Charlemagne Palestine | Interview

The Wire | Louise Gray

Invisible Jukebox

(with thanks to) The Wire
September 2002

Charlemagne Palestine was born into a Russian Jewish in Brooklyn in 1947. From an early age he trained as a cantorial singer in the synagogues of New York. At 11, he spent a year playing conga for Tiny Tim in Manhattan clubs. Later, he began ringing the carillon at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, which was particularly responsive to the sonic overtones and drones and repetitions.

Palestine was drawn into the 1960s New York art scene, and soon came into contact with Tony Conrad, who was his conduit to Andy Warhol’s and La Monte Young’s groups. He also worked with Indian classical singer Prandit Pran Nath. After graduating from the NYC High School of Music and Art, he researched synthesizer composition at NYU’s Intermedia Center. When its director, Morton Subotnick, moved to California Institute for the Arts (Cal Arts), he took the fledgling composer with him. There, Palestine encountered the Bosendorfer piano, whose harmonic spectrum provided with the sonic clarity he needed. While at Cal Arts, he built a drone machine to pursue lines begun with his earlier four hour organ work, Spectral Continuum Drones. Though he was associated with the rising minimalist scene, some of his early trance and sonority works, performed in the gallery while smashing his body against the walls, also linked him to the performance art of Hermann Nitsch, Chris Burden, and Vito Acconci. By the late 1970s, he had to anaesthetize himself with Cognac and clove cigarettes to play his more physical works, where he had to beat a piano until his hands were bloodied. Such demands made him temporarily give up performance for sculpture and visual art.

During his “silence”, he amassed a huge collection of toy animals, for which he developed the concept of “Charleworld” as a spiritual dimension informed by Western animism. Meanwhile, occasional concerts and CD reissues such as Alloy(Golden 1)(Alga Marghen), Strumming Music(Barooni) and Schlingen-Blangen(New World) have led to his rediscovery by a younger generation. His latest release is Music for Big Ears (Staalplaat).

This autumn, Italian label Alga Marghen will release a set documenting Palestine’s late 1960’s Buchla period. The same season, he has multimedia work scheduled for the Atomium in Brussels; and the Ecoledes Beaux Arts Valenciennes will publish a book of photographs and essays commemorating his sound and visual art.

The Jukebox took place on the terrace of Palestine’s Brussels home, where he lives with his wife, two Bosendorfers and his enormous collection of fluffy animals and cowboy hats.

Morton Subotnick
from the electronic works/(mode)1969

This is very complicated electronic music. This is from the 1960s…tape-manipulated music.
You’re right on track.
We used to cut tape into thousands of little pieces. To make something stop or start, we used to have to splice the tapes at different angels. It was spaghetti music. I used to make spaghetti music too. It could be Pierre Henry. No, it’s one of the Americans. It could be an early Morton Subotnick piece because it’s so accessible.
You’ve got it. It’s a four-track tape piece from 1969.
He brought electronic music a new attraction. He actually did one of the first popular synthesizer pieces (Silver Apples of the Moon), so this could have been made on a synth, though if this is 1969, he made it in the studio where I worked. All my 1969-70 are made on a Buchla synthesizer. I did all my electronic music up to 1973 on versions of his machines. In fact, I met him when he was working with Mort on Touch.
Tell me how you met Subotnick. You were one of the students he wanted to take with him to Cal Arts.
Student isn’t quite the right word. In New York there was a multimedia studio, Intermedia. It was open. If you were interested in working in electronic music you could come and work there. Mort had been the founder and brought this Buchla synth there. Ingram Marshall was there, Rhys Chatham, who was very young, maybe 15, was there, and there was also this Buchla prototype that Don had given Mort. You would learn how to use it and then teach other people. It took up a whole wall, maybe three meters long by a meter and a half high. It had lots of dials…they still make them, and there’s a resurgence of interest in the analog synths. In fact, I was looking to buy one. I have an Oberheim Expander that I’ve just sent for from the U.S., and a Matrix 12. They were the last generations of the Buchla and Moog technology. On the other side of the room there were two or three Ampex tape recorders. I used to work in the middle of the night and all my Holy1, Holy2 – there’s a whole series – that was all done on the same machine on which Mort did Touch.
Do you keep up with what’s happening currently in electronic music?
Yeah, people send me things. I listen. I worked with Pan Sonic for a Mort Aux Vaches/Staalplaat CD(1999), and they use an analog system. I like the analog sound. That’s what drew us together. They heard one of the sonorities I made with the ARP and Serge(Tcherepnin) synths. Serge was a student of Buchla, in the sense of learning synth technology, in the 1970s. He started to make inexpensive, do-it-yourself kits, because the problem with so much of this music was, as it was unsellable except for people like Mort and a few others, you had to either be in a University or make your own machine

