Charlemagne Palestine, along with La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Tony Conrad, was one of the originators of Minimal Music. ‘Four Manifestations on Six Elements’ is Charlemagne Palestine’s milestone recording of minimalism from 1974. It contains early piano music and electronic drones. For his electronic sonorities he wanted to find in sound an all enveloping color field, a color sanctuary in continuous sound. It would be a beautifull rich liquid wash of spectral sound in space like Monet’s water lillies. His first serious musical experience was as a child, singing long drones in the synagogue choir, soon followed by performances on the carillon – a physically challenging instrument played by beating it with fists. Charlemagne would hit the piano notes with such a force that his hands would sometimes start to bleed and occasionally piano strings would break. What started as pure sound chemistry, slowly turned into a physical form of performance art combined with music.
Singing long drones in the choir of the synagogue as a child was Charlemagne Palestine’s first serious musical experience. He absorbed these sacred sounds and would later transform them to the ‘resonant sanctuary’ that his own music was to become.
Palestine came from a closed and provincial part of Brooklyn, United States. His parents were Russian jews from Minsk, Odessa and Rogachov who came to New York between 1910 and 1914 and met each other there. At the age of 13 he auditioned and was accepted as a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York City. It was not long before Palestine knew he would devote his life exclusively to the arts. At sixteen Palestine was playing the carillon of the Episcopal Church next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The carillon is a physically challenging instrument involving church bells being played by hitting the keys with the fists. At first he played the carillon compositions of people like Cage and Messiaen. Later he began to compose and invent a music that was based on the physical sound qualities of bells. “I lived near the bells, played them right next to my body. The sound became physical; visceral; each crack of the clapper was like a small earthquake”, Palestine remembers. Experiencing sound as a physical feeling and singing the long, ‘sacred’ chants in the synagogue were the primary inspirations for Charlemagne Palestine to start creating his own musical work. In the 1960′s Palestine was a witness to many strong cultural developments in which he took a manifest interest. There was the New York school of Abstract Expressionism with amongst others Rothko, Pollack, Still, Newman, Hofmann and Kline. He attended the concerts of the north Indian Sufi Drupad singer Pandit Pran Nath, listened to the music of Morton Feldman and encountered John Cage’s Zen-related philosophies of sound. Also, the religiously oriented music of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, the impressionistic music of composers such as Ravel and Debussy and the paintings of French Impressionists like Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Serrat and Van Gogh were of great interest to Palestine.
One day the filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad came up the belltower. Through Conrad Palestine was introduced to the New York avantgarde scene in which there was a lively interaction between artists of various disciplines. It became apparent that a group of composers and musicians shared common ideas about music. In later years the work of amongst others Young, Riley, Glass, Reich, Conrad and Palestine would be labeled as Minimal Music. The term Minimal Music refered to the reduction of means, techniques and soundsources used within the framework of their music. All of them wanted to break away from the post-war avantgarde (Stockhausen, Boulez) in reaction against its complexity. By way of contrast the composers of so called Minimal Music felt related to tonal music and were heavily inspired by aspects of the music of Asia and Africa. Themes in their music that became important were the concept of time (or timelessness) and continuity, the transformation of imagery in a non-narrative sense, and, specifically for Palestine, the interaction of the artist’s energy with his chosen form. The Minimalists began to experiment with open form drones and complex, repetitive patterns and overtone structures.
At the New York University Intermedia Center Palestine began to work on electronic synthesizers looking for the ‘Golden Sound’, just as Rothko and Still had searched a similar formula in painting. He wanted to find in sound an all enveloping color field, a color sanctuary in continuous sound. It would be a beautifull rich liquid wash of spectral sound in space like Monet’s water lillies, but devoid of romanticism. Charlemagne wanted his own sound world to be pure and not emotionally charged. Consequently, all emotion, all coincidence, all interplays of the various senses come exclusively from the mind and imagination of the listener. The two electronic sonorities included on ‘Four Manifestations On Six Elements’ come directly from Palestine’s Golden Quest that lasted from 1967 to 1977.
In the late sixties Palestine developed live performances on church organs which he called the Spectral Continuum Drones. These lasted for 3 or 4 hours while he would search for tones and mixtures that resonated and merged.
In 1969 Palestine moved to Los Angeles where he studied and taught at the California Institute of the Arts. Here he started playing the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano, an instrument originally developed in the 1830′s for Franz Liszt. The astounding overtone structures and the sonorous clarity and richness inspired Charlemagne Palestine to write piano music. At first Palestine’s piano pieces were direct transcriptions of his electronic sonorities. Later he began to develop a piano style that was a variation on carillon technique, a very physical alternating tone technique which he called strumming. The resulting piece ‘Strumming Music’ was performed in countless versions throughout the seventies.
Charlemagne Palestine began to consider his music as works in progress, which were continuously reinvented and refined during performances. “After a concert at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, Belgium, the great Cartoonist Hergé came up to me and said that he found my work like the telling of enormous legends similar to his stories. I was surprised and shocked by his response and began to work more consciously on my piano works as voyages or journeys or legends”. Palestine named works after the famous tightrope walker Karl Wallenda and Myamoto Musashi, a Japanese samurai. Also he developed ‘The Lower Depths’ in which he began a series of sound elements in the pianos middle register and over a series of evenings descended to the lower octave of the Bösendorfer Imperial piano, which has a full octave lower than any other piano in the world. By 1978 Palestine’s very personal and intense piano music culminated in a highly dissonant work called ‘Timbral Assault’.
