Charlemagne Palestine, musician, sculptor, painter, video-artist and musical shaman is one of the most interesting representatives of the contemporary European music scene. On May 9th he will be performing in Rome ‘s Palazzo dei Congressi, at Dissonanze’s eighth edition.
An original and peculiar composer, he is considered one of the myths of the “Downtown Music Scene” in New York during the 1970’s. His name comes along with those of La Monte Young , Philip Glass, Pandit Pran Nath and Steve Reich , even though Charlemagne has always kept his distance from this “category”, dedicating himself to visual experimentation and installations in museums and galleries. To witness one of his live performances is a unique experience, because of the beauty of the complex sounds the listener is surrounded by; it is impossible to forecast what will happen next. The peculiarity of Charlemagne Palestine’s performances is also stressed by the instrument he uses, the “Doppio Borgato”.
The author has been developing a research on the rites of shamanism and tribes, loves to have stuffed animals around him and during his performances he literally falls into a state of trance. Through a technique called “strumming”, a mixture between a stream of sounds and drumming’s percussive violence, the listener enters a sound landscape filled with soft sounds, sudden hits and loud resonances. This flow is constantly guided by Charlemagne, with technical skill and physical strength.
The musical universe performed by Charlemagne Palestine is characterized by a strong magical atmosphere, a musical sciamanic who creates a complex and magic musical world, made of fascinating musical shapes, beats and vibes. Standing his performance at Dissonanze in Rome the next week, a laptop extension of his musical theories and tecniques, will really be a pleasant adventure.
This interview is a stream of consciousness, stories and narrations cannot be completely translated in Italian, and doing that requested an additional effort from Marco Mancuso, but they serve as a further example of Charlemagne’s depth.
Giuseppe Cordaro: I have always been fascinated by your approach to music. There’s something ancestral to it, deeply related to the forces of nature. Where does this attitude come from?
Charlemagne Palestine: I was born in Brooklyn of a working class Jewish family I started singing at age 3 and soon joined a synagogue choir and sang with many great Chazins (Jewish Sacred Singers) who had escaped from Europe to America before the Holocaust I sang with them until I was 14 That was my first important musical influence Then i became fascinated by the Folkways Record Collection “Music of the World’s Peoples” edited by Henry Cowell and began to listen to musics from different countries cultures and tribes from all over the world Then I discovered the avant-garde musics of the times and became to experiment with primitive electronic musical techniques and became the carilloner (bell ringer on a 25 bell clavier instrument) at St Thomas Church next to the Museum of Modern Art
So it’s ancestral from my Jewish roots and from many of the worlds varied ancestral and shamanic cultures When I perform I prepare like a shaman I dress specially for each event a special shirt / special pants / special socks / special shoes / special scarves I drink my special magical Cognac out of a special magical crystal glass and i prepare an altar with my Muses my Stuffed Animals my Divinities my Gods my Intermediaries with the DIVINE !!!!!!!!!! (if they are toys they are Sacred Toys) and I enter a Deep Trance!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and Interact Intersect Interconnect with the UNIVERSE plugging directly into the FORCES OF NATURE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And DAT’S HOW I DOOOOOO IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.
Giuseppe Cordaro: Has your way of writing music ever been influenced by ancient cultures, from Africa or Asia?
Charlemagne Palestine: During my early development i was especially interested in the rituals and musics of Java and Bali and North India but i listened and absorbed musics from all over Africa Asia Polynesia Inuit Native American Latin and South American Indiginous rituals and musics too So yes i’m sure i’ve been influenced or better said i feel a deep solidarity with tribal and folkloric traditions much more than i feel with western modern contemporary music traditions.
Giuseppe Cordaro: Together with other great artists such as La Monte Young , Philip Glass, Pandit Pran Nath and Steve Reich you are considered one of the most important and influential musicians of minimalism. Nevertheless, you always kept away from the contemporary music “label”. Would you tell us something about this?
