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Interview with Charlemagne Palestine, Composer and Visual Artist

Crazy things happened that I can’t imagine ever happening again

Interview made by telephone on 11 March 2008, with Charlemagne Palestine in Brussels and Bob Gluck in Albany NY. The original transcript was revised and edited in 2017; it was further edited and updated with a Postlude in 2019 for publication in eContact!

Charlemagne Palestine (b. Charles Martin in 1947) began his musical career as a Jewish liturgical singer and carillonneur. His interest in drones and overtones was influenced by church bells, electronically generated tones, Indonesian gamelan and the music of Indian, Tibetan and African traditions. In addition to his many recordings, his visual art work has been presented in various art gallery exhibitions, notably the installation work Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Childhood as a Cantorial Singer

I grew up in the East New York part of Brooklyn. It was a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, near Canarsie and Brownsville, close to Canarsie Beach. The rest of my family was in Brighton Beach, in an area called “Little Odessa.” Both my parents were born in the old country; my mother was born in Minsk and my father in Odessa. My grandfather was a lawyer named Palestine. But he didn’t come over on the boat with us because he had died before the family came to America.

I started in culture and music in the neighbourhood where I was born. It was still a very heavily Jewish, if not religious but concerned, neighbourhood. At four and five years old I was already a precocious singer. Through friends I met the director of a very important choir of Jewish cantorial music who sang with all the best hazzans 1[1. Jewish liturgical singers (or cantors).] of New York City. They always had at least one young boy — a young alto, like they have in church — who sang with the hazzan for weddings and bar mitzvahs. I had a lovely alto voice, but as happens with all boys singers, when you get to 13 or 14, your voice breaks and you become worthless. Lucky for me, just around the time when I was about six years old, one of the greatest altos of the whole post-war period was fourteen and so his career was totally over. They were looking for a new young alto and somebody recommended me. I never really had a voice like his, but I was like a holy terror. I was very charismatic and charming and so I got the job. I was traveling all over the East coast of America, singing with the greatest hazzans who had come over from Eastern Europe. Luckily, they came before the Holocaust.

Moving Uptown as a Teenager

Since by the time I turned 12 or 13 I was already known within my neighbourhood as an important young singer, my parents decided I should go to an important school. I auditioned at Music and Art High School and was accepted. So one day I was in the “hutzke-butzke” of Brooklyn, traveling in a totally synagogue-oriented, closed upper-middle class Jewish, New York, East coast environment. Music and Art was much more progressive, much more about education; it was through them that I heard my first Stravinsky symphonies and The Rite of Spring. Because my family came from the Russian working class, we weren’t scholarly, but we were culturally educated.

In those days, Music and Art High School was near City College, up on 137th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I was living in Sheep’s Head Bay, so the daily train from Sheep’s Head Bay to 137th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue was about an hour and 30 minutes. So my mother, who turned out to be a very visionary woman, found me a little studio apartment; at 14 years old I was [already] living on the Upper West Side. Turned out to be the same building as Sherry Hite lived (she later became an author on female sexuality) — she became my first girlfriend! When I was at Music and Art, I met a whole lot of other people.

I had already heard music from Bali. There was a public music library on Staten Island called St. George, where you could take out as many records as you could carry. When I moved to the Upper West Side (105th Street and Broadway), I’d go each week on the Ferry and take out lots of records and record copies of them. They had all the Moses Ash Folkway records. That collection is still extraordinary; they are all hard to find. So in those days I got to hear field recordings done in Java and Bali and Africa and India, and they had a very big influence on me as a musician.

Becoming a Church Bell Ringer and Learning from Pandit Pran Nath

While I was studying at Music and Art, my next girlfriend’s father was the French horn player in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. I met Stravinsky, Lucas Foss and Edgard Varese, which brought me into a whole circle of musicians. Then, around 14, I became the carillonneur of St. Thomas Church, the Episcopal Church next to the Museum of Modern Art. I was bell ringer of the carillon; they referred me all over the city. Next door was CBS Records and Films, where I got to know a guy named Robert Sawdeck who did documentary films. I began to do very advanced, crazy bell music, like my hero Quasimodo [the titular character of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame].

On the floor above me was Pharoah Sanders. Across the street was Mingus. Three buildings to the right of us were Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba. On the left side in my apartment building was Kenny Burrell; on the right side, Jimmy Garrison.

All the sudden, a whole bunch of people started doing what they called “Downtown Music,” a new form of music no longer influenced by Cage, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Xenakis or any of those post-War people. The inspiration for this new music, beginning with La Monte Young and Terry Riley, was Pandit Pran Nath, singer and teacher in the Kirana gharana 2[2. A North Indian classical singing style.] tradition. Pran Nath happened to be the favourite singer of Richard Alpert, who later became known as Baba Ram Dass. He and Timothy Leary’s circle, who were experimenting with LSD and other drugs, fell in love with these transcendental singers from India. Baba Ram Dass had found him to be an amazing guy and he wanted him to get him out of India. On one of his tours to India, he took Pran Nath to New York.