The Theatre of Eternal Music
“b flat dorian blues”
from the theater of eternal music (bootleg) 1963

I like it. Indian influences, though it’s not Indian. La Monte Young? How long does it last?
Now there’s a question. It’s a bootleg from one of Young’s unreleased tapes, featuring all the usual suspects: Tony Conrad, John Cale, Terry Jennings, Angus Maclise on bongos.
I remember those days. You could go to an evening raga that started at 10pm and went on till 6am in the late 1960s at the New York Town Hall. When I visited India, you could go to concerts that lasted all night, so this kind of durational music wasn’t really invented by “us”. OK, I had pieces that went on for 5 hours or 3 days – La Monte’s were far longer – but these ideas came from ethnic musics.
How much did you work with these New York Guys?
Not at all. The only one was Terry Jennings, but this was already in the early 1970s, and Conrad in the late 1960s. I was from another generation, and my way of arriving at modal, long music had another road. This is very nice and I would like to steal it, please. It’s very much between shenai and soprano saxophone and you get the feeling of where a Rainbow in Curved Air would later go. Of course, Terry Riley was also a soprano saxophonist. But that was much later.
By the mid-1970s when minimalism was being picked up by a larger audience, you’re on record as being quite cynical. Did you feel it was a sell-out?
Hmm, I can’t really say. Something happened that I definitely felt excluded from. I wouldn’t call it selling out, because that’s where music was going. For example, John Adams, who was helping me, gave me two commissions, and two years later he was the darling of American minimal music. It was going in that direction. Maybe we could say someone we don’t talk about in the history of minimalism is (film composer) John Williams. Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind are all very melodic, modal, not minimal, but there are big orchestral themes on repeated patters. And suddenly the whole world is humming it on subways. There was a whole phenomenon happening. When you’re in it, it can hit you personally. There were times I was pissed off. But looking back at the history, this is where it was going, and now even as I’ve returned, I really have a different approach. This is closer to my music than what would happen later with the music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, for example. For me, rhythm is an internal and not an external aspect. But this is beautiful. There is somewhere a tape of the work of Terry Jennings and I did shortly before he died. I’ve been trying to find it. Oh, what fun. Terry plays very much like John Coltrane.

