Charlemagne Palestine still pushes his keyboard to the limit
“I’m not a Minimalist,” the keyboard performance artist Charlemagne Palestine said last week. “I’m a maximalist. That’s the word I like, because it gives me possibilities.”
Palestine, known in music circles for his marathon all-night concerts in the 1970s (they were often so intense that he bled on the keys) is returning to the Los Angeles stage tonight after an 11-year absence. As part of the Monday Evening Concerts series, he will perform one of his seminal works, “Schlingen-Blängen,” on one of the world’s largest church pipe organs at the First Congregational Church.
“I can’t say, at 61 years old, that I can be maximal every day,” he added. “But when I play this big organ, it’s going to resound like Armageddon come home.”
Palestine said “Schlingen-Blängen” will get a two- to three-hour airing, enough time for him to work his magic, creating and sustaining overtones that slowly build, vibrate and combine in the ether.
The piece’s title, he said, is a sendup of avant-garde musical titles, “all those unpronounceable nonsense-profound Stockhausen and Xenakis things. But I didn’t go to Greek or Latin. I went to Jerry Lewis Yiddish. I said, the schling and the schlong and a bing and a bong. I even put an umlaut over the A in Blängen.”
And like that title, Palestine’s music, which can seem improvised, is carefully planned.
“I need to know the fundamental components -- how the smaller sounds become more complicated,” he said. “I put them into almost a color swatch. There are about 250 different stops on this organ. It’s like a chemistry lesson.”
Speaking by phone from his studio in Brussels, Palestine sounded lighthearted, excited about the huge new carillon (church bells, usually played from a keyboard) stored in his 10,000-square-foot studio. When he was a teenager, he was the bell ringer at the St. Thomas Church in New York for almost seven years.
Today, he said, he’s no longer the ’70s bad boy who many, including himself, believe sabotaged his career with his excesses and eccentricities. Instead, he’s been focusing on his music -- really more like performance art, which has always involved singing, and, of all things, a retinue of stuffed animals, especially teddy bears.
Composer Ingram Marshall, who has known Palestine for almost 40 years, says the stuffed animals reflect Palestine’s sense of the holy. “He has a menagerie of imaginary gods,” Marshall says. “He talks to them. It’s part of his shtick, his aura.”
For Palestine, the bears represent something more specifically ethnic. “It’s a folkloric part of my cultural background,” he said. “My mother’s side of the family comes out of textiles. What we now call the teddy bear was invented in 1902 by two Eastern European Jews who lived in my neighborhood.”
Charlemagne Palestine was born Chaim Moshe Palestine in 1947 to Russian Jewish parents in a tough, cultureless section of Brooklyn. His name was Americanized as “Charles Martin.” “In my neighborhood,” he said, “Chaim Moshe and Palestine were heavy handles to carry.”
Eventually, Palestine also changed his age. At CalArts in the early ’70s, he found himself among older composers who were in the vanguard of the emerging Minimalist movement.
“I was the youngest of that group -- Terry Riley, La Monte Young -- so I gave myself a couple of years. Everybody was saying, ‘He can’t be very important, he’s such a youngster.’ Now I want my two years back.”
Palestine speaks warmly of that period in his life. “For me, California was a kind of energy vacation,” he said. “It had a calming effect on my works. And then I went back to New York, and boom, it was the beginning of SoHo and TriBeCa, and I was back to strumming and slamming and banging and bleeding.”
Such intensity couldn’t last, and it ended with Palestine leaving the music scene for 15 years. He lived a nomadic life in Europe, eventually becoming a painter. Some of his wild canvases have stuffed animals stuck in them. (See his website.)
Critic John Rockwell recalls reviewing several of Palestine’s concerts during the ’70s.
“They were pretty cool,” Rockwell says. “But they were profoundly eccentric. He and La Monte Young, in their different ways, would do these endless piano pieces. Charlemagne made oceanic sounds out of the piano, but I don’t know what they had to do with anything other than just conjuring up these fabulous oceans of sound.
“He and Glenn Branca were kind of wasted talents,” Rockwell added, referring to the avante-garde composer and guitarist. “I thought of Charlemagne and Glenn as two peas in a pod, in the sense that both of them were trying for this kind of rock-classical-mystical thing.”
The specter of unfulfilled promise often hangs over artists who are perceived as having peaked early. “Maybe John’s right,” says Kristina Melcher, arts editor at the Santa Fe New Mexican, who knew Palestine when she was a CalArts composition student. “Charlemagne burned some bridges along the way. But that’s not the point. This guy was onto something. He doesn’t have Steve Reich’s career, but he never wanted it.”
Palestine agrees. “I’m sort of a volcanic person,” he said. “When I was at institutions where they were very uptight in dealing with contemporary music or art, I was considered a pain in the ass.”
In his recent memoir, “Hallelujah Junction,” John Adams remembers Palestine as “a strange genius” whose “colossal narcissism was tempered by his wild humor and his prodigious energies as a performer.”
Palestine seemed surprised to learn of the book but, after another passage had been read to him, observed: “That doesn’t sound so bad. So John became one of America’s three or four great Minimalists, and I went on to be, as he puts it, ‘unclassifiable.’ I love that. If that’s in my New York Times obituary, that would be the icing on the cake.”
Posterity, it turns out, is on Palestine’s mind. Tonight, two engineers will record his performance of “Schlingen-Blängen.” With an enthusiastic audience in Europe and a revival of interest in his CDs -- the latest, “Saiten in Flammen” (Strings Aflame) will be released Tuesday -- he seems to be in a good place, finally.
“I’m still a bad boy,” he said. “But young people who love my music have helped major churches accept me. They might not understand what I’m doing, and I don’t proclaim it to be a religious experience, but it packs the young people in, and that they like.”
Palestine also seems content with his peripheral place in music history. “I’m happy where I am,” he said. “I like being an uncle. I don’t like being a father. Phil Glass is a father. Steve Reich, La Monte Young and John Adams are all fathers. An uncle can come in, make fun, play with the kids. He can do magic tricks. Then he leaves the next day, and he can do something else. I’m the uncle.”
-- Rick Schultz
Monday Evening Concerts, First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, 540 S. commonwelath Ave. 8 tonight. $25. (310) 836-6632 or www.mondayeveningconcerts.org
Photo: Charlemagne Palestine. Credit: Jamie Rector / For The Times