The shift from his meditative electronic works to piano and organ performances was accompanied by a more physical and ultimately very expressive approach. Palestine’s concerts lasted several hours. He would dress eccentrically, surround himself with stuffed animals and magical objects, drink Napoleon Cognac and smoke Indonesian Kretek cigarets at a furious rate. Charlemagne would hit the piano notes with such a force that his hands would sometimes start to bleed and occasionally piano strings would break. What started as pure sound chemistry, slowly turned into a physical form of performance art combined with music. This was a logical consequence of Palestine involvement in perfomance art and shamanistic rituals which focussed heavily on the body. His cognac, fetishist clothing and stuffed animals were trance tools that enabled him to experience pure emotive energy more easily. Palestine felt very close to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. “I’m the living hybrid in my own work of the physical gestuality of Pollock and the spiritualistic color chemistry of Rothko. Also, both have a relationship with danger and death that is close to me”, Palestine said in an interview. He seemed to excorcise his ghosts in his intensely personal and frequently spontaneous musical interaction with the audience.
The psychological effect of this purging of the soul and the nature of the contact with the audience had a draining psychological effect on him. Palestine made a violent break with music and performance art and started to fully concentrate on his work as a sculptor, which he had been practising for quite some time alongside his music.
The pluralistic art world of the early seventies, which allowed artists to work in several disciplines at the same time had radically changed to a situation that demanded of artists that they focus on one form of art in particular. Palestine, who had been working in such diverse fields as art video, sculpture, painting, performance art and music, chose to continue working as a sculptor.
At the same time Minimal Music had been progressing in a direction that didn’t interest Palestine. The experiments with drones and timelessness in music slowly were traded for more accessable elements borrowed from pop and classical music. The pure, raw energy and the focus on music as physical sound in Palestine’s work proved to be an important inspiration for experimental composers such as Glenn Branca.
Ascetic as his music is Palestine has never been satisfied with its place in daily life. Whereas Indian or Tibetan sacred music, that had been of great inspiration to him, is integrated in a culture, a religion, a way of life, Palestine felt that his minimal and sacredesque music was somehow seperated from tribal and religious traditions. The emptiness of late twentieth century western culture and its disconnection from its mythologies and rituals troubled him deeply. He dreamed of inventing a whole new tribal mythology with divinities and sacred objects, musics, theaters and rituals, in short a total tribal concept. Like the monkey God Hanoman of traditional Hindu culture inspires music and dance, Palestine’s ‘Blind Monkey’, used on the cover of this compact disc, serves as a protective divinity of an unknown tribe from an unknown kingdom from a universe known as Charleworld.
Palestine sees himself as an alchemist, concerned with the chemistry and color of sound, transforming these elements into a transcendental experience, thus articulating a process of internal and almost spiritual evolution. Unchanging as his music appears to be from the outside it is constantly renewing its structure as a natural process. Palestine’s music is a fluid object, like a fountain or geyser. In a near absence of music a great richness of overtones and organic structures of sound is created.
‘Four Manifestations On Six Elements’
In 1973 Charlemagne Palestine was commissioned to make ‘Four Manifestations On Six Elements’ by the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. As the gallery was well known for its presentation of conceptual art Palestine decided to create a record similar to an exhibition space with four walls to expose on, each wall corresponding to a side on the double album.
Two Fifths is an electronic piece that deals with the search for the essence of timbre, sound color, through exploration of the inert chemical activity in the overtone series of tone fundamentals. In this genre of his work Palestine feels akin to a kind of sound alchemy – blending elements over and over again through the years searching for the Golden Sound – the essence of the chord or harmonic structure itself.
In One+Two+Three Fifths In The Rhythm Three Against Two For Bösendorfer Piano the elements introduced are now elaborated upon on the piano. The resonant Bösendorfer allows Palestine to create a more lively and complex variation of tones, intervals, overtones and rhythms.
One Fifth evolves by reinforcing the fundamentals of a fifth with their higher octaves. Each performance of this work is different as Palestine reinterprets these simple elements listening within them for variations of amplitude, mixture and inertia at the moment of the performance.
One+Two Fifths deals with the way a rhythmic sonority sounds when the sustain pedal of the piano is not used, thus focusing mostly on its rhythmic aspect. Gradually by adding the sustain pedal the external rhythmic pattern begins to internalise becoming an inert part of the whole timbral fabric – a piece expressing the battle of rhythm versus timbre for dominance.
In One+Two+Three Fifths a third fifth is added – variations of melody and sonority reinforcements culminating in a rhythmic deceleration process ending the work.
Sliding Fifths is an impressionistic version of the three fifths used in the entire work. The continuous liquid waterfall of pure romantic piano sound and color is a homage to Debusy, Ravel and Monet.
Three Fifths is the complexification and continuation of wall one. A pure and sonorous phenomenon.