“trans Europa express”
from trans Europe express (emi)1977

I remember this, but I can’t tell you who composed it. I’ve heard this in bars, on TV, on the street a thousand times. It’s German, that famous group from the 1970s.
Krafterk. There was a time when you’d find them on modern classical bills with people like Phillip Glass.
Oh, that’s right. What became of them?
They still technically exist. This is from 1977. It’s possible one of the most quoted tracks of all time.
Everyone knows this. It’s like wallpaper, meaning that I’ve heard it everywhere. It’s that accessible. When something becomes public domain, there’s a wallpaperness about it. That’s not a bad thing. And Warhol was into wallpaperness and that’s how modern music sound can be everywhere at a certain moment.
The Minimalists and your early works were interested in inducing trance states in the performer, audience or both. Do you have any views on how Western trance music has developed in the last 30 years?
Not really, but it’s funny to see how these guys are dressed. These very formal suits, it shows it comes from certain intellectual ideas and these guys are not tribal guys. They’re intellectuals out of German universities creating a certain sound form.
It’s interesting how Western culture took trance music from tribal forms. What happened was that the “white man”, if we could say that, took these ideas and all of a sudden it was this new form that they had created. I was always against this idea, I’ve done some nice sounds, but I can’t say that I created the forms. There was all this fighting about who created this kind of music. Did La Monte Young create it? Well, if he created the refrigerator, maybe. If he invented the electric motor…He (did) help put them into western consciousness. If you were going to India for the last four or five thousand years, you could have heard the Young piece, but putting it into the “white man’s” context for intellectuals, and make them understand it, that kind of framing of this experience was done in the last 30 or 40 years by a certain group of people. But I don’t think that’s a discovery. I think it’s a rediscovery and another way of packaging this phenomenon that has existed for thousands of years.
But wallpaper is not a bad idea for music(laughs). I do long pieces that are 3 dimensional – that’s kind of like a screen that exists. It’s there. When you go into one of Wharhol’s cow wallpaper rooms you’re surrounded. Just like this, in a way.

Jon Hassell
‘darbari extension”
from aka darbari-java(eg)1983

(listens a few minutes)I don’t know who did it, but I like it. It’s really a nice mix between electronics and a kind of ethnic, chant-like continuation of a singing cycle, only it’s done by electronics. It’s very nice.
It’s Jon Hassell, from the early 1980s. It’s partly based on a raag by Prandit Pran Nath, with whom you both studied.
I knew Jon a little when we both lived in California. We used to meet up from time to time, but I haven’t seen him in a thousand million years. I don’t know this. Is it a…trumpet? Yes, he used to be a trumpeter. He used to do great things electrifying trumpets.
Here, Hassell uses a computer to create a trumpet chorus to trace the themes of the raag, “Darbari”, over Senegalese drumming. There are also some Aka pygmy voices from the Central American rainforest.
It has a very beautiful sound. The phrasing of this electronic sound (he sings a very difficult motif) really sounds like tribal phrasing.
Tell me about your studies with Pran Nath.
Well, in fact what happened was that I was very early. I was one of his first students in America, but that was by chance. It was around 1968, and I was living on the upper west side on 86th street. On Pran Nath’s first visit to New York, he was invited by Dr, Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass. One of my neighbors, who became a disciple of Ram Dass, wanted me to hear this guy singing. I was very impressed and it turned out that Pran nath was living about six blocks from me. I went to sing with him, and by the second day, people thought I was him – I’d been singing cantoral music since I was a child and this was very easy for me. Pran Nath wanted me to become his disciple and I was at that age – I was just 20, at least ten years younger than La Monte Young and terry Riley – and had already come from what I thought was an over-disciplined Matriarch with my mother and I was trying not to replicate this. I was already studying with a vocal teacher, Sebastian Engelberg, who was also teaching operatic singer Frederica Von Stadt, and he was a tyrant. Pran Nath was very nice, but he was another tyrant.
But we had a great period together. I sang for a few months. In the end, Terry Riley and La Monte Young would become his students and disciples. They would change their lives to work with him for more than 20 years. But that period was very strong, him and I. But easily within one day, I was singing like Pran Nath. Not in the complexity of course – that takes a lifetime – but in the sound and the timber. I was the closest. Probably to his sound. Immediately. It was just something that came from my traditions. He was a great guy. I enjoyed him more as a whiskey drinking womanizer, especially as I was a bad boy myself.