By that time I was living on 87th between West End and Riverside Drive. Just to give you a sense of my neighbourhood, on the floor above me was Pharoah Sanders. Across the street from me was Charlie Mingus — I could see his window and he could see mine. Just three buildings to the right of us were Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba. On the left side in my apartment building, just at the beginning of Riverside Drive, was Kenny Burrell. And on the right side, just on West End Avenue, was Jimmy Garrison.

I met Pran Nath in 1968 when I was 21 years old. I happened to have a neighbour, Bill Borman, who was gaga over Baba Ram Dass. He said, “There’s a singer there… I think you’ll love him.” In those days, there were crazy things that happened that I can’t imagine ever happening again. Pran Nath saw that I had a voice very similar to his because I had learned from hazzans, Jewish musicians whose traditions are as powerful and ancient as some of these singers from India. He wanted me to be a disciple. It wasn’t because I was so great but because I had been already been, for seven years, a disciple of these amazing European hazzans. He was living in the house of very nice Jewish disciples of his, just a few blocks up from where I lived. Four days after I started to sing with him, his other disciples thought I was him when I sang; they didn’t realize he wasn’t in the house.

Greenwich Village and Discovering Electronic Music

Right around when I started to play the bells, I hung out in the Village. I became a regular conga drum player at the Fat Black Pussy Cat, one of the beatnik coffee houses in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, playing for poets. From the age of twelve I wore a beret, sunglasses and [from the age of ten] a scarf. I’ve been known since then for wearing scarves. I come in there and I look like a little kid beatnik, everybody thought I was the funniest thing. They all just fell in love with me and so they tried to find something I could do. I played horrible conga, but I didn’t have any money and they would pay you with food. I became the favourite conga drum player of Tiny Tim, and played once for Allen Ginsberg and a few others.

Charlemagne Palestine in the early 1970s. [Click image to enlarge]

I was already listening pretty broadly through the collection at the St. George Library. I listened to the Moe Ash recordings, but also electronic music composers Todd Dockstader, Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer. I was starting to compose in my own way. I bought a little Webcor tape recorder and made sort of crazy hootsie-toodsie. One of those early pieces came out recently on the Alga Margen label in Italy. In an early vocal, I sing like this: “wooop! wooop!” I was 16, 17. I had found a sort of funny flaw on an old Revox tape recorder and we did funny stuff with it. I had an insatiable appetite, maybe because I came from sort of nowhere.

Alwin Nicolai used to do all his own choreographic scores. He was into all the old, classic post-War tape techniques. I met him in the Village where I became a mascot for a big group of older homosexuals, including Nicolai. I wasn’t a homosexual, but I was cute and very dynamic and they just sort of liked me. I was likable, happy. Alwin realized that I liked all that sort of music, so he eventually showed me his place where he was making it, and he gave me access. That’s where I first started compose, although it was a long way still from there to Mort Subotnick and Don Buchla. But Nicolai enjoyed his own grassroots kind of thing. He liked playing his own junk; he had soundboards from pianos and it was like a junk bin, but everything resonated. He had this garage with old springs [that he recorded].

Connecting with Mort Subotnick and the Bleecker Street Studio

[Fellow composer] Ingram Marshall and I were record salesmen at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. For me, it was the perfect job, because the carillon bells which I played every day were nearby at 53rd and Fifth, so it was an easy walk. I’d leave the church at 5:00 or 5:30, and at 6:00 I’d start my work as record salesman. Ingram and I hit it off. Ingram was, at that time, composing at Columbia-Princeton [Electronic Music Center]. He was also interested in this new music and so he came to hear my bells. By this time I was doing very radical music for bells. I had used tape techniques with Alwin Nicolai and in my own home. I knew how to cut a little quarter-inch tape into a hundred little pieces and in seven thousand hours put them [back] together. I was a better splicing person than I was at using a soldering gun.

İlhan Mimaroğlu, who composed at Columbia-Princeton, was one of our customers at Record Hunter. Along with Stravinsky, he was one of our latest composers. He was a very nice guy, not really a heavy intellectual or a dry professor type of guy. He was very nice to us. His music had a dramatic tinge to it; it wasn’t so dry. Like Mort Subotnick’s record, Silver Apples of the Moon, Mimaroğlu’s electronic music, like on the record Sing Me a Song of Songmy, was more light and accessible. At the time I appreciated it because I was beginning to overdose on all that heavy profundity and serialism. Mimaroğlu was an influence on me, Ingram, and jazz pianist Bob Feldman. 3[3. For more on his activities in New York and his long association with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, see Bob Gluck’s interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu, “Uptown and Downtown, Electronic Music and ‘Free Jazz’, Ankara and New York,” published in eContact! 14.4 — TES 2011 (Mar. 2013).]

