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Charlemagne Palestine - In Mid-Air

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Artist: Charlemagne Palestine

Album: In Mid-Air

Label: Alga Marghen

Review date: May. 29, 2003

Minimal Pause

Minimalism, they may tell you, is like this. They sit you down and play you Steve Reich’s “Drumming," and you say ‘ah yes I get it’. Later, someone may sit you down and tell you that minimalism is not like that and play you the Dream Syndicate’s “Day Of Niagara,” to which you respond ‘ah yes I get it.’ In either case, what you’re ‘getting’ is the idea that minimalism resists expressiveness, or at least a certain kind of expressiveness that had dominated Western classical music up to this point, which is not entirely true. Or at least, as Alga Marghen’s new Charlemagne Palestine disc In Mid - Air proves, it doesn’t have to be.

Even though Palestine was an important figure in the New York avant-garde around the same time as figures like Reich, La Monte Young, et al, he is often referenced as a second-tier minimalist figure who ends up relegated to the ”further listening” ghetto of undergraduate music class syllabi. Worthy of a footnote, sought by minimalism obsessives only, works long out-of-print – by dropping out of the music scene in the late 1970s, Palestine avoided both Reich’s aesthetic compromises for the sake of commercial gain and the tabloid-esque drama of the post-breakup Dream Syndicate. He simply moved into the art world, and was seemingly forgotten by all but those with the most elephantine of memories. Even with renewed interest in his work over the last few years, you’re not going to hear a Charlemagne Palestine retrospective at Lincoln Center any time soon. It’s a shame, because this collection of Palestine’s unreleased electronic compositions from the NYU Intermedia Center from 1967-1970 represents a vision of minimalism that needs to be heard.

A long-time follower of Charlemagne Palestine could be forgiven for thinking that these previously unreleased works are less visceral than his other compositions. For a man whose ‘strumming’ techniques have been known to break the bass strings of pianos in mid-performance, the subdued proto-DX7-isms of “Open-Closing” seem relatively tame. On first listen, even the painfully pure assault of “Sine Wave Study” is less confrontational than the tinnitus-inducing test tone work of contemporary improvisers like Sachiko M. After a few runs through the gauntlet, I was ready to accuse Palestine of stopping short in his quest for intensity when I tried the last resort of the semi-reformed rock-crit: I cranked up the volume. Yowch. It’s amazing what a decibel or two will do to your appreciation of the visceral qualities of a piece. At high levels, the mild whirring of “7 Organism Study” is transformed into an ear-chewing swarm of bees, punctuated by the sound of metal doors being struck with sledgehammers. Most pronounced with a little more auditory juice is Palestine’s use of dynamics: where the sweeping dynamic changes within the drone seem distracting at low volumes, they become every bit as affecting and even disturbing at maximum volume as the more violent moments of early Throbbing Gristle or Einzurstende Neubauten. To achieve that kind of response with a set of oscillators rather than, say, an amplified chainsaw, shows Palestine’s innate understanding of something that a lot of minimalists fail to grasp: how to be unabashedly expressive without compromising the aesthetics of minimalism itself.

A lot of composers have seen strict minimalism as a dead end, possibly with good reason: where figures like Reich and Phillip Glass diluted their own achievements by falling back on an already-outdated form of romantic expressiveness, others like Young simply seemed to disappeared. In Mid – Air is Charlemagne Palestine’s way out of the anti-expressive cul-de-sac. Here the pieces are every bit as active as any of Reich’s later works, but they never lose the sheer mind-twisting ecstasy of the early minimalist jams that threatened to bust the gates of the classical establishment wide open.

By Dave Morris

Other Reviews of Charlemagne Palestine

A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies

From Etudes to Cataclysms

Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord and Strings Ensemble

Read More

View all articles by Dave Morris

Find out more about Alga Marghen

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