Terry Riley
“music for the gift”
from the gift(organ of corti)2000

I don’t know who the trumpet player is, but those repeats suggest that the composer could be Terry Riley.
Yes, it’s from 1963. The trumpeter is Chet Baker.
Oh, Baker was excellent. He was a magnificent musician. Unfortunately, I only saw him perform at the end of his life in Switzerland. He was living in Zurich. Totally wrung out like a dirty dishrag with alcohol and drugs. A sad story…but that’s the problem with working in a form that’s so ephemeral, and the life you lead – traveling, clubs, you’re a bit of a gypsy. I’m amazed I’m here where I am, and that my life is better now, that I’ve had a comeback. As you see I live nicely, and I drink a little, but not too much. I’ve saved myself. Several of my friends (like Terry Jennings) didn’t…
You had a period when you left music completely, didn’t you?
It was a way to save myself. The animals saved me in a way. I was really on a suicide, Kamikazi route. Although I didn’t define it like that at the time, in retrospect I saw where I was going. Changing my whole style of life, giving up performance (was necessary). Just to build one of my pieces took days and weeks of cutting wood and painting. It was like a therapy, like I made my own psychiatric hospital, with my animals all around me. On a level, it’s cured me of this suicidal behavior that many artists fall into. I mean, alcohol and this ephemeral thing. You give it your all and then it just disappears after.
Does “Charleworld” still exist?
It was something that was in passing. It was an idea that was in itself. I just used the word one day and all of a sudden it was in all these newspapers. The house you see is full of animals; The Blind Monkey is on the Piano. I try to create a world. My parallel with La Monte Young, with Pran nath, with gurus, indigenous music and dance, is that in ancient traditions you don’t do things in pieces. Music is related to sculpture, is related to dance, to eating and drinking, the seasons and the ceremonies of the week. That’s what Charleworld is. It is the reconstruction, in my adult infantalia, of a world that is integrated all together, and I am the king of that world. I am the emperor of Charleworld.

“las Vegas man”
from suicide(blast first)1978

Makes me think of The Velvet Underground, how they began to use drones in a much more violent way. It has a Lou Reed feel, but it’s not him, is it? No, it’s live in 1977 from CBGBs. The NYC band, Suicide. If we flip forward to “23 Minutes Over Brussels”…
In the 1970s Brussels was a really adventurous place for new music. It was really exciting.
Maybe Suicide were too adventurous for Brussels. “23 Minutes…” is basically a recording of a riot that took place when they supported Elvis Costello there.
(laughs)What were the audience rioting about? This is what can happen when you’re a support act that no one wants to see. Around this time, near the end of one period of my career, I was doing very aggressive pieces and Glenn Branca, some of the Sex Pistols, Arto Lindsay, the Sonic Youth guys were coming to my concerts. This kind of violence was in the air and this is when I got scared because I began to be more and more in a very bad place, and at the end of a concert, if you’re not in a group, then you’re alone. I needed to take a break. I was envisioning a new time that was on the cusp of coming. It wasn’t going to be my time though.The next generation had a much more violent way of expressing these blocks of sound. A violent trance.

Diamanda Galas with John Paul Jones
“dark end of the street”
from the sporting life(mute)1994

I’m not really a historian of black music, but so much of this comes from gospel music, which I love to watch and hear. Some of the greatest black singers have learned their craft in the church.
This James Carr song is by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. But the singer here is Diamanda Galas, who didn’t come out of a gospel tradition.
But she is singing in that style. I don’t know her background.
A real mixture: Operatic, Greek Orthodox, classical piano, polyglottal works.
But for me this is a gospel tradition, though the phrasing is strange.The sounds at a certain moment – wow that’s a big range she’s got – it makes me think of Yma Sumac. She was one of the earliest that brought many traditions together in a singing style that went over four octaves. She was a great singer, certainly in the context of inventing herself as an Aztec when she came from Kansas or wherever. She’s someone to be re-evaluated, so is Carmen Miranda. Both people, in the context of the times, chose an interesting way to present a radical personality.

