March 7, 2014
On the evening of March 7, Charlemagne Palestine approached the massive Aeolian-Skinner organ at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights with dogged determination and a childlike sense of wonder. A soft drone was reverberating throughout the airy room even before Palestine took his seat.
The evening, presented by Issue Project Room, had been billed—surprisingly—as Palestine’s first solo organ performance in New York City. Palestine was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish parents and studied music at the Mannes School of Music long before relocating to Brussels, Belgium, his adopted home. The evening’s performance represented the culmination of a reemergence of sorts for the composer, whose masterful album Strumming Music—an ecstatic exploration of minimalist structure—saw the 40th anniversary of its release this year. In recent years, Palestine, who is now in his late 60s, has performed sporadically at festivals in Europe while becoming increasingly difficult to access for audiences in the U.S. The Plymouth Church show, along with his sound installation at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, meant some much needed and much appreciated exposure for the maverick composer.
Often grouped together with contemporaries such as La Monte