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 Palestine’s 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 Palestine’s 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 Rothko’s Abstract Expressionist canvases.
Strumming Music remains the essential index of Palestine’s 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.
A Strumming Music part I 26:05
B Strumming Music part II 26:05
This is the first recorded collaboration between Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham. And it's precious. After the musical meeting with Tony Conrad (SR204), and with Z'ev (SR340), this new Sub Rosa sessions creates a form of trilogy.
Rhys Chatham began his musical career as a piano tuner for avant-garde pioneer La Monte Young as well as harpsichord tuner for Gustav Leonhardt, Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould. He soon studied under electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick and minimalisticon La Monte Young and was a member of Young's group, The Theater of Eternal Music, during the early seventies; Chatham also played with Tony Conrad in an early version of Conrad's group, The Dream Syndicate. In 1971, while still in his teens, Chatham became the first music director at the experimental art space The Kitchen in lower Manhattan. His early works, such as Two Gongs (1971) owed a significant debt to Young and other minimalists. His concert productions included experimenters Maryanne Amacher, Robert Ashley, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and early alternative rockers such as Fred Frith, Robert Fripp, Arto Lindsay, and John Lurie. He has worked closely with visual artist/musician Robert Longo, particularly in the 1980s, and on an experimental opera called XS: The Opera Opus (1984-6) with the visual artist Joseph Nechvatal.
By 1977, Chatham's music was heavily influenced by punk rock, having seen an early Ramones concert. He was particularly intrigued by and influential upon the group of artists music critics would label No Wave in 1978. Members of the New York City noise rock band Band of Susans began their careers in Chatham's ensembles; they later performed a cover of Chatham's "Guitar Trio" on their 1991 album, The Word And The Flesh. (This parallels the way that members of fellow NYC noise rockers Sonic Youth began their careers in Branca's ensembles; Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth did play with Chatham as well.) Chatham began playing trumpet in 1983, and his more recent works explore improvisatory trumpet solos; these are performed by Chatham himself, employing much of the same amplification and effects that he acquired with the guitar, over synthesized dance rhythms by the composer Martin Wheeler.
Charlemagne Palestine wrote intense, ritualistic music in the 1970s, intended by the composer to rub against audiences' expectations of what is beautiful and meaningful in music. A composer-performer, he always performed his own works as soloist. His earliest works were compositions for carillon and electronic drones, and he is best known for his intensely performed piano works. He also performs as a vocalist. Palestine's performance style is ritualistic; he generally surrounds himself (and his piano) with stuffed animals, smokes large numbers of kretek (Indonesian clove cigarettes) and drinks cognac."