Charlemagne Palestine – Four Manifestations on Six Elements 

Charlemagne Palestine approaches a piano like a climber approaches a mountain. He does not play the instrument so much as he lets it test him: he starts each performance like an ascent, knowing that somewhere ahead there are the limits of the piano, and also the limits of him. It is entirely possible that he will reach neither, or both – when I saw him play in 1998 he finished the piece exhausted and the piano finished the piece with two of its strings at the lower end broken from the relentless pounding waves of music Palestine had forced from it.

We heard the strings go, a sudden cracking sound after maybe fifty minutes of the music building.

I had been looking at Palestine at the keyboard, swaying back and forth, drumming his leg relentlessly against the piano’s leg to try and fight off the pain in his arms and fingers. Had been looking at the light catching the glass of brandy next to him and the shadows on the ten or so soft animals clustered upon the piano and round the stool: his real audience, the rest of us watchers reduced to shades as the ritual progressed. A ritual was what it felt like, cryptic, private and profound, and when the strings went I caught my breath, because in the midst of the vast sonorous cloud it sounded like something opening.

The performance was immense but it wasn’t loud. It was not quiet either – Palestine hit the notes again and again, never letting a single one fade, until the room became full of noise, each half-second sending fresh sounds into the ringing, pulsing music. Palestine was strumming the keys, rolling his hands over them again and again, never pausing. Repetition in music is often called ‘agonising’: this was literal for Palestine, as he bit his lip, rolled his head, twitched and shifted in his chair, looked at his animals – anything to keep on playing. I have seen people play instruments before and since of course but this was special: there was no difference, no skin of performance, between the player and the sound. When Palestine tired the music wobbled and shifted, the intensity lessoned a little, and then you would watch the man on stage grit his teeth and push himself against the keys again, and as he did you would hear the music swell and throb with his new effort. Though the noise being made was magnificent, this was not a ‘piece’ of music which you could measure a performance against: when Palestine tired or perhaps fainted or the piano broke, it ended.

The piano broke. It ended.

In the sleeve notes to Palestine’s Four Manifestations On Six Elements, one of the twentieth century’s more curious meetings is described, between the composer/performer and the cartoonist Herge, inventor of Tintin, after a concert Palestine gave in Belgium in the 1970s. Something about the music he had heard touched the ageing artist, who apparently told Palestine than his performance had been like the “telling of enormous legends”, similar to Herge’s own stories. Palestine was struck by the metaphor: he had spent a decade on what he termed the ‘Golden Quest’, looking for a pure, all-enveloping sound world or sound field. Herge meanwhile had spent the 1960s wrestling with his own personal infinite, plagued by dreams of a pure and horrifying whiteness, which led him to create the mystical, redemptive Tintin In Tibet. It does not seem to fanciful to suspect that he saw something of these preoccipations in Palestine’s sacred music.

It seems less fanciful still when you listen to Four Manifestations…, one of the grandest and most serene records I know. At first I preferred the stern, hovering Godbear, which attempted it seemed to me to recapture the intensity of Palestine’s live performance, but repeated listenings to Four Manifestations…. showed it to be not only a stronger work, but a record of humbling beauty. Palestine conceived the record, in 1973, as an art installation, each ‘manifestation’ the equivalent of a wall in a gallery room. He had been very influenced by Rothko, and saw aspects of his music – his Golden Quest among them – as being similar to the kind of purity of expression Rothko had achieved. But while the art world has moved away from Rothko’s high spirituality, and in so doing given his paintings a monumentalist undertone worryingly close to kitsch, Palestine’s record retains its power.

This is partly because of the medium, partly because of the artist, and partly because of the work itself. It is possible to experience a painting for less than a minute and still have experienced it, albeit perhaps shallowly: whereas if you played a Charlemagne Palestine record for a minute and thought it sucked and turned it off, you would simply not have experienced it. This is why minimalism and music go together so well – minimalism (a movement Palestine was associated with) by its economy of means and sources forces the listener’s attention back on themselves, making them aware both of the music and their reactions to it, how the very same held sound can for instance be enrapturing one minute and hellish the next. Clearly the longer this kind of attention can be held the better, and putting on a record like Four Manifestations is committing yourself, ideally at least, to a seventy-minute session. There can be no temporal negotiation as there can be with a Rothko painting: either you listen to all seventy minutes or you have not listened to Four Manifestations. (For a listener like me, more used to pop, this kind of surrender of autonomy is oddly liberating).

Palestine’s music has held better than some of his contemporaries’ because he is an obscure artist and we have not, collectively, had an opportunity to get used to him in the way that we have to Philip Glass (or for that matter to Mark Rothko). His music seems starker and scarier and funnier for not having been explained, or turned into narrative, like Rothko’s paintings have. Steve Reich’s music, while radical, has been tamed in this way: we read about “Different Trains” and think ah, a work of art about the Holocaust, and know broadly how we are meant, at least, to react. But we don’t know how to place Charlemagne Palestine, with his soft toy magick and his clove cigarettes, and his double albums about dead dogs, and the frightening physicality of what he does.

And then there is the music. Put crudely, Four Manifestations On Six Elements consists of two ‘drone’ pieces – fragments from Palestine’s Golden Quest – and four piano tracks. All are ‘minimal’ – they do not change or resolve in any recognisable melodic way. They could be called repetitive, though for me that would not be wrong so much as irrelevant. I won’t say anything else about the structures of the music because I am a fool in musicological terms and my understanding or not of what Palestine is doing on the record has little to do with the extraordinary effect it has on me. The sounds let you do the work – on the drone tracks you find yourself heading shifting rhythms, tiny melodies even, your ear trying to make sense of what is happening: when the electronic sounds seem to slip out of phase it’s almost shocking.

All drone-based pieces have this in common, though no two are quite identical. The piano works, though, are more immediately striking and more immediately recognisable as Palestine. Compared to his more famous minimalist contemporaries, you notice a lack of clarity in the playing, a willingness to let notes melt and tumble into each other. And Charlemagne is not interested in the kind of phase-shifting trickery and perfect clockwork development Reich or Glass bring to their tracks: changes in a piece once it’s started happen at a micro level. But even so the range of emotion the four pieces evoke is remarkable: stateliness, playfulness, fear, sorrow, resolve, mystery. All done within the simplest of structures and with the lightest of touches – all the more remarkable when I remember how elemental Palestine is live.

There is a lot of talk of stars in pop music. Generally ‘star quality’ boils down to prettiness and a certain glamorous diffidence. I am suspicious when somebody tells me they like an artist because they are a ‘star’: it seems bogus somehow. But Charlemagne Palestine, wandering through his private world, drinking, smoking and talking to his animals in his theadbare multi-coloured coat, making precious records and turning concerts into rites…Charlemagne Palestine is what I call a star.

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