I think it was Ingram who said, “There’s a place downtown that you might be interested in.” Mort Subotnick’s electronic music studio on Bleecker Street was a “right on the street” sort of alternative. It was understood that we were an underground, alternative society. But not Mort; Mort remained sort of like a middleman. And that’s why he was able to connect between the musical and the directorate. 4[4. NYU sponsored the studio, which became another important focal point of activities in New York alongside the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC). Gluck has interviewed several of the composers who met in or through the studio, including Maryanne Amacher, Brian Fennelly, Rhys Chatham, Eric Salzman] Unlike Ingram, I was a bit wild, and Ingram, who was also a bit of the straight man, liked that about me. When it came time to official kinds of business, he helped me out. I found him kind of normal in a non-hippie kind of way, unlike some of the others who worked in the studio. It was a kind of free place.

One of the people I met then was Len Lye 5[5. Len had a studio space in the same building as Mort Subotnick’s electronic music studio.] because Alwin also let him use his studio. At that time Len was an influential kinetic (sound) sculptor, originally from New Zealand. He did early experimental films [for which] he also composed his own music. Another one of the guys I met was Tony Conrad. In addition to the violin, one of his favourite instruments was made from something he bought in a Bricko store with this funny little wire and a piece of cardboard; it makes a “ih-ih-ih-ih-ih-ih-ih” [makes a scratching sound]. The sound on a record we made together — called “amazing” by reviewers — cost him all of 65 cents. I love those guys.

That was the spirit before it all got to be so fancy-shmancy. At the time it was so easy to get to know everybody in a minute. There wasn’t such all this rush and there weren’t hundreds of thousands of people trying to make it in culture. It was like a little group. People now are so shocked: “How do you know him and how do you know them?” I know so many people, and people who became very famous — it was really easy in those days.

The way I met Serge Tcherepnin and Maryanne Amacher 6[6. For more on her time in Subotnick’s studio, see “A Unique Sensitivity to Sound: Interview with American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher” by Bob Gluck in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY (Dec. 2016).] almost sounds like a made-up story. It was sort of my thing to work late at night, from about one until about five or six in the morning. That was when the neighbourhood began to quiet down, especially on noisy weekends. I liked to work with the window open because I have claustrophobia. When you walked into the studio, to the left was all the equipment and to the right, there was a little bathroom. Behind the bathroom was a little storeroom. When first I came there, there were two very strange people living in that closet; they made it a love nest with a little tent and a sleeping bag. I met them the first night, two people ooing and cooing. They had this little television and this testing equipment. Like me, Serge and Maryanne were night owls. They became sort of the mice. And we became very good friends. Serge and I were also connected to Pulsars, important because they were doing lighting. They were also developing boxes to fraudulently make universal telephone calls. Finally they got picked up by the FBI for it. We were part of the underground beat-the-system.

I knew Serge’s father and mother in the old days. Serge was half Russian, half Mongolian. His mother, Ming, was a famous violinist from Mongolia. His father had met her in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His father was the composer, Alexandre. He was a composer’s composer and a very nice man. He composed very elaborate music. We could say he was a little bit like Stockhausen, using scores and at the same time also trying to use indeterminate things. And he was open for such a rigid professor-ish place as Harvard.

Rhys Chatham was at the studio all the time. It happened that Rhys came one day and brought Woody and Steina Vasulka, who went on to form The Kitchen. 7[7. The opening of The Kitchen and the New York scene in the early 1970s are highlighted in Gluck’s interview with Chatham, “Monday Nights at The Kitchen Were Dark. Until…,” published in eContact! 19.3 — Notation for Electroacoustic and Digital Media (Jan. 2018).] Rhys was like 16 years old. I already knew Rhys’s father, who was a proofreader. It was a strange link that I had with Rhys’s family starting when he was just ten years old. Then one day Rhys showed up at the studio.

After Mort left for California [the studio moved to a new site], it was Michael Czajkowski who helped keep the studio organized. He seemed kind of straight and reliable. He came every few days, he looked real young, blond, with young fuzz. He came with his cigar. I think he was a good choice because all the rest of us were kind of flaky in one way or other — I was never sure who was totally responsible for that centre with the Buchlas and everything. The other great straight man in that group was Brian Fennelly 8[8. Gluck discusses Fennelly’s involvement with the studio and his subsequent tenure at NYU in “A Mess of Equipment and NYU’s Electronic Music Studio,” also in eContact! 19.3.], who was even straighter. Michael decided I was ok because Ingram — and that was the great thing about Ingram — understood that I was a wild guy. Michael and I met and he decided that I was ok, so they let me in.

