Charlemagne Palestine: “I’m a higher intelligent type Neanderthal than say gorillas, but I find gorillas more trustworthy than me because they don’t know how to lie.” Interview by Bob Baker Fish


Charlemagne Palestine is a 66-year oldish minimalist composer and visual artist. A contemporary of Phil Niblock, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, his performances are renowned for his intense ritualistic music, drawing upon the avant-garde and non-western traditions and surrounding his piano with stuffed toys, sipping on cognac and smoking Indonesian cigarettes. Trained as a cantor he is best known for his long playing piano works, and his collaborations with Tony Conrad. On the phone from his adopted home in Brussels, Palestine is open, effervescent, and a little bit eccentric, the very definition of a people person, clearly relishing the opportunity to have a yarn.

Bob: I’m interested in the concept of trance in your music. Where do you think it came from?

Charlemagne: It was never an idea to do it. It’s just my personality. It’s true that when I was a kid I saw all of these national geographic magazines and then it started to be on television. All these programs about primitive cultures and people who went all over the world searching for what remains of primitive and tribal peoples in the world. Also in America in the 60’s there was a record company called folkways, a guy named Moses Asch started it after the second world war and he commissioned anthropologists ethnomusicologists, musicians to go all over to record folk music, tribal music and all that existed in the world, as he was afraid that it would soon disappear and he was right.

Bob: He was right, yes.

Charlemagne: Similarly to what Bartok and Janacek and Dvorak did in the late 20th century and noted all of the gypsy and folk music of their countries that eventually also disappeared.

Bob: And you were attracted to this?

Charlemagne: That interested me more than some of the, how can I put it, a musical work with a good haircut already. And I can’t believe that I made this connection already, but I even knew my first girlfriend’s father had been a fighter in the Hungarian revolution. He knew Zoltan Kodaly for example – who was a very good friend of Bartok and he went all over the region searching for music and he started a whole tradition of educating Hungarian children in music and he is considered the father of music education in Hungary. So his friend was my first girlfriend’s father in NYC. It might be his influence that when he found out I like this kind of stuff we lived together and I found things like pygmies and things he never imagined that I’d found on disc. These things to me were much more interesting than contemporary music, even though I knew about Xenakis, who was one of the ones I liked or Stockhausen or Cage or any of the avant-garde music’s of that time when I was a student in the late 50’s and 60’s. My choice was authentic music made by peoples who were thousands of years old than by new mathematically post Faber Schoenberg kind of serialists and all that kind thing.

Bob: Do you think its because the music means more than simply listening, it’s part of life?

Charlemagne: Its ritual and it’s all integrated. One of the conflicts in the last 45 years of presenting my work is that I present music like it’s a total ceremony. When its translated, but say the Fluxus people, they try to make a ceremony by doing something very artificial they dress up in a tuxedo or they bring a little siren or the bounce up and down on a stage in a concert hall it looks kind of stupid. I understand their reason because they want it to be more than an operating room, doing surgery in an operating room in a hospital, that too I don’t enjoy music being presented in one point, what you are doing there is listening. Don’t be looking too much, don’t be smelling too much. It’s very short on all your senses. Don’t bring your five senses. Just bring your ears. That’s totally against what I’ve ever done ever. That’s why most of my work has been in conflict with traditional work. Because each time it doesn’t want to present just music as a sound experience. It’s a total experience. In the East you go to Bali you go to Java, you go to India, you go to Japan, no problem they’ve been doing it like that for thousands of years, but in our western intellectual traditions, which comes out of universities and laboratories and people who read books, you can’t do much dancing and singing while you’re holding your book. It will get dirty. It will fall on the floor; you’ll tear a page.

Bob: Well it’s hard to dance while you’re stroking your chin.

