‘I’m A Walking Bordello!’: Charlemagne Palestine Interviewed

The New York artist/composer sits down for an in-depth interview with Erin Lyndal Martin, to discuss animism and stuffed toys, ringing church bells in '60s New York, sacred musics and trance states

Charlemagne Palestine may not be a household name in all circles, but his moniker is one you’d be unlikely to forget. Born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine, or Charles Martin, Palestine has made a name for himself as an innovative musician – often associated with minimalist composers, a term Palestine loathes – visual artist and filmmaker. Now based in Brussels, he was originally born in Brooklyn to Eastern European immigrant Jewish parents, and draws much of his inspiration – even now at age 65 (and a half, he is quick to add) – from Jewish sacred music and the stories of his hometown, most notably the invention of the teddy bear.

Palestine came of age singing in synagogues, which is where he learned the gift of delivering long pieces. As a teenager, he attended a special arts school in Manhattan, and soon thereafter grew to fame as a carillioner, or bell-ringer, at a church across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. It was there that his musical style began its vacillation between what Palestine refers to as "cataclysms" and what he calls "sonorities", two apt descriptions for the music he has put out over the decades, including collaborations with the likes of Tony Conrad, Pan Sonic, and, most recently, Z’ev.

Palestine is unique in many ways, but his refusal to fit into a certain category stands out in particular. He was a contemporary, in the 1970s, of fellow composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich but, he reveals in this interview, "I never wanted to be an anything" – an attitude that shows in his wide body of work. From the gigantic teddy bear sculptures that fill his art book Sacred Bordello to the stuffed animals that decorate his piano and serve as "animal divinities", Palestine is nothing if not true to his own vision. Peppering his speech with comparisons of academia to concentration camps and his mother to Margaret Thatcher, he is ultimately secure in his own unique aesthetic.

Though he has totaled many accomplishments over the years, one of his earliest landmark works – and a good place to begin delving into his substantial body of work – is the 55-minute ‘Strumming Music’, a hypnotic trance piece for piano that displays gradual fluctuations through its length. For nearly an hour, it casts a lulling spell, bathing the listener in a kind of magic. Likewise, the recorded version of his ‘Schlingen-Blangen’ displays little overall movement from the beginning to the end of the piece, but manages still to retain an incredibly haunting quality.

Palestine’s collaborative album with Z’ev –  an American poet, percussionist, and sound artist – is entitled Rubhitbangklanghear, and has just been released via Sub Rosa. The Quietus took the opportunity to sit down with the man behind the animal divinities for a comprehensive portrait.

I know you did a lot of things before you became primarily a musician —

CP:  Oh, but I never became primarily a musician! And even now I’m less primarily a musician. I’ve always been a wanderer and I’m always bored. That’s another one of those concentration camp things. I never wanted to have a profession, and I’ve succeeded in not having one, or if I did have one it never paid, or it’s never been especially long-term. I’m 65 years old, and a half, and I’ve been flip-flopping. Though it’s created a lot of problems early on financially or personally as far as being a father or being a husband or being a son or being in my community, I’ve succeeded to arrive at 65 and a half and this week I go to New York and I prepare a festival of all my crazy body action film videos, another about the history of the teddy bear.

I actually started as a singer in Brooklyn, and I lived in a community. To get out of the ghetto of my community, I was a musician. That was the time when I was six to 11 or 12, so then I took a test for a special kind of high school. Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a famous mayor during the Depression of the 30’s, had been an immigrant, half-Jewish and half-Italian, had been well-educated by his parents, as immigrants often do to their children so they will go up a notch in the next generation. When he became the mayor during the Depression, he thought that young children of immigrants should also have the ability to specialize in different disciplines. I went to the special school that got me out of the ghetto. I was 12 years old, so I had to take an audition. At that moment, you could either be a scientist, which I wasn’t – I could sing a little bit, but I wasn’t the kind of person that could make it on Broadway. Then there was a school called Music & Arts, which was a little more esoteric, sophisticated, you could say. It mixed all different kinds of art, theatre, music, dance, and if you won an entry – then from the boonies where I was I had to go ten miles to the Upper West Side of New York above Columbia University. So it would have taken me an hour and forty minutes to get there every day by subway.

