The instruments went crazy

Charlemagne in colour by Ed PinsentOn Friday night (30 November 2007), I saw Charlemagne Palestine‘s performance at the LMC Festival of Experimental Music. The Cochrane Theatre somehow seems a most fitting venue for the music – small and intimate. This probably worked in favour of the quieter more minimal acts; in fact Clive Graham and myself were refused entry to the auditorium because Robin Hayward was parping his tuba so quietly, and it wouldn’t do to disturb the audience’s enjoyment of that. Earlier in the evening, Clive handed Palestine a reel-to-reel recording of an early 1972 work of his, which had somehow found its way into the Daphne Oram archive. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Charlemagne. Actually this is the fourth time I’ve seen him in the UK. He was playing a piece for two harpsichords, and although there has been a version of Strumming Music for Harpsichord (played in 1977 at the Purcell Room by Elizabeth Freeman, one of his students), I don’t think what we heard was quite the same thing. In any case it took a good while before we got to the music, what with the man’s generous effusions.

He began by playing the glass harmonica, alternating between a glass of cognac and one of water, and sounding voice tones in sympathy. Then a chatty introduction turned, quite spontaneously into an impromptu ceremony where he passed his glass of cognac among the audience looking for all the world like a colourfully-garbed priest of the street. Comically aware of the irony, he remarked out loud “I hate to commune…I’m a Jew!”, while eager members of the audience put their hands up in hopes of a sip from that warming vessel. Palestine explained, possibly embroidering the past a little, that his musical ceremonies in NYC in the 1970s could take anything up to half a day, and would involve a brandy balloon of a much larger size, which contained an entire bottle of Remy Martin passed around an equally enthused audience of culture-hungry New Yorkers. Palestine admitted he feels cramped by modern music festivals, which are like a “pot-pourri” and tend to allow at most 30-40 minutes for each performer; he needs more room to stretch himself, and drew parallels with installations at art galleries. He went on to boast of how he had once written a nasty letter to Morton Feldman, who at the time was I suppose a somewhat more successful and semi-establishment composer of the New York school. Feldman had spoken scornfully of the ‘downtown’ musicians (of which Charlemagne was one) and their 4-hour durational works. Yet soon thereafter, the story goes, Feldman had switched from composing 20-minute pieces to composing much lengthier 4-hour works. Palestine happily took the credit for influencing that development!

At length, surrounded by his customary bears and other soft toys fair bursting out from his red wheeled suitcase, garbed in a wide-brimmed hat and colourful Mambo shirt, Palestine delivered himself of the harpsichord music. Simple two-note strumming patterns quickly developed into complex rippling patterns, the likes of which you or I couldn’t hope to invent. His music continues to sit somewhere between composition and improvisation, but it’s entirely dependent on having the man himself physically present to do it. Nobody knows what he’s going to do but himself! Alternating between the two instruments – the “yin and yang” as he called them – demonstrated their individual characteristics and voices. The familiar mesmeric haze was summoned in short order. But it got really interesting when he started attacking the bass notes with violence and gusto, causing wooden hinged parts of the harpsichord lid to rattle and vibrate, visibly jumping about and contributing an unexpected percussive noise. Somehow, these old instruments became prime noise-makers that Merzbow himself couldn’t match. The supplier of the harpsichords, invited on stage to take a bow, couldn’t help but perform a quick examine of the woodwork to make sure that no damage had been sustained. Charlemagne meanwhile was still enthusing about the whole thing 15 minutes later in the lobby. “Did you hear that?!” he boomed loudly to anyone who would listen. “None of that was supposed to happen! The instruments went crazy!!”

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