Sometime early in this century, Thurston Moore and I did a McSweeney’s-sponsored reading in Brooklyn with the New York writer, Jonathan Ames. The guy was fucking hilarious and one of his best autobiographical bits was from a book he had coming out soon called What’s Not To Love? He was talking about his discovery of masturbation in the late 1970s, and how much it meant to him. One of the most interesting aspects of his first encounter with ejaculation was that he didn’t actually jerk his pud to achieve orgasm, he strummed it. This practice was begun distractedly, but its positive results gave him no end of delight, so he began strumming regularly. He demonstrated his technique at North Six (clothed, natch) and it had a certain elegance that was tough to deny. Thurston and I discussed this routine quite a bit on the drive back to Western Mass., speculating on how its theoretical basis might be connected to the work of Charlemagne Palestine. There were no easy answers.
Those albums were monumental in terms of technique and sonics. Although they were theoretically lumped in with minimalism (for lack of a better place to file them), their actual sound was explosive and tranced the fuck out.
Like many people, I first became aware of Palestine’s work via his Strumming Music album on the French Shandar label. While the label first drew my attention for its free jazz offerings (Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Murray, etc.), investigating further, I became aware of Shandar’s new music offerings as well. Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Karlheinz Stockhausen were all present in its small, potent roster, but there were a few mysterious names as well. One of these was Charlemagne Palestine. Strumming Music was Palestine’s second album, following Four Manifestations On Six Elements (which took me years to locate), both of which were released in 1974. Those albums were monumental in terms of technique and sonics. Although they were theoretically lumped in with minimalism (for lack of a better place to file them), their actual sound was explosive and tranced the fuck out. The whole of the Shandar LP and the piano pieces on Four Manifestations were very sensually physical, as much as they were truly hypnotic. They were not like anything else I’d ever heard.
But by the time I managed to snag them, Palestine -- who I always figured was a European, although he proved to be a native New Yorker -- had put his musical explorations on the back burner while he focused on his visual art. He still performed once in a while, but it was over 20 years before he had another release. And, to be perfectly honest, some of Palestine’s later recordings didn’t hit me in the same spirit-spot as his early work. Admittedly, since he reactivated, there have been some excellent sides issued -- both newly recorded and archival -- but this gorgeous set, focusing on mid-‘70s recordings is a pure and brilliant extension of those early, mindblowing LPs.
The first disc features Palestine on piano. Having become somewhat familiar with his modus operandi in the intervening years, it is easy to imagine him surrounded by stuffed animals, head wreathed in cigarette smoke and cognac fumes while he produced this richly, exotic music. I can only wish I would have made the effort to track down some of his live shows of the era. Or, perhaps even better, to have borne aural witness to the carillon concerts he performed anonymously at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 53rd Street and 5th Avenue. In the excellent liner notes, Palestine’s long-time friend and fellow composer, Ingram Marshall, does a brilliant job evoking the insane mystery of Palestine’s secret public concerts in the late 1960s. Somehow, Charlemagne had wrangled unfettered access to the church’s belltower. One can only wonder what unknowing commuters made of the sonic onslaught.
Palestine’s roaring cascades of notes surge over each other in waves, creating vast sheets of overtones and harmonics that are beyond any musical transcriber’s ability to notate, yet which resonate beautifully in any listener’s ear.
Palestine’s work with church bells and their near-infinite sustain is very much a part of his work in the ‘70s. Sustain pedal pressed to the floor (like some bizarre, intellectual hot-rodder), Palestine’s roaring cascades of notes surge over each other in waves, creating vast sheets of overtones and harmonics that are beyond any musical transcriber’s ability to notate, yet which resonate beautifully in any listener’s ear. This fact makes the second disc of the set all the more remarkable, because it is performed by Betsy Freeman, who was working from a score of Palestine’s design.
The second disc is a piece of Strumming Music adapted to the harpsichord -- an instrument I think of as having the brittle characteristics of a tack-piano. But Freeman coaxes something very much like a waterfall out of the instrument. The technique is clearly the same -- small numbers of notes repeatedly hammered -- but the harpsichord has no pedals, so I’m unclear as to how the sustained tones and clustered harmonics are generated. Whatever, the effect is great. It’s like a more jittery, high-pitched version of the essential trance-y whuh. Listening to its sounds accrue, I have a hard time imagining that Palestine isn’t filling out background space with an organ, but the notes say it was a solo concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1977, so I guess they’d know. And it is a glistening performance, building surely, and as steeped in mystical essence as anything you’ll hear this year.
Charlemagne Palestine is clearly a figure worth investigating in depth if you have any interest at all in contemporary music...
The third disc documents a Strumming Music performance for strings, organized by the composer John Adams, also in 1977. Twelve string players were involved, under Palestine’s direction, but the effect is very different than the keyboard works. The single note they all play makes the whole a shifting, varied sound-cloud, but it lacks some of the inherent physicality of the other pieces. The sounds gather like great wafts of layered drones, but it’s like getting the harmonic afterglow of Strumming without some of the initial rush, if you know what I mean. As fantastic (and illustrative) a piece as it is on its own, the softness of the up-front attack removes a certain sense of the perilous impetuousness that makes the keyboard works so transportational. I would go so far as to say that the string version of Strumming doesn’t really even necessarily carry Palestine’s unique fingerprint. If heard in a blindfold test (one of my recurring nightmares), it would be extremely difficult to peg definitively as one of his compositions.
Having heard Palestine work in a variety of milieux, it seems clear to me that this aspect of his compositional focus (Strumming Music) is uniquely suited to hammered strings. There is a recklessness inherent in those instruments that translates only loosely to other formats. To return to my comparison with the early masturbation techniques of Mr. Ames, there is a certain amount of physical exertion and quicklyrepeated frictional exercise required to achieve the state of bliss and otherness that is presumed to be the desired result. I mean, there’s just no way to blow your stack otherwise.
But Sub Rosa is to be commended for assembling this essential examination of one of the great composers of our era. The packaging, Marshall’s liner notes, and the reprint of the NY Times review of a 1974 concert, are all elucidating as hell. Charlemagne Palestine is clearly a figure worth investigating in depth if you have any interest at all in contemporary music, and I can only hope that someone will be able to dig up some of his carillon recitals one of these days. They happened, after all, one block east and one block south of where Moondog held court during the same period. Perhaps someone somewhere has a field recording of them collaborating. If only tangentially. That would be fuckin’ hip.
--Byron Coley, October 2010