So my mother, in those days, who was very happy as an immigrant mother who had been semi-agitated, at the end of her life she could have been Margaret Thatcher, even though she didn’t have any education beyond public education in Minsk, Russia, where she was born. Both my parents were born in Eastern Europe. My father came from Odessa in the Ukraine and my mother came from what’s now Belorussia [Belarus]. In this immigrant Jewish community, they educated their children. She immediately found me a little studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was 14 at the time. So I guess you could say at that point I was a professional musician because I had to be to be in that school.

Then, for a little bit afterwards, not that I have anything against music now, but I just hated being an anything. I don’t know why. There are some people who love being a something, but I also got the gist in the 60’s when I grew up that you could be, in the art scene, very diverse. I hung around hippie-ish kind of people and, first of all, they never made any money. If you never make any money, you never have to declare any profession! It’s not like they’ll call you up every day and say ‘Are you a plumber? Are you a carpenter? Are you a musician?’  I never made any money from my music.  Even to this day, I don’t make that much; I make it flip-flopping between five and ten different disciplines.  I found so much fun in the light shows and the multimedia shows of the hippies. That was when I was a student in the 1960s, and I was in New York, so I learned how to deal with writing, recording sound of other people, performance art – because that was a new territory, and I liked everything that was new and provocative. That interested me more than becoming anything specific.

‘Strumming Music’

I know that you were a carillioner.

CP:  A carillioner? Yes, during that period. When I moved to Manhattan, I needed to get a job. My mother was working as a medical secretary, and my father had just recently died. He was working as a plasterer for the Jewish mafia in Brooklyn, so he had been very low on the totem pole, and when he died, he only left debt. My mother left a little nest egg that was, like, a sock in her drawer because that’s the only way we could go up the ladder as immigrants. First I sang in synagogues when I was in Brooklyn. My music education was oral, as it is now. I was resistant to scores and things like that. In Jewish religious music, there are no scores. You learn everything by rote, by ear, by repeating.

I had already been a young singer. And once, as a profession, I was a young singer, what you would call a soprano in England, but I was an alto in singing Jewish music in bar mitzvahs and weddings and synagogues throughout New York City because, after Israel, New York is probably the biggest Jewish community in the world. So I started singing this sacred music. When I got this possibility to move to Manhattan, then a girlfriend of mine told me that her father knew a guy who played these bells across from the Museum of Modern Art. That’s still where it is, on 53rd and 3rd Avenue. They had this instrument where you play bells, and they needed somebody to play the bells every day around 5:00, and would I be interested? For me, the idea of a sacred space, I’ve always loved. Synagogues are less elaborate than churches.

A carillon means a kind of instrument with a certain number of bells that you play with pedals; and you play it with your fists and with your feet, a little bit like an organ, but much more athletic. The church that this carillon was in was right across from the Museum of Modern Art, so people could hear what I was playing in the sculpture garden of MOMA, which was, at the time, the most important museum in North America. Maybe it still is.  We’re talking about 50 years ago. It was a small museum. Now it’s been renovated to resemble a giant department store. In those days, it was a kind of monastery for contemporary art from the end of the 19th century to the present time. I had the possibility of making sounds with these amazing bells every day for a certain amount of money, which was miniscule. In fact, that’s how I became known in the New York art scene, because I started to invent a music that was very radical. I just did what came naturally and what came naturally was to make these sounds that brr-, brr-, bling, blinged all over the place. Which I do now, 50 years later. These bells, this sonic sculpture, which otherwise just makes ding, ding, ding ding.