Charlemagne Palestine: When i began this “pain in the ass” word “””””””minimalism””””””””””” existed only to describe visual artist and artists like Tony Smith Walter de Maria Carl Andre Frank Stella Sol Lewitt and several others it meant something about reductive a return to simple geometries and cubic forms My works had several different labels back at the beginning i used the word “”Trance”” alot for the feeling and “”Continuum”” for the length My works have always been Liquid Continuums sometimes simplier sometimes complicated nothing to do with minimal more often because of their emotional expansiveness unpredictablity and drama “”Maximal”” is a better term i’ve always tried to “Squeeze” the Most out of my material so minimal just never meant me and also as Groucho Marx used to say “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member” I feel closer in my rituals and musics to Aborigines than i do to the” Young Glass Adams Reichs”.
Giuseppe Cordaro: What is the role of the stuffed animals you often bring with you during your performances?
Charlemagne Palestine: As i said in an earlier question my animals in my works are not toys or they are toys in an ancient shamanic mystical religious and animistic way when years and years ago i began my search into continuums sometimes these continuums lasted days or weeks and my Animal Shamans could listen and exist in total concentration during these continuums they are my muses my divinities my gods my soul mates my link to eternity my gateway to foreverness if we want to see my whole life as a “trancendental sacred game” then they are my toys and I am theirs!!!!
Giuseppe Cordaro: Would you like to tell us something more about the “strumming” technique? What is the influence that unusual instruments such as the Doppio Borgato and the Bolide Borgato have had on you?
Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming came about around 1972 I had been developing a long piano work called “Spectral Continuum for Bösendorfer Imperial” at California Institute of the Arts where I was an assistant professor and graduate student the piano work lasted 5 hours and was played with an arpeggio technique not unlike the impressionists Debussy & Ravel used except that i created long lush liquid arpeggiated continuums that repeated notes and chords but never the same way twice like the waves of the sea (again nothing minimal about it) at the beginning and end of that piece i played an octave with one finger of each hand alternating and changing tempo and began to hear magnificent rainbows of overtones depending on slight differences of my touch and intensity and changing velocities it was a magic sonic discovery for me and from then on i began to experiment and develop this technique in more diverse and complicated ways.
This technique didn’t have a name at first but over time i thought about flamenco guitars and Russian church bells inging and eventually used the term one uses for brushing ones fingers over guitar strings and the term “Strumming” was born for that style of piano playing I started playing my classic version of Strumming from around 1974 and released in 1976 as a Vinyl by Shandar Records in Paris and much later it was remastered and re-released as a Cd in 1994 by Robi Droli in Torino Since then i’ve done hundreds of versions depending on the size of the piano it’s sonic characteristics the acoustics in the performing space and how i’m feeling or relating to my audience or situation at the time In the seventies I used to smoke Javanese Kretek clove cigarettes while i played and drink my cognac to help put me into a trance as i played so Strumming has shamanistic roots sometimes i’d play so hard especially in the bass region of the piano that i’d break strings and realise only after finishing a performance that my hands were bleeding from the intensity of that moment (again a Maximal experience nothing to do with Minimal)
I heard about the Borgato Doppio first in Brussels from my dear old friend who i call the “Great Rabbi of Pianos” the piano and keyboard instrument builder restorer & collector Martin Kaufmann he’d been to Lonigo Italy and had seen the instrument and met Luigi and Paola Borgato He says that when he saw the instrument he immediately thought of me and as the instrument has 2 keyboards one played with the hands and the other with the feet Martin knew that as i had been a carilloner I could play with both hands and feet at the same time and that the potential of so much density and resonance that two sound boards could provide played together as live performance would be perfect for my musics.
So he told me about it and later when my wife Aude and I were in Krakow we met the pianist Roberto Prosseda who had actually played the upper part of the Doppio in concert proposed that we go and meet the Borgatos and try out the instrument myself We arrived one Sunday morning several years ago and within 5 minutes i was playing an incredible resonant and divine harmonic music that the Borgatos never imagined their instrument could play a rich resonant monumental sonorous continuum of pure string fundamental and overtone sonics as had never been heard before on a pianoforte We immediately imagined how and when and where we could organise a recording of a work specially composed for their Doppio Several months later we organised a week of recording in Lonigo in a Church not far from their atelier and “Bolide Borgato” was born and had its premiere at La Sapienza in Rome in March 2006 the title of the work became “From Etudes to Cataclysms” and has just recently been released as a 2 Cd set on the Sub Rosa label.