Hermann Nitsch
‘musik der 66 aktion, 21 may 1980”
(alga marghen)1988

I know who this is. It starts with this drone, very much like some of my drones, and they were done in these rituals of violence. It’s Hermann Nitsch. I’ve heard this CD before. Nitsch did a lot of drone music and several years ago the Cortical Foundation in California brought out many of his recordings and they also did my Schlongo!!!Daluvdrone.
This is from Alga Marghem, and Italian label.
I know them. They’ve released some of my electronic music.
Did you see any of Nitsch’s Orgy Mystery Theater?
I’ve seen about 5. In the 1960s and 1970s, I was also a body artist, and we were often invited to the same festivals. I used to bang myself against the walls and sing at the same time, and we were both considered part of the same movement, along with the Vienna Aktionists. I was part of the American group with Vito Acconci. At one of the FIAC art fairs in Paris in 1973, Hermann and I were invited to perform at the same opening. He did one of his performances with animal carcasses and music, and I did one for four organs and piano.
There was a full page picture of Hermann’s work and it was mistakenly captioned as being my work. I found it funny, but Nitsch was furious. A few days later there was a disclaimer on page 37 but Nitsch he was still cross. From that time on, I’ve always asked him how my work is going…now he has a sense of humor about it. Nitsch’s organ music is ritualistic in that he isn’t so interested in the subtlety of long tones, but often his works do sound like mine.
What do you think of Nitsch’s concept of the Dionysian ecstasy produced by music and ritual?
I’ve always been who I am, and I’ve done all these things that touch on sound and the body. I am more Dionysian than Apollonian, but Nitsch does have this need to think afterwards about what it all means. That’s where we’re different. I never had a credo for other people. I haven’t created some kind of sect, like Hermann, or La Monte Young or Pran Nath. What I do comes out of a personal investigation and if I could say that I have another philosophy, it’s that each person has to make his own way. It’s not easy in ephemeral art to do something that’s pure and not too commercial. What’s good for Hermann is good for Hermann and what’s good for Charlemagne is good for Charlemagne. I don’t believe in sects.

Rhys Chatham
‘guitar trio”
from rhys chatham compendium(table of the elements)2002

In the early 1980s, there were two guitar monsters that came out of new York, Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. The war of the guitar monsters! This is probably Chatham.
Yes. It’s from 1977.
It’s more peaceful somehow…I even knew his father. I’ve known Rhys since he was a teenager. He started so early. He was in the studio with Mort Subotnick. He was a flautist in those days. He used to do electronic music transforming the sound of the flute, which were very interesting. His early pieces were very severe, minimal pieces; I found them very hard to listen to: long drones, without many overtones. You were just stuck with a block of sound. They were very extreme. In those days, he was a Jehova’s Witness, then he gave up that and started to have sex and to drink. He says now that he’s gone back to playing the trumpet. He lives in Paris now. I already knew about him from about 1968, 1969. He was the founder of the music program at The Kitchen in Manhattan.
Was it really a war between the guitar monsters, as you say?
Rhys says so. These things happen in New York. Like me and La Monte Young. Now I live in Europe, I really don’t give a shit, but in a small town, in a hard town you need to be on top. New York is a tough place, there aren’t so many pleasures. It’s expensive: very few people have trees in their backyard, like I do here, so your ego gets stuck in egotistic things. You want to be the king, so you really get into that mood. When I was in the States, I had to fight my animal sculptures with Mike Kelley and Jeff Koons, and my music with Young and Phillip Glass. There are all these wars, and the journalists don’t make things easier, because they put you all in one soup and you’re all competing for this one little taste. It just doesn’t seem so important living over here. I just do what I do and I never wanted to be a king. Warhol was a kinglike person, so was John Cage. They need that. Nam June Paik is like that, Robert Rauschenberg is like that. They need to feel like they’re top of the top. If I could just be considered as a nice little prince…a prince is OK, an ageing, salt and pepper prince, just so that I can do what I want. That’d be just great..