Charlemagne Palestine On Tour!
by Seth Colter Walls | September 5, 2013
For most artists, two live dates in one week does not amount to much of a tour. But for the reclusive minimalist composer-performer who goes by the name Charlemagne Palestine, his appearances in New York and at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, amount to something like road-warrior status.
After working in the 1960s alongside Terry Riley, Steve Reich and other early minimalists -- and then stunning audiences in the 1970s with his powerhouse performances of a piece called "Strumming Music" -- the eccentric Palestine proceeded to dip out of sight for most of the next two decades. In 2000, however, he returned to his native New York for a one-night-only engagement that was memorably chronicled in the Village Voice. Starting in 2006, he began releasing new albums (albeit sometimes with music recorded many years ago). It's good to have him back.
This year's brand-new Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear, recorded with percussionist Z'ev, is one of Palestine's best-ever collaborations, and is probably his finest record overall since 1999's organ tour de force, Schlingen Blangen. Though Palestine experimented with electronics early on, his signature performance technique is the powerful, marathon use of only a select few piano notes (he usually starts out with two, and gradually expands to incorporate more pitches during a performance). Over the course of an hour (or, legend has it, sometimes many hours), the progressive sound of the piano's detuning helps to create a series of monstrous and otherworldly overtones.
The original 52-minute, single-track album Strumming Music delivers the most striking recorded evidence of this practice, though the 2008 album From Etudes to Cataclysms offers shorter pieces of a similar nature. The recent live album A Sweet Quasimodo between Black Vampire Butterflies: For Maybeck also provides a window onto another Palestine legend -- specifically, the way he often begins a performance with a short speech (and strange vocalizations) while producing a ringing tone from the rim of a glass of cognac (from which he also sips a good bit, naturally).
His organ works achieve similar states of uncompromising bliss, but through an almost opposite strategy. Schlingen Blangen features just one chord over its 71 minutes. (Palestine uses wedges of cardboard to keep the same organ keys depressed for such a long time.) Instead of pinging maniacally back and forth between different notes, Palestine achieves variation through exploration of the grand church organ's many timbres (i.e., gradually manipulating the stops). The bass sonorities that are engaged between the 27th and 31st minutes of the piece collectively amount to an exciting, extraordinary reveal.
Even if you can't make it to one of Palestine's rare performances, there's still his recorded output to enjoy at your leisure. (And please, don't try to get into this music if you've got somewhere to be in the next hour. You've got to surrender some time to give it a proper shot.) You can find all the aforementioned works in the attached playlist. Enjoy!