest of structures and with the lightest of touches - all the more remarkable when I remember how elemental Palestine is live. There is a lot of talk of stars in pop music. Generally 'star quality' boils down to prettiness and a certain glamorous diffidence. I am suspicious when somebody tells me they like an artist because they are a 'star': it seems bogus somehow. But Charlemagne Palestine, wandering through his private world, drinking, smoking and talking to his animals in his theadbare multi-coloured coat, making precious records and turning concerts into rites...Charlemagne Palestine is what I call a star. Tom Ewing, 8 February 2001all text copyright 2001 tom ewing CHARLEMAGNE PALESTINE is probably the less known, and the most legendary, among the great masters of the American Minimal Music, but he is not, for this reason, less important. Differently from La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass CHARLEMAGNE PALESTINE, after a first phase of intense research to definite the musical language that in the late seventies will be called Minimalism, preferred to dedicate his creativity in the visual Arts field presenting very personal installation with exhibition in many important galleries getting a very successful response. This choice cut him out of the musical world, his carrier as pianist and composer was interrupted and he never succeeded in getting the public recognition his musical activity deserved. It exist in the world very few recordings and records by PALESTINE, STRUMMING MUSIC is probably his first CD. Luckily in the recent past Palestine is rethinking about the music and is preparing a coming back; among other works he is completing a string quartet for KRONOS QUARTET. The music consists of a single track of approximately 45 minutes per solo piano played by Palestine. A composition very strong and intense, the acoustic sound of the piano, thanks to a great technique and a very strong physical force, becomes the sound of an entire Orchestra full of harmonics. From the historical point of view gives the opportunity to discover the music of one the pioneer of the Minimal Music. It is the reprinting, in CD format, of PALESTINE's most known composition: STRUMMING MUSIC, originally issued in the contemporary composer series of Shandar Records. The packing, as before for the reprinting of TERRY RILEY - Persian Surgery Dervishes - Nt 6715 and STEVE REICH - Four Organs - NewTone Rdc 5018 respect completely the original one, just one thing has been added a Joan La Barbara review of a live performance of STRUMMING MUSIC of 1975. Charlemagne Palestine is one of the important figures of the New York and West Coast experimental music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a seminal figure of early minimalism, and his evening-length Bosendorfer shows are still spoken of with awe by those who heard them. This performance by Palestine of 'Schlingen BlSngen', a 70-minute perambulation through the organ's sonic landscape, was recorded in 1988 (ten years after its initial performance) in a small Dutch church near the North Sea. It is a beautiful minimalist work, with long chords that gradually transform as quiet melodic figures gradually appear in the background. ESTWeb Home Page | ESTWeb Interviews Index ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Charlemagne Palestine interview 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).Ê 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 Bs?sendorfer 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 Bs?sendorfer 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 Bs?sendorfer 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 (c) 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.