They tried to get rid of me at one time, the people who ran the church, because they didn’t like what I was doing. The president of CBS, who was, at that time, the most important person in the world, his office was right on my tower. He had never heard a church that sounded like this, with this crazy kind of Quasimodo. And he fell in love with my work, and when you have the president of one of the biggest media companies in the world fall in love with your work, nobody can throw you out. So I was able, for seven years – I always was respectful. I played two hymns before my cataclysms. Then I played sonorities that people hadn’t heard in church bells. People never heard bells in Western music sounding really cataclysmic. You hear that more in Russian music or in Asian, Indonesian traditions. I had this carte blanche of being able to play with the president of CBS sitting in his office saying, "Don’t touch this guy."

And that’s how I met people. I met Tony Conrad, Moondog was at the door of the church every day, I had all of these now-legendary characters, because my bells attracted weirdos. It was so amazingly weird, but so amazingly public. I played to 20,000 people every day because people were walking on 5th Ave going to and from their jobs, and my sounds were bathing them in all kinds of dissonance, consonance, resonance, and things like that.

A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies For Maybeck’

Speaking of your music reaching people, I’d be interested in your theory on this. There are two pieces of yours that always make me cry, and I have no idea why. Every time I listen to ‘A Sweet Quasimodo’, I cry, and every time I listen to ‘Beauty Chord and Voice’, I cry. I’m circling around trying to figure out what in your music touches people.

CP:  That sounds like a very romantic thing. When my mother and I listened to Puccini together… She was a lot like Margaret Thatcher. She had her own ideas. She was what you would call a castrating Jewish mother, but we had several things that we had in common. When we had a fight, for example, we would go have a salmon together. For Jewish people, salmon has a special meaning, not just because it’s a flavor we’ve had all along our diaspora. Salmon also have this special return-to-their-roots desire. At the end of their lives, salmon try to swim back to when they were born. Even if they can’t, they have this obsession. We as diaspora people love that a lot about salmon.

Another thing that my mother and I had in common was Puccini, and whenever she would hear Puccini, she would cry. I used to invite my friends from school over to see my mother cry.  Puccini died here in Brussels; there’s a plaque here where Puccini died of throat cancer in 1924. There is a very deep romanticism both from the Jewish side of my roots in music.

There’s all this typewriter music that came out of my period, from Steve Reich and Phil Glass and these colleagues of mine, that they very often try to put me in the same category. And even my long sonorities, even though their reasons for being are alchemical and acoustical, they also have a lyricism that sometimes lasts for hours. The two pieces you’re talking about are much shorter. I’m not afraid to be a Russian Jewish romantic in my approach to anything, even in my animal divinities, or anything about the feeling. Feelings are major; some of my pieces have more or less. I don’t like the piano player music of the movies, the Michael Nyman, and sometimes that piano music makes me puke. It’s not really romantic. It’s just trying to get your Pavlovian juices flowing because it’s a technique now.

There are pieces that in the history of music that also make me cry. I’m not ashamed to cry.

For a lot of people, ‘Strumming Music’ was their introduction to your work. Can you tell me a little about its creation?

CP:  When I first was invited by Festival d’automne in Paris in 1973, performing myself and with dancer/artist Simone Forti, I met a couple who were interested in starting a record company called Shandar – French Chantal Darcy and her French Canadian husband Philippe Lette. It took them a few years to get it together and in 1975-76 they decided to get masters from the musicians that they liked most. They were either trance music musicians – I hate and never use the word ‘minimal’ – Terry Riley, Phil Glass, Steve Reich, myself, LaMonte Young, Pandit Pran Nath. Then jazz musicians too – Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra. It was a great little company! They were not commercial-minded and finally went bust in the late 70s. That recording was a master that I’d made in my own loft in Tribeca, during concerts I used to give from time to time on my own Bösendorfer piano that Sonnabend and Bösendorfer themselves helped me to buy!

And the other piece that has gotten a lot of attention, of course, is ‘Schlingen-Blangen’. What is the story behind that?

