June 23, 2006

Charlemagne Palestine in Boston

Monday night was the kick-off concert for NEC's SICPP week. Stephen Drury presented Morton Feldman's Palais de Mari, followed by Charlemagne Palestine presenting his own Golden Mean. Drury's playing was very lovely. Though score for the piece is dry on dynamic markings (except for the initial ppp and some cryptic decrescendos), he tastefully added swells during some moments. Rather than evoke a Romantic sentimentality, it suggested more a shifting luminosity, the sun emerging from beneath clouds and casting a more golden light on the scene.

He really captured the piece's sense of vertical time. Listening to it is like exploring ancient ruins. One's thoughts are caught between the present and an imagined past. Time seems to bend accordingly. When you finally leave the area you feel as if you were there for only a brief moment (and accordingly, are humbled by that reality).

Though I hardly object to the number of Feldman recordings that are available, this recital was a reminder that the concert hall is really the best place to hear his music. The physical reality of the sounds permeating through space is an essential part of it. I don't mean this in a Cagean sense of taking pleasure in sounds as they are, but that this movement seems an important part of the piece's conception and orchestration. Drury evenly balanced its experimentalism with a sense of its connection to the classical tradition.

Palestine's set was begun with a little more fanfare. He was no doubt responsible for the giant crowd that was there (people had to stand in the aisles). At the beginning of the night, Drury thanked him for the best audience he's ever had. Note to hipster-seeking performers: an interview in the Dig is a sure way to round them up.

Everything you've heard about his playing style is true. Yes he has stuffed animals all around the pianos, yes he's a flamboyant dresser, yes he drinks cognac while playing. Despite his anti-pretentious habits, I was struck by his professionalism when setting up his mise-en-scène. He placed all the animals very quickly and intently.

He became more relaxed once his performance began. He opened with a few minutes of remarks, talking about the varying reception he's gotten over the years, definitely framing himself as an enfant terrible. He said he was glad to see that there was a new generation who was open to his way of hearing sounds. He talked a little about how his relationship with Feldman (the similarities end with them both being Russian Jews from Brooklyn), and made the usual comment about how much Feldman's personality differed from his music. This struck the audience as a joke, to which a surprised Palestine explained that he was just stating the facts.

He began playing by creating a drone by running a finger around one of his glasses. After a little, he sang along with it (he explained beforehand that he always got into a trance state before playing). Golden Mean begins as a motoric unison (using two pianos) and expands to a variety of other similarly hammered out sounds.

His interest seemed to be not in the fundamental pitches, but in the elusive harmonies found in the farther reaches of the overtone series. He didn't always play both pianos at the same time, though their sustain pedals were weighted down so they would always resonate. At a few points, Palestine sang in a modal fashion over the pianos, usually vocalises or what sounded like Hebrew. He cried "sound is sound!" a number of times throughout.

Palestine seems very concerned with creating a spiritual music. I think he would agree with Feldman and say that sound is his only deity, but they definitely have different notions of what that deity is. Palestine's music, despite its flirtations with Eastern thought, struck me as being very animist. All his hammering seemed like it was trying to tap the same energy reached by the man-animal deities that surrounded the pianos.

The audience's reaction to him was raging, loud and effusive (hipsters being hipsters, I suspect his swashbuckling stage manner and theatricality, with its dips into childhood imagery, had a lot to do with their enthusiasm). He shouted "sound is sound!" a few more times as he paced the stage, closing the show.

June 14, 2006

SICPP 2006

Via Sequenza21, I hear that NEC's annual new music for piano festival is going on next week. The concerts last year (featuring music of Rzewski) were terrific. I can only assume that this year's will be at a similar level. The first night looks like a knock-out, featuring neo-animist/minimalist Charlemagne Palestine performing his own music. His appearances were supposed to be getting increasingly rare, so the fact that he's appearing in a conservative enclave like Boston is pretty astonishing. On the same night, Stephen Drury is going to be playing Feldman's Palais de Mari. I can't wait to hear that one live. The full schedule for the week is up on NEC's online calendar.

Out of Context?

Just how do advertisers find the music that accompanies their work? Recently, I've been witness to "Mack the Knife" accompanying a shrimp promotion and "I Think I Need a New Heart" being used to hawk dog food. I can only imagine the conniptions that Brecht and Weill are going through, but I hope at least that Stephin Merritt's dog will never go hungry again.

These recontextualizations make me wonder how much of a piece's meaning is defined by its use. The "True Crime Stories!" (mit alienation effect) angle of "Mack the Knife" was thrown away to focus on the music's swinging sound. Really, any piece with a swing and added 6 chords would've worked. My initial reaction to the ad was "How can they not get it?!?!" Still, I can't help but be amused by the song's slippery history: agitprop to jazz standard to memory of a jazz standard. For all we know, an industrious sampler has isolated some fragment of a recording of the tune and is using it to jumpstart a new genre of dance music (it's happened before).

As performers and listeners, we are responsible for bringing the notated music back to life with each performance. By participating in this process, are we not entitled to a few small acts of re-creation along the way?

June 05, 2006


In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Illiads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every 'episode' was readable in terms of geology.


It was one thing to persuade a surveyor that a heap of boulders were the eggs of the Rainbow Snake, or a lump of reddish sandstone was the liver of a speared kangaroo. It was something else to convince him that a featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven's Opus 111.

By singing the world into existence, he said, the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of poesis, meaning 'creation'. No Aboriginal could conceive that the created world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. The man who went 'Walkabout' was making a ritual journey. He trod in the footprints of his Ancestor. He sang the Ancestor's stanzas without changing a word or note — and so recreated the Creation.
Bruce Chatwin, Songlines.