Charlemagne: It’s a much more uptight cerebral point of view which is not mine. Never was. So going back to what started this subject is that I’m a naturally Neanderthal type person, I’m a higher intelligent type Neanderthal than say gorillas, but I find gorillas more trustworthy than me because they don’t know how to lie. So my approach comes directly out of my own body’s response to life. And then I translated that because I wanted to be a musician and an artist, luckily I lived in Brooklyn, which was a totally eastern European whole in the wall. But 12 miles from there you were in Times Square and in the middle of international culture of the world. So with just a subway ride I was in the middle of all the most important tendencies that were also happening in Europe and America and the world in the 60’s and that was my education, to apply my Neanderthalness to the culture that was at the time very intellectual and very cerebral.

Bob: So how do you go about transcending our western notions of appreciating music? What do you do to make it more open to the senses?

Charlemagne: Even now I have collections full of ethnographic music; I have an enormous classical collection. I have a collection full of all the music of today because all the young musicians give me their records. I’m always trying to be in touch, even in passing, we’re always in touch with not just thinkers, but people who respond and animals and children, that keeps everything very full and flexible and the unexpected is normal.

Bob: That sounds great – lots of input from all areas of life.

Charlemagne: And particularly now with the Internet, you don’t even have to be rich. It’s really easy. But you have to be curious. It’s amazing. There’s a generation that loves me now, and my own generation, still after 50 years they’re hesitant to me, they don’t have any curiosity to me, they’re afraid, they’ve built this enormous walls and prisons around themselves to discourage information, they don’t want. I was like a dingo as a kid.I still am. I’m always searching to steal the next bit of meat from our culture. If something is exciting, I want a piece of it too.

Bob: It’s not hard to maintain that?

Charlemagne: No. It’s not an idea. It’s just the way I am. I’m really very animalistic in that way. I look like a human animal more or less. I mean I look a little like Ganesh, the Indian god, I have a little puncha. If you’re job forces you to be more disciplined and less spontaneous of course then your desires as a person are at odds with what you’re expected to do in your society. My society, luckily, which is why I became an artist, I thought well great I can become an artist and do whatever crazy fucking thing I want to do. I mean it isn’t as easy as that but in fact I have thought the marketplace and critics from each generation. I had three generations against me and now there’s two generations for me. I’m 63 years old and maybe if I can hang on, I’ll have four generations with me and these other two generations will already be long dead.

Bob: Well clearly they were wrong anyway.

Charlemagne: Well I’ve seen in the history when I look back there were these natural crazies in each generation. There weren’t many of them. Some of them died early, which is sad, people who had this sense of spontaneous or rebellion or another way of seeing the world or wanting to do everything. I’m certainly not unique in that way. Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to go to over 25 countries, though not yet to Australia, so all is well. You started by asking me how are things and all is well.

Bob: That’s a long answer to that question.

Charlemagne: I have my wife Aud, now we’ve been together for 12 years. I’ve been with many very wonderful talented other people in my life when I was younger but when I was 51 I hit the jackpot because the woman that I’m with, of course it’s not 100% honeymoon all of the time. But it’s strange she’s Belgian, I’m from New York, she comes from the bourgeoisie, I came from the nomadic Diaspora, the Jews from Europe but on so many levels we click. So people when we meet they not only meet me they meet us.

Bob: You’re coming out to the jazz festival in Melbourne. Does that seem to be a natural place for you?

Charlemagne: When I first started out in the mid 60’s I lived in a neighbourhood in the upper west side of Manhattan which was full of jazz musicians. I was developing what would be a kind of trance and continuum music that now I do. But in those days across the street was Charlie Mingus, down the street was Jimmy Garret, 4 doors down was Mariam Makeba, upstairs was Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Burrell was in another house down the way. And their music was very sociable. They were like can we find a saxophone player and a bass player because we’ve got a gig, so it was a whole community of musicians who could at any moment work together. So now I can go anywhere. I’m going to do a duet in Melbourne and it will be like jazz musicians, we’ll be able to play together because in 1967 this music I was developing was very different and people were very resistant and hostile, but now the new generation you can go anywhere around the world and I’ve been playing these last few years with lots of young groups, and they are already hip to the kind of things I’ve been doing and we have this common language that very much reflects what jazz is, and was earlier in world music. So in that sense it is a kind of jazz, in the social interaction of world music that started as a black language but is now a world music. It’s something that we can play together anywhere in the world and in that sense its jazz.