CP: Schling was invented / started / developed at a Universalist Church on Central Park West NYC, without audience, beginning around 1967/68. At that time I called it Organ Continuums, and started to use the holding down of notes with pieces of cardboard so that I could play many, many notes at one time to create dense sonorities.

Later I moved to Los Angeles with the NYU intermedia people, to participate in the beginning of CalArts, the school that Walt Disney had planned before his death and that his brother Roy realised afterwards. In LA I found a very sympathetic organist at a church in downtown Los Angeles – understand that Schling is, even now, considered radical and subversive by traditional organists, who are conservative and behave as sort of members of a private club. I began in 1970, 71, at this church, three evenings a week, Meditative Sound Environments which went on for two to three hours at a time, where people could come and go or lie down or sit during all the evolution of the sonority. These evenings lasted about three months till the famous January earthquake of 1971 that hit LA, and the organ was damaged so that it was no longer able to be played anymore.

In the late 70s in Holland, Van Lagestein, a organiser of performance and music in Groningen – having heard myths about my environments – found a church in the north of Holland, near the north sea in a town called Delfzijl, with a wonderful organ, and proposed that I do a new Med Sound Environment, and asked me if I wanted to find a new title. I chose ‘Schlingen Blängen’ which was a bit of Stockhausen-esque nonsense, and Schlong in Yiddish means a man’s penis, so sort of a mixed nonsense bag name that has stuck. The piece lasted an hour and a half at that time. I began years later to do other versions that would last from one hour to six hours.

‘Schlingen Blängen’ – an excerpt from a live recording in Bern, 2010

You mentioned your animal divinities; I know that they are your spirit guides for your performances. How do you choose which ones to use for a specific performance?

CP: My wife is a very important collaborator on that point, because she has two Newfoundland dogs. Before she inherited me, she had two of them, really big dogs from the Island of Newfoundland. They resemble bears, really. Eighty kilos. Each one of them lived about ten years, and I met the last one. They’re like divinities.

From the very beginning, it’s also important to know the teddy bear was invented in my neighborhood in 1902, by a couple of the same immigration as my parents. My parents came to America one generation after them. They came to America in 1890, and invented the teddy bear in Brooklyn in 1902. My parents came to America in 1910 and settled less than one mile from them. They were called the Mistchums. Like, people ask me, ‘What’s your real name? Is it Charlemagne?’ We have many names because we have been flip-flopping between the choice to convert and so forth.

But the couple who invented the teddy bear in 1902… There’s a word we have in Yiddish called a schmatta, which is a kind of a rag. It comes from Yiddish in the Middle Ages because, often, Jews couldn’t be members of a guild of all traditions even though they did maintenance. Even though my ancestors helped build churches, they were not permitted to be official workers. They worked a lot in textiles, as Arabs did, and Orientals. My family, from the Middle Ages, had a word for the special rag, which is called a schmatta. You could say that the first teddy bear was invented as a kind of schmatta which resembled a bear Teddy Roosevelt was going to kill, but didn’t, and it became his mascot. And that is at the base of my animism. Like ancient Jewish music is the source of inspiration for my sound. [The teddy bear] is born a mile from where I’m born. I’m born in a tribal community where this object was our invention. So that context is much more serious and historically profound, and then I have my thousands and thousands of animals, and which ones do we choose, my wife and I?

I’ve remained committed, like children. Even going back to my mother, the Margaret Thatcher of Brooklyn, when I was 10 or 11, she decided that since I still loved my stuffed animals… Like all parents from all Western cultures, they give their children lots of toys, which they are permitted to play with until the certain limit of childhood turns into adulthood. I have thousands of animals that I bought at Salvation Army stores and junk stores and charity stores where you give away everything, because all these friends of children are given away because you’re no longer permitted to have them, only for nostalgia or a little bit of decoration. Because now you’re entering the world of adulthood. The real world.