Giuseppe Cordaro: A few years ago Sub Rosa produced a live album at the Mercelis Theatre in Bruxelles, for the Luc Ferrari memorial. In that occasion you played with Tony Conrad. Could you tell us something more about it? What do you think of the recent development of audio/visual art, in terms of collaboration between musicians and video artists?
Charlemagne Palestine: I met Tony Conrad the first time while playing the carillon at St Thomas one afternoon between 5 o’clock and 5:30 as i did every weekday for almost seven years between 1963 and 1970 it was around 1968 that i heard someone shouting WOW WOW WOW from the spiral staircase that went from the church’s lobby to the bell tower high above It turned out to be Filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad who had fallen in love with my bell sonorities that he had heard several times before while passing near the Musuem of Modern Art on 53rd Street as St Thomas was just next door We became immediate friends he invited me to his studio that was above a 42nd Street porno shop and where he and his wife Beverly an underground film actress offered a 24/24 hour salon for all the avant-garde artists bohemians and crazies to come and hang out together he theninvited me to compose carillon music for his then epic collaboration film Coming Attractions that he was making with Beverly After that i asked him to play with me at the WBAI radio station Free Music Store festiva and he played “long string drone” an instrument he had invented in my work recorded live there ” Alloy ” in 1969 which was released by Algha Marghen on the Golden 1 disk several years ago.
In 1970 i left Nyc for Los Angeles as Mort Subotnick invited me to be assistant professor at Cal Arts and didn’t see Tony until April 1972 on a short trip I made back to Nyc when he invited me to play with him and Rhys Chatham at Albright College in Pennsylvania during a weekend (Algha Marghen Golden 4 has just recently released an excerpt of this live event called D flat) after that I went back to California and by the time i returned to Nyc again in 1973 Tony had already left Nyc to teach and finally settled in Buffalo Ny near the University where he has been living for more than 30 years! so I lost touch with him for 30 years as also i began to leave Nyc little by little for Europe and have lived in Germany Switzerland France Holland and finally Brussels where I live now since 10 years with my wife Aude.
In 2001 the organisation Transculture in Belgium invited me to do several projects here and invited Tony also to do a concert in Luxembourg in 2002 When they told me that he would be passing through Benelux I proposed they ask him to come visit us at home and spend a few days together with us which he finally decided to do during those days together we started to play me on the piano and he on his violin and in minutes all systems went GOOOOOOO and GREEATTTTT!!! so Transculture organised several concerts for us first in Naples Nantes and Paris and then Sub Rosa recorded our concert in Brussels which became “An Aural Symbiotic Mystery” a title that i invented based on the magic results of our being able to play so fabulously together after 30 years of noncontact Tony was a filmmaker and i was also a video artist maybe that has something to do with our success as collaborators we are both audio/visual people with several different kinetic appetites and instincts and talents even though his sense of film and my sense of video are very very different one from another when we play together everything melts together into a Magic Sonic Bouillabaise.
Giuseppe Cordaro: What should we expect from your performance at Dissonanze? What are your plans for the future?
Charlemagne Palestine: At Dissonanze I will be presenting an elaborate laptop electronic sonority continuum with live vocal interaction ! In the future i’m preparing a 6 hour concert and recording of my organ work Schlingen Blängen at St Giles Cathedral in London for Blast First records and performances & video screenings at the Triennale in Milano the end of May and for the festival Angelica in Bologna just after Rome A collaboration with the Berlin based music group Perlonex with whom I’ve played several times in Vienna Graz Paris Geneva and Berlin and released a live performance recording made at Podewil in Berlin with them on the Ukrainian record company Nexsound.