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Charlemagne Palestine
Ffroggssichorddd Dustin Krcatovich , June 11th, 2020 07:59

Wherein the oddball veteran composer and an exceptionally imaginative architect take the harpsichord to maths class

Even among his wild-ass peers like La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, composer Charlemagne Palestine has long stood out as an eccentric. Eschewing the outward solemnity of "serious music", Palestine typically performs dressed in bright psychedelic colours, surrounded by countless stuffed toys he refers to as "divinities". His vocal ululations recall his teacher Pandit Pran Nath and a bored child in equal measure. Even at its most minimal (he bristles at the term, insisting that he is in fact a Maximalist), his music is imbued with a playfulness which belies its rigorousness and intensity.

Ffroggssichorddd, his latest double LP, fits snugly in the Palestine pocket. The silliness starts with the packaging - a limited double LP wrapped in brightly coloured fake fur, with a cartoon frog in its centre - and the music is imbued with a childlike abandon. Yet there's serious method beneath the madness, in particular the peculiar science of the instrument itself.

Designed by architect and musical philosopher John Körmeling, the Palestine-christened frogsichord is a harpsichord modified to play a music whose system is based on square roots, areas, volumes, and Pythagorean ratios instead of the usual western intervals. Körmeling called upon Palestine to give the thing a whirl, and, feeling it was right up his street, he took it on the road. These recordings, captured live in Brussels, Rotterdam and Cappadocia, Turkey, are the fruits of Palestine's labours with the instrument.

As one would imagine, the unconventional harmonic relationships here can make for turbulent listening. Palestine sings on some tracks, harmonising with the frogsichord, making for a clangorous, nigh-comical din. Yet you can't deny that he's leaning in fully, performing on this uniquely challenging instrument with a human vigour others might have sacrificed in the name of scientific precision. Even at its most pounding and abrasive, it's not hard to perceive the musicality of the performances.

Even so, and despite the inviting packaging and persona, this is the kind of thing that will likely alienate some listeners upfront, or at least make them giggle nervously. It is highly unlikely to expand Palestine's base (though I can't imagine that's much of a concern, having witnessed the reverence he is afforded in a live setting). As a curious experiment, though, Ffroggssichorddd is a unique and fascinating document, and one teeming with more wriggling life than one typically expects from a veteran composer.

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