Orientals, Africans, Aboriginals, they’re permitted to keep their deep connection with animals because those are their neighbors. Now our neighbors are a white Volkswagen that’s parked on the street or a bicycle that somebody left. They had animals who were around them, these soul animals or their soulmate connections are permitted to last all their lives. I felt, as an adolescent – I read lots and lots about ancient societies because I was voracious to learn about them. I preferred their point of view than the Western one, so I imagined having all my animals forever. My mother, she was quite contrary. One day I came back from school, and all my animals had disappeared! She had tried to throw them out first. My father was terrified because I had convinced him that they were alive and could talk, and he hid them. The second time she found them, because she was like a Thatcher, we never saw them again.

But six or seven years later, when I’m like 17 or 18, a girlfriend offers me a bear that she found in a St. Vincent de Paul Society store in San Francisco for 25 cents, a quarter, and he had blue eyes, and she thought ‘You know, he sort of resembles you.’ That was in 1969, and that sort of becomes the re-emergence of this desire and this deep connection that I have with this tradition. Later on, just to make a long story short, I invited my mother all over Europe and all over the world where my animals were presented during her lifetime. We would laugh about it, and I would say, ‘You see, ma?’ I even built one that was six metres high with three heads and two bodies, for a documentary about the company that invented the teddy bear in Germany. I brought her to the opening, and there were thousands of people there. I said, ‘See? You threw away my bears, but you see how I’ve resisted it’, but she laughed because I’d become so crazy that I had now created these immense divinities, these great buddhas of teddy bears and those kind of plush intimate animals of childhood as a part of my life. Unfortunately, as I was a flip-flop artist, I was never able to get the kind of respect and backing… The art world is still very rigid. Andy Warhol has changed that, but I’m not crazy about the insincerity of Warhol.

But to get back to you, I choose them in a very tribal way. It’s not silly – not that I’m not silly at times. They’re real beings, all these animals in our life. If you come to our house in Brussels some time, you’ll see them. All these animals! This is a serious worldwide connection to the animal connection, anima. They don’t piss and shit, but they emit all this magic and desire and their stuff-a-rini.

I was wondering when the trance state begins for you during a musical performance. Do you get in a trance state from the start, or does it form as you play a piece?

CP:  When I was singing in synagogue, you sing for a long period of time. Even in Gregorian Chant, in religious music, you get that no-longer-of-this-world-but-of-another-one [sensation]. It’s a kind of transportation vehicle. For me, my trance comes out of this early tradition that it’s an early vehicle to get out of the ordinary and get into another dimension, planet, and in doing that you begin to close your eyes and change where you really are to another place. That’s already what I was doing very young, so for me the trance was a way of leaving my actual here and now.

Later, other artists and musicians have used it as a technique. For me, it’s not a technique. It’s a way for me to be really in the mood to do the kind of expression that I do. I need to be in a kind of a trance. People used to say, "Oh, you’re a shaman." In the early days, I didn’t really know what that word meant. Now it’s a very cool thing. But it’s true that in order for me to feel best-prepared for the moments, I prefer to enter a kind of trance. It’s a kind of fundamental transportation that I do at the start of a performance, or even half an hour before, as I prepare to leave the ordinary. When I play, I start with a prayer with the [musical] glasses. When I hear that tone done with a whiskey or a cognac, I sometimes use mineral water or sparkling water; it’s not a ritual for ordinary music or ordinary art presentation. It is not only dressed in religiousness. Even though I wouldn’t call it either Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Hindu, it does enter those realms. As I’m a street kid, I can also be street. But my favorite realm is those other realms, of which trance is one of those vehicles of transfer.

Excerpts from Palestine’s new collaboration with Z’ev

I was listening to your new record with Z’ev —

CP:  Oh, I haven’t heard it yet!

You haven’t?

CP:  Of course I heard it when I made, but I haven’t heard it. Tell me about it.

It was exciting to listen to! The third track is very different from the first two, so that’s a surprise. But I liked being surprised.

