Charlemagne Palestine on a Lifetime of Artistic Exploration

The composer and visual artist recalls his early days as a singer and electronic experimenter in New York and beyond

Agnes Gania

Born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine (or Charles Martin) to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, Charlemagne Palestine is a musician, filmmaker and visual artist whose contemporaries include Tony Conrad, Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich, but who playfully defies the conventions and contexts most associated with modernist composition. After singing in synagogues as a young man, he became a carillonneur in the Saint Thomas Episcopal Church across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. It’s a sonic and visual pairing that feels apt, considering the interdisciplinary breadth of Palestine’s work and the fact that he’s known to prefer the term “trance music” to “minimal”; in his own words, “a kind of fundamental transportation to leave the ordinary.”

Despite this, Palestine’s most well-known work, 1974’s “Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord and String Ensemble,” is regarded as a benchmark piece for modern minimalist composition and performance. Although working in various academic and creative institutions, Palestine was known for rarely performing live before moving to Europe in 1995, where he began playing more regularly and releasing much of his early solo and more contemporary collaborative work on physical formats, such as Youuu + Mee = Weee, with American multi-instrumentalist Rhys Chatham. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Hanna Bächer on RBMA Radio, Palestine discussed the religious nature of his early musical interests, the experience of falling into an artistic milieu in New York, the thrilling time he spent in school at CalArts and what inspired him to return to music.

Were you a nuisance as a child?

That’s what my uncles and my cousins say, that I was in perpetual motion. You couldn’t stop me. The story goes that I was such a nuisance that my father and my uncles would give me little glasses of whiskey to calm me down. I was three or four years old. That’s the beginning of my love of alcohol.

If your family was responsible for your love for alcohol, were they also responsible for your love for music?

Less, though they were like any immigrant family in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that was pretty far away from the cultural centers of Manhattan. I was brought up in a rather isolated part of Brooklyn. Now everybody’s in Brooklyn. 60 years ago Brooklyn was kind of a wasteland, culturally speaking. Though several really important people have come out of Brooklyn, Brooklyn itself had very few artistic things... I took music from the radio and from black-and-white TV and things like that.

My mother knew that I liked to sing Johnny Ray. He was a very popular white rock & roll singer, soul singer. He had a sort of spasm and he was hard of hearing; he would wear a hearing aid. I just loved the way he’d sing. It was such a weird way of singing. He was very popular – normally what I liked afterwards were not the things that everybody likes. In that particular time he was like a Frank Sinatra for a short moment.

Johnnie Ray - I’ll Never Fall In Love Again

He was known by everybody, he had hit records, and that was one of my first big influences. My mother would hear me singing these songs, and she had the idea to go to a local choir and synagogue and get me a job singing religious Jewish music on the weekends, in a choir that sang with some of the great hazzans, we call them, that had come from Europe, saved from the Holocaust by rich New York Jewish families.

What was the Jewish music being sung in the late ’40s or ’50s?

It resembles a lot of European [composers] – Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Strauss. It was German-influenced religious music. We didn’t have an original music that had followed us in the diaspora, so there are many different musics, Jewish musics, in different regions of the world. A lot of these composers were composers at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany and Austria, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, who followed some of the local or the popular gentile music of the time, then gave it the kind of Jewish-isms. It also resembled a lot of opera from the late 19th, early 20th century.

Did you take to this tradition when you moved to Manhattan as a teenager?

The first thing that’s very important in that music is that it’s a capella. There’s no instruments. Synagogues resembled churches and not theaters in that they tend to be resonant. That would be the first influence of mine, which until today is a major aspect of what I do in the sound world. I like to take an instrument as much as I can in its own pure form. Then I like to use it in its own space. Like, organs are in churches and they tend to be resonant. I like resonance. As my investigations became about overtones and things like that, they are much easier to be heard and appreciated in a more resonant space. That comes right back to my earliest singings.

When you sing for the sabbath, which is Saturday morning, you sing for about three and a half hours. Not nonstop, but it’s a service that takes three and a half hours. The most holy day of the year, called Yom Kippur, you sing from nine in the morning until sundown, which is about seven in the evening. That sense of long, continuous work, I stole it from my own roots.

What was Manhattan like when you first moved there?

It was fabulous. Soho wasn’t even invented. The word didn’t even exist yet. There were lots of open spaces. There was a lot of people in the West Village. That’s where the first electronic music studio that I worked at was, above a very important cínematheque called the Bleecker Street Cinema.

Right above it Mort Subotnick and New York University had created an alternative studio of electronic music, with mostly machines by Donald Buchla. Subotnick, who had gone to Mills College in California, brought these machines there. That was a very important development for me. Places like Columbia – which was a very celebrated place [with] people like Vladimir Ussachevsky, Mario Davidovsky, Otto Luening, very famous, important European electronic composers who moved to America around the time of the war – you had to be a hotsy-totsy, intelligent student to go there. The nice thing about this Bleecker Street studio, which I called the “inter-media center,” you could be a funky-wunky beatnik, which many of us sort of were, and you were accepted there.