I went to the Electric Circus all the time. 9[9. A short-lived but highly influential venue in New York City’s East Village at which Thais Lathem and Ted Coons founded the renowned Electric Ear Series. Eric Salzman talks about his own involvement in that series, the “WBAI Free Music Store and Dark, Dark Nights at the Electric Circus” in an interview with Gluck published in eContact! 18.3 — Sonic DIY (Dec. 2016).] It was a great place, in a disco kind of a space you could walk around. Later, it became light shows with rock music. I loved that neighbourhood. It was so lively and filled with strange people. I really enjoyed that aspect of those times. I met David Rosenboom there, with Mort and everybody. My favourite piece in the Electric Ear series was probably the piece by Salvatore Martirano, L’s GA [composed in 1968, for gassed-masked politico, helium bomb and two-channel tape]. And I remember that as one of those great evenings.

A Drone Machine and Serge Tcherepnin’s Stable Oscillators

I was on a search for the stable oscillator. I wanted to build my own drone machine. I got Serge to design his own ultra-stable oscillators; it was because of me. During all the years that we spent together, my dream was an ultra-stable oscillator that, if it drifted, drifted just slightly and not much. I like to play my oscillators for a whole day and they would drift a whole lot. Serge found a way to encase the little capacitors in epoxy and they became immune to the changes in humidity and temperature that caused Buchla and Moog [synthesizers] to drift. Those were the first oscillators which were later to be used in his synthesizers. They were the first, not only the cheapest, but also the most stable. That was the part of our relationship together. Don Buchla didn’t make them; Mort and some of the people who used the Buchla in those days were into voltage control. I used voltage control for filters and things like that, but not for oscillators.

My drone machine also inspired Serge to make cheap equipment because nobody had money. He was very “communist” in orientation, very much for the people. Remember, we were all aligned, even Don, all of the people who worked in Don’s place in Oakland were hippies and activists who worked soldering his things. And of course we were all composers without a penny.

CalArts; Conflicts with Academia; Life after Academia

I have a lot of problems with academic environments. There was only one time in my life when I tried it out. I lived for three years in California when Mort invited Ingram and me to work at CalArts, around 1970. I was both a graduate student and an assistant professor. And that was fun, but like many other people, many of my decisions as a teacher were later given poo-poo by the administration.

When CalArts began, they wanted to make a new Chouinard [Art Institute], a school for people who wanted to become cartoonists, graphic artists, whose work could be used especially for film. But it was a tiny little place, near McArthur Park in the middle of Los Angeles. And so Roy Disney gave an endowment, something like 60 million dollars that later had to be augmented as times changed. Walt Disney was already dead. It was finally built ten years after Roy’s death. But Roy Disney didn’t have any clue about what was going on in the world of culture and the difference between left and right in a cultural sense. He listened to some people, and he gave a group of people carte blanche to bring who they wanted. So they brought their friends, especially [Marxist philosopher] Herbert Marcuse, who was very high profile at that point.

All of Disney’s cronies said that’s not possible. He’s our enemy. He’s a horrible commie, a pinko. So one of the first things they did, in the first months of CalArts, was buy out Marcuse’s contract. He never came on campus. Lucky for him — he got a three-year grant where he could work on his own. He never had to teach.

I did a piece that was completely in the dark. You never saw anybody the whole year. It was called Music of the Sublime. It was enormous. The room it was in eventually became the theatre. In the total dark, you’d interact with people only by sound. You didn’t know who they were. And in that those days there sexuality was more prevalent. And authorities who were passing through, although nobody was fucking at the time, thought that was too crazy. But the class was totally about that. When they told me I couldn’t do that anymore, I was no longer permitted to do the piece. So I became more and more disenchanted with that system. I never did finish that degree. The firing of Marcuse began an atmosphere of decline. By the time I left, in early 1973, they had a lot of very interesting people who came, some even a little younger than I. But then after that, I never went to teach again.

I started to work in New York and began a career in Europe. Sort of marginal, or on the edge, I didn’t have to be a professor. Even when I was at the San Francisco Art Institute [in the mid-2000s], I called my group The Tribe. We were all in it together. They loved that. As I’m not a part of their scene, not a part of the administration, I could come and be naughty, be subversive and then leave. But each time, the real [official] teachers are happy to see me go. So it’s worked out fine. I have a certain part of me that’s subversive, sort of on the edge.

Postlude (February 2019)

Recordings of Palestine’s early work were released in the 2010s on the Algha Marghen label. His 2011 collaboration with Rhys Chatham, Youuu + Mee = Weee, was released on Sub Rosa in 2015. During the past decade, Palestine has had international showings of his multimedia art installations, including “GesammttkkunnsttMeshuggahhLaandtttt” (2015) co-commissioned by the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam) and Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna) and “Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland” (2017) at the Jewish Museum in New York.

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