CP:  What kind of surprise?

It was so much heavier than the opening pieces, which have more of a lightness to them.

CP:  Three pieces in the same series? I haven’t listened to it since we recorded it, which was two years ago. I’m famous for that. I don’t like to post-produce. Even with my solo work, I’ve always liked the collaborator to put it in the right context. I’ve been lucky in that regard. I remain sort of blind. Sub Rosa [Palestine’s record label], are also sensitive to what I’m doing. They’re also very sensitive to my way of being. They’re an amazingly poor but big record company here in Brussels. So that’s where Z’ev, Tony Conrad, they’re bringing out the old strummings, we have recordings with Rhys Chatham that are coming out, among others. I remain blind and deaf afterwards. I like things to be as they were, and I don’t like to post-produce. What was should be. Z’ev is like me. He doesn’t touch things much.

I have a carillon in my house. Not as big as in a church, but we have one that fits into a big room that we bought several years ago. The record with Z’ev was the first time I used it in recording as a real instrument, because it’s not an easy instrument to put on a disc. It’s not so easily tamed for recording. It doesn’t fit into an amplifying table, so there are often acoustical problems. Z’ev was shocked. He thought the bells would be easier, but they explode. You can’t contain them as easily as his gongs and some of his found instruments. A carillon is more elephantine.

When you play with other people, do you find it more difficult to enter other realms?

No, no, easier! I like working with other people. I’m open. I have no sonorous expectations that it should be this or should be that. I come with my weapon, whether it’s my voice or piano or glasses, and it looks like it’s working, as I’m now getting requests to work with all these young artists.

On the album you did with Z’ev, there’s this moment near the end of the first piece where everything speeds up a lot. Do you remember that?

CP:  No.

I was going to ask you about that —

CP:  Well, ask me and see what I’ll answer!

I wondered what informed that choice or if it just happened.

CP:  The deal was, like with Tony [Conrad], with Pan Sonic, with all of them, I don’t like rehearsal, I don’t like expectation. The carillon is a very unpredictable instrument. Even in my hands, it’s not so controllable as a piano or a gong. There’s a part of it where it could get away or jump away, and those things were almost certainly in that take or those series of takes. I didn’t want to tame the instrument before we recorded it. I wanted it to be untamed and wild, and so, as I say, I haven’t heard it yet in two years, but I can say that between Z’ev and I, we played with that savage vs. controlled, etc., and of course he uses a lot of doinggggg kinds of sound, as the bell is, but the bell is also much more wearing a suit. It’s a very strict bell. It’s not like a gong. It’s not like a Japanese bell. It’s not like a Russian bell. It has beautiful overtones. It does have a structural, historical constraint and tendencies that I then play. Now you make me curious to hear it!

I just have one more question for you, and it’s about your book. Why is it called Sacred Bordello?

CP:  Because I live in a sacred bordello! My whole life is a sacred bordello! Everything is full of color and textiles. I’m like the Ali Baba of the 21st century. Sacred, of course, is all my stuff. And bordello not only in the sense of people fucking their brains out, but in the sense of these beautiful velvets, and soft chairs and comfort and decadence and voluptuous and sensual and blah blah blah, that’s why. I’ve made a neighborhood of Belgium a sacred bordello! My mother dressed in these very voluptuous, beautiful textiles, and I dress in scarves and hats. In French they call me by this word. They have this word, usually a word you use for a woman, and she has wears a lot of perfume and has enormous breasts and wears a lot of tiger and things, like an enormous pussy, and that’s neat. I’m a walking bordello of a certain kind!

Charlemagne Palestine and Z’ev’s Rubhitbangklanghear is out now via Sub Rosa. Palestine plays a two night residency at London’s Cafe Oto on 14th-15th June, with guests Grumbling Fur, Steve Noble & The Bohman Brothers and L’Ocelle Mare. For more information and tickets, click here.

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