What was your entry point into that beatnik world?

One of the first people who I actually worked for was a famous beatnik singer called Tiny Tim. He was a guy with a very long, sort of crooked nose and curly hair, and he played a little ukulele. He was quite a big man, and he sang different little songs – “tiptoe through the tulips, dah, dah, dah, dah” – in bistros, the cafes of the beatniks in the ’50s.

I became his accompanist on conga drums when I was like 12 years old. I was dressed like beatniks were. I wore a beret and sunglasses and I was like a little kid, very cool.

Tiny Tim - Tiptoe Through The Tulips

I met another very interesting person, Moondog, who eventually spent the end of his life in Germany. He and I became pals because he was on 6th Avenue and was out every day dressed as a Viking. I didn’t even know that at first, but he would then become a very important member of this sort of post-repetitive – I hate the word “minimal” – music scene in the ’70s, when he finally then moves to Germany and spends the last 20 years of his life in Germany.

Going back to my father and my uncles giving me whiskey at three and four years old, I then found myself enjoying being around artists when they were in a bar, [rather] than when they were in a museum or in a university. I became a regular in many of the important art bars of the ’60s in Manhattan, especially because Brooklyn didn’t have them yet. I met a whole lot of greats, from the Warhol team to Rauschenberg to Jasper Johns... It was a great place to meet the important alcoholic artists of my time.

How did your pieces sound at that time?

Well, I never wrote. I was always allergic to the writing of music. Happily, I was born in this period when recording would become a medium in itself. If I had been pre-recording, much of what I have done in my life would not be, we wouldn’t have as souvenirs. I was born just at the beginning. You could buy a funky tape recorder even at a regular, ordinary shop, which is what I did, and you could start to do audio experiments, which is what I did.

I had no idea what it was doing. I tried, as many in my generation did, to make these machines do crazy things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and that became my first compositions.

Before I got to Bleecker Street I was already an autodidact, kind of mooching off all this equipment, tried to make it do crazy things and tried not to break it at the same time. Some of my earliest pieces... There’s one called “Surrealistic Studies” that Alga Marghen brought out some years ago. “Blop, bah, bip.” It just was a big home tape recorder that I found out if you pull out the microphone after you say something, it would do some sort of weird looping inside the thing. I had no idea what it was doing. I tried, as many in my generation did, to make these machines do crazy things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and that became my first compositions.

What were the electronic music instruments of that time that you got really into, that you liked the most?

Well, the thing was you had to have access to it. They were very expensive. A Moog or a Buchla you could only play in a university or if you were a very, very rich person who did music for films or something like that. It wasn’t for ordinary people. You had to be in school, which I always had trouble with.

I finally went to school for eight years because I was of school age during the entire Vietnam War. In those days, if you were a teenager and you were not inscribed officially in some kind of university or important school you could be drafted, meaning that you could be in the war. If you were antiwar – which certainly I was – and you went to Canada, then you had to give up your citizenship. If you could stay in school then nobody would bother you. I eventually stayed in school, even with teachers who couldn’t stand me, because I was always still a nuisance. That hadn’t changed.

They didn’t have the heart to throw me out of school because then I could be sent to war. They were stuck and we were all stuck. I went to about seven different schools – universities, art schools. I studied psychology, sociology, anthropology, music, art, sculpture, ethnomusicology, in order to stay out of the war. I actually learned things, but I always hated the school atmosphere, the classroom, the formality. That’s always been an allergy that I have.

When you went to CalArts did you only study music?

I liked mixing and matching. I had curiosity, it was exciting and I liked mixing everything up. That’s what I did at CalArts, but at CalArts I wasn’t the only one. There were lots of people mixing things up. For the first few years it was so disorganized and full of so many amazing, visionary people, the more crazy things you did the more you were appreciated by your colleagues. There was a very permissive atmosphere, as it was also the beginning of the ’70s in California. It was still the last days of hippiness and free love and antiwar. It was a strange atmosphere, because the Disneys were right-wings from Southern California, Orange County, and most of us were all pinko, Jewish northerns from New York who were basically hippies and drug-takers – LSD, marijuana, mescaline and fucking in the bathrooms.

The same year we came to CalArts, long-haired people couldn’t get into Disneyland, and yet we were all long-hairs in the school that they were paying for.

Disney paid for the school, right?

Disney was dead, but his brother paid for all of us to come out there, not realizing he didn’t take it so seriously at first – it was his brother’s desire. He took advice from a whole lot of people who turned out to be totally different, who were left-wing liberals and who loved innovation, which turned out to be a fabulous thing for the school and the reputation. The same year we came to CalArts, long-haired people couldn’t get into Disneyland, and yet we were all long-hairs in the school that they were paying for. It was total confusion, which turned out to be a delicious mix. Everybody talks about that period as one of the greatest times of life because it was just so terrifically crazy.

One of your most well-known pieces that you made in the ’70s, Strumming Music, you played it on a piano, a Bösendorfer – not on an electronic instrument. What was the motivation?

I found that instrument when I went out to CalArts for electronic music. I was in a room that would eventually become the modular theater. It was an enormous, because they built a new building, but it wasn’t finished on time... All the rooms were like big slabs of concrete ready to be filled. For me that was fabulous – an enormous cube of concrete which would eventually become a very technical theater, totally unrecognizable after. In that particular moment there was the biggest piano in the world, a Bösendorfer Imperial, which had nine notes more than any other piano in the world. Built in Vienna, a company that had started in 1830 and had been bought by a very rich American company. They had one at CalArts in this room. I went in and innocently played it. It resonated in a way that I had never heard a piano play. I had been playing piano a little bit when I was a kid. My mother had bought me a little upright and I played little ditty-witties and things like that, but I never had taken the piano seriously for myself once I had gotten into electronics.

Charlemagne Palestine - Strumming Music

When I played this instrument and by the way I touched it all these different overtones [came out], almost like a tambura, an Indian tambura, these streams of fantastic rainbow-like overtones. I said, “Wow.” I could play it. The problem with electronics is that it’s so hard, even now, to play in a way that doesn’t sound robotic, that sounds human. What was amazing about this instrument is that now I had all these overtones and things that I was interested in, changes of color, but playing a piano. A piano was a very human one-to-one instrument and had already been developed for 150 years. I could have this special unique relationship that was both physical but sonorous all at the same time.

Also, [Strumming] came at a particular moment when a whole bunch of other people were sort of staking out their territory. Steve Reich, Phil Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley and I... Tony Conrad. This whole team of people who were mostly, if not all, in New York, between New York and California, going from NYU to CalArts. This whole cross-coastal interface happened. I bumped into that, though I’m actually the youngest of all those people. La Monte, Terry, Steve Reich, Phil Glass, they’re all 10 years or more older than I am. I had been an early nuisance, already developing my own special, new, sensual way of doing things.

After the ’70s you stopped doing music for a while. Is that right?

12, 13 years. I had a following, but a very limited one. I was sort of considered a legend and a visionary, but you can’t live off of that. Most legends and visionaries die young, for good reason, because they don’t have what it takes to be able to live a long life, and they tend to get very tragic and poor and self-destructive or destructive. I saw that coming and moved to Switzerland... It was my animals, my divinities, who sort of looked at me one day, and I saw myself, in one of the few times in my life, where my drinking wasn’t a good part.

I’m one of the people who have had a life where alcohol has really been an inspiration and I’ve been able to use it in a creative way and not abuse it. In the times when my life became the worst, I did abuse it, and it became obvious to me that I was on a spiral to finish my life. The animals looked at me and we went to Switzerland. I started to make more of what would become my big animals, finally, for Documenta. They sort of brought me out of my quagmire, because as a sound artist it was a dead end in that particular period. It took another 10 or 15 years for a new generation to appreciate people like me. They brought me out of the mothballs later.

What got you back into making music?

People came around and started to bother me. A guy from Holland who knew Sonic Youth and people like Glenn Branca, who I had met. They were young whippersnappers when I stopped playing music. They were the new punks and junks and doing a lot of violent music. When I stopped at the end I started to be very violent. In this sort of minimal continuum, that didn’t exist much yet, violence.

I was frustrated – even my pianos had blood [on them], and I was breaking strings. They were youngsters coming to my studio in what would become Tribeca and hearing me, because I used to play regularly. They were even bringing little tape recorders, cassette players. They would eventually become punks. As they became famous 10 years later, they started to look back and I was one of the people on their radar. They found out I was in the middle of nowhere in France, living in an old silk factory with an Italian girlfriend, sort of incommunicado, and a whole bunch of people started to bother me.

They began to bother me and bother me and bother me. Then they realized that I hadn’t any money, I had lost a whole lot of my confidence and my self-esteem, and so they set up very important events at Royal Festival Hall, Impakt Festival, Utrecht, Akademie der Künste in Berlin. I had very important projects and a bunch of money. They brought me out of the boonies.

After this long break that you took, making music again, did you ever have to rethink what that even is to you, music?

No, no. It was the laziest thing that ever happened. All my fingers, everything worked better than when I had done it 13 years before. I didn’t practice. I had never practiced. I just fell right into it. It was like riding a bicycle. It was the most weird thing ever. Everybody said, “But it’s amazing how you’re playing now. It’s so much more mature.” I didn’t even care. I didn’t even try. If it worked, it wasn’t my fault.

By Hanna Bächer on February 7, 2017

On a different note