Primed with a glass of cognac Charlemagne Palestine sits at the keyboard of a Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano. One foot firmly holds down the sustain pedal while both hands perform an insistent strum-like alternation on the keys. Soon Palestine and his Bösendorfer are enveloped in sound and bathed in a shimmering haze of multi-coloured overtones. For 45 minutes this rich pulsating music swells and intensifies, filling the air.
When Strumming Music first appeared on the adventurous French label Shandar during the mid-1970s, it seemed a straightforward matter to place Charlemagne Palestine in the so-called Minimalist company of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, whose work also featured in the Shandar catalogue. Palestine too used a deliberately restricted range of materials and a repetitive technique, but as he has often pointed out in more recent times the opulent fullness of his music would more accurately be described as Maximalist.
Strumming Music, recorded in Palestines own loft in Manhattan, has no written score. In an age of recorded sound he still feels no need for traditional notation. The surging energy of this particular recording stands comparison with the improvising of jazz visionaries who impressed and inspired him while living in New York, as a young man. But, as Palestine himself has made clear, primarily he brings to music-making the sensibility of an artist rather than a musician. Although the technique of the piece has roots in Palestines daily practice, when a teenager, of playing the carillon at a church, hammering sonorous chimes from a rack of tuned bells, it also draws on his later work as a body artist, staging vigorously muscular, physically demanding and often reckless performances. In addition, Strumming Music can be heard as a sculptural tour de force, while its textures connect with the colour moods, plastic rhythms and tactile space of Mark Rothkos Abstract Expressionist canvases.
At the time when Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley were becoming well-respected and widely heard composers, welcomed in concert halls and opera houses around the world, Charlemagne Palestine actually stopped making music altogether. He relocated to Europe and devoted his creative energies to the making of stuffed animal sculptures including the mighty God Bear, three-headed and six metres high. His involvement with music was revived and renewed during the 1990s, when younger generations of musicians and listeners, attuned to immersive noise and sensual sounds, were rediscovering Strumming Music and recognising that Palestine had blazed an idiosyncratic trail into their emerging world.
Since then he has returned enthusiastically to musical performance and his formerly meagre discography has steadily grown. Still Strumming Music remains the essential index of Palestines singular creative vision. Fundamentally this fascinating piece is a collaboration between an artist and an instrument. Palestine had first encountered the Bösendorfer Imperial back in 1969. He had already been playing church organs for several years, relishing their power and presence. Now he had found a piano that satisfied his need for sonic depth and weight. The Bösendorfer at its best is a very noisy, thick molasses piano, he has remarked. Charlemagne Palestine embraced its clinging sonorousness, its clangorous resonance and out of that embrace came the voluptuous sonic fabric of Strumming Music.
My rhythms are sexual, not machine-like. Charlemagne Palestine, in 2013.