Bob: So what degree of your music is improvised?

Charlemagne: That’s a word I’ve never liked because it’s only one word. I do an enormous amount of different things and rarely is it pre determined. But there is only one word for this outside of pre determined in every form. When I lived on the Hawaiian islands they had at least 20 words for the waves at different times, about the way the waves float on the water and I felt it would be nice if we could find at least 20 variations on the word improvised so we could be more specific. Because there are so many processes that are going on in my body and in my head each time I’m presenting something and it’s not all be put in this word improvisation.

Bob: That’s true because once you ask the question then you need to ask what does that mean?

Charlemagne: It’s too much for one word; the whole phenomenon is too much for one word to encompass.

Bob: So can you tell me about the work that you’ll be performing in Melbourne. I think it’s called durations.

Charlemagne: I don’t know if it has a name. Are they calling it that? I guess durations is as harmless as anything else.

Bob: Do you have any concept of what you will be doing with Tony Conrad? I know you’ve worked together before.

Charlemagne: I met him about 44 years ago and we played a bit back then. He was a filmmaker more in those days than a musician. He had already been a musician but he was working on a mega film with his wife called coming attractions. We started to play from time to time. Then around 1972 we played for the last time together, because he’s always been in university and I’ve always been a dingo nomad, going through Europe, I’ve been to Polynesia, California, San Francisco, Paris, Leon, Milan, I lived in a whole lot of different places, and he was at the university of Buffalo. Before Internet I even lost contact with him. I didn’t have a telephone number or address. So we didn’t see each other for at least 25 years. But when the younger generation re found me, they re found him and he started to be invited to Europe and I was already living in Brussels and he was invited to do a concert in Luxembourg, which is 200 km from here. The organiser of that festival arranged for him to come and stay with me.

That was about 6 years ago. I hadn’t seen him for at least 25 years and we started to play together because I have two fabulous Bosendorfer’s (pianos) in my living room. One that has the 9 tones more than any other piano in the world. Within 5 minutes my wife was amazed which is why a record came out soon after called an Aural Symbiotic Mystery. Because it was mysterious we had the impression that we were playing better than we were 30 years ago. Without any contact, any discussion at all. As two animals I guess we became more mature sophisticated, and the form, like in jazz, it had become a more open and universal form of expression than we were playing 30 years ago, So even the way we play it is much more free than we did back then which was much more in a cultural girdle because we didn’t know what we were doing, what it meant but now we have all this reinforcement from all over us and 35 years of history proves its something.

Bob: And all of the experience that you’ve each had on your own.

Charlemagne: Each time we play it clicks. The last time we played was a short month ago in NYC, and before that we hadn’t played for 2 and a half years, but it just went boom .We didn’t do anything special whenever we interact we don’t talk much and we start like two crazy boys.

Bob: It’s a beautiful thing finding someone where that can happen with minimal effort.

Charlemagne: It’s interesting. In every other part of our life we’re totally different. I mean he’s a professor, he’s around his students, he likes the way I am, and I like him. In the other daily ways of life, I mean I’m a big drinking and bistro kind of guy, well I was, now at my age I’m less, but my wife says I’m very European. He’s very American and he does a lot of discussions and explanations and he does them very well, but I’m the total opposite, I hate all of that. But when we start to play there’s no barriers between us and no need to explain anything, it just all comes out the way it should.

Performances at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival:

Sat 11 June Melbourne Town Hall, Charlemagne Palestine (organ, piano, voice, electronics) Tony Conrad (violin, electronics)

He is also performing on Sunday the 12th of June with Oren Ambarchi Melbourne Town Hall Sun 12 June 9pm .


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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