When I got home on April 3 after hearing a Charlemagne Palestine concert, I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at myself for having missed a number of Palestine concerts in the past year or so. I wanted to scream at a musical establishment which is still blithely unaware of Palestine and has yet to invite him into its hallowed halls uptown. And right now I want to scream at 150,000 Voice purchasers in hopes that maybe a few of them will spend more than three minutes reading the remainder of this column and thinking about what it says.
I’m not given to screaming, but perhaps that’s an appropriate response to Palestine’s new work ‘The Lower Depths: Descending/Ascending.’ It’s a loud, relentless piece, and Palestine plays it with the kind of energy that would make even Cecil Taylor seem like a patsy by comparison. I don’t mean to say that you would like it. The piece is admittedly not a pretty thing to witness, and I’m not even sure that I like it myself. It is more frightening than anything else. But it seems important because it goes so far. How is it possible for someone to hammer away at a piano keyboard so furiously for almost an hour, with only one quick break? Is it mysticism, hedonism, or just plain masochism that turns Palestine into a wild animal when he sits down to play? And how much force does it take to break two, not one but two piano strings, especially when one is playing a Bösendorfer, which is reputed to be the best made piano around?
It hurts to play the piano for an extended time the way Palestine does. I tried it once, and found to my dismay that my muscles and bones began to ache after only a couple of minutes. Now, granted, one could become conditioned to this kind of physical task and build up endurance, but ultimately the situation must be like long-distance running. One can get in condition and build endurance to a point, but beyond that point, conditioning is mostly just a matter of getting used to the pain. Palestine drinks a lot of cognac and smokes a lot of clove-scented Indonesian cigarettes when he presents a program like this, and no doubt these substances help to deaden the pain a bit, but ultimately only sheer determination could get anyone through such an ordeal.
There are shades of the Iggy Pop-Chris Burden self-mutilation syndrome in Palestine’s work, though he does not capitalize on this the way they do, and tries to keep the focus on the sound and the music. Still, as I watched him knock himself out, he seemed more like a sacrificial victim than a musician.
All performers are sacrificial victims to some extent. They offer themselves to public view and invariably take risks, so that onlookers can witness some sort of minor miracle and watch one of their fellow human beings avoid calamity. There is always the possibility that Horowitz will blank out and be unable to complete a Beethoven sonata, just as there is always the chance that the sword swallower will slit his throat. And the fact that such things don’t happen makes us no less aware of the possibility that they could happen. At the nitty-gritty core this is what all live performance is about, and this is why even the most sophisticated filming and recording techniques have never been quite able to replace live performance.
With Palestine and others the performance risks are beginning to get a little nasty. Burden really could be killed if he does his being-shot-at act too often, and it may take a real miracle to pull Palestine through many performances like this one with body and soul intact.
But I don’t want to give the impression that ‘Descending/Ascending’ is a work of undisciplined passion. In fact it is extremely disciplined. This piece is divided into three long sections, which the composer has been presenting on separate nights this spring, but which he plans to put together into long one-night performances 1977/robert-ashley-documents-the-aether fall. The first section begins in the middle of the register and gradually works its way down to the lowest register. The second section remains only on the lowest couple of octaves, which on the Bösendorfer includes four additional notes not present on other brands. The third section, which was the one I heard, begins in the extreme bass register and gradually works its way back up to the middle of the keyboard.
The first thing I noticed on the night of the ascending was that the floor was shaking. It was hard to believe the thunderous power with which Palestine suddenly began hammering on two notes with a fast left-right-left alternation. The sound of these bass notes was equally hard to believe. Since he plays with the pedal down, one hears not only the notes he is actually playing but also a large complex of high- and middle-register tones ringing off the other strings. On another level one also hears a rat-a-tat of percussive sounds, probably created by the action of the hammers hitting the strings. Every once in a while Palestine moves one hand up to a fresh note. Occasionally he moves around between several notes, and one hears fragments of modal melodies. But mostly one just hears a barrage of piano sound. From time to time the tempo slackens slightly, and one begins to suspect that Palestine is running out of steam the way he ought to. But then he suddenly redoubles his effort, and the sound explodes louder and faster than ever, and one is reminded that the floor has been shaking the whole time. Incidentally, Palestine routinely announces that there is no amplification or electronics involved. Otherwise listeners often attribute the sounds to electronic manipulation and hidden loudspeakers. That is particularly true in the relatively confined quarters of his loft space on North Moore Street, where he has been presenting his work this spring, and where the 11-foot ceiling allows few overtones to escape.
After witnessing Palestine’s recent endurance test, I began to realize that a number of his works must involve pain, like the more harmonious but extremely vigorous ‘Strumming Music’ he used to play at the piano, or the body pieces where he chants loudly while running violently or throwing himself on the floor. He is not a sacrificial victim in the strict Aztec sense, but he does live dangerously.Note:
It is too bad that Charlemagne Palestine’s name is so often forgotten in discussions of American minimalist music, as he drew larger audiences than any of his colleagues around this time, and his performances were very special. He continued doing extremely exhausting concerts such as these for several years, most often as a pianist, until he burned out and shifted to the visual arts.