Thursday, 8 November 2012
A contemporary of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Phill Niblock, and Steve Reich, Palestine wrote intense, ritualistic music in the 1970s, intended by the composer to rub against Western audiences’ expectations of what is beautiful and meaningful in music. A composer-performer originally trained to be a cantor, he always performed his own works as soloist. His earliest works were compositions for carillon and electronic drones, and he is known for his intense piano performances. He also performs as a vocalist. In Karenina he sings in the countertenor register and in other works he sings long tones with gradually shifting vowels and overtones while moving through the performance space or performing repeated actions such as throwing himself onto his hands.
Palestine's performance style is ritualistic: he generally surrounds himself (and his piano) with stuffed animals, smokes large numbers of kretek (Indonesian clove cigarettes), and drinks cognac.
Charlemagne Palestine has widely been called a minimalist composer, but it's best if you keep that to yourself if you meet him. You may just end up getting an earful. He prefers "continuum" or "trance" artist. All of the descriptors seem to fit, though. Charlemagne's music is one of epic duration. His most well-known piece, Strumming Music, consists of him building up a storm of overtones from only a few repeated notes on the piano over the course of nearly an hour. The key difference between Palestine and composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich is the approach. Palestine's work is raw and full of life, and he often compared himself to abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Performance-wise, you're also likely to often see him playing amid a number of stuffed animals while he drinks cognac and smokes. In short, he's one of a kind.
My best performances are the ones I can never remember," says Charlemagne Palestine. "The music takes me into a kind of trance, and the next thing I know, it's over." When he began playing, the trance might last five hours; it might see Palestine pounding away at a pair of grand pianos until the instruments had been thoroughly detuned; it might end with the keyboards left covered in Palestine's blood, from hands battered raw on the ivory. He would appear in his colourful wardrobe of scarves and hats, sipping cognac and smoking cigarettes, a menagerie of soft toys atop his piano.
There is a large number of the blue creatures stockpiled in his studio: "Though to me I do not see Smurfs – the shape of their hats makes me think of Polynesian kings," he says. Palestine freely admits that such views seem a little "mishegas" – the Yiddish word meaning eccentric or crazy. "But that really is what my whole career has been about," he says. "It's been a 50-year search to find a place in the world for an avant-garde, soft toy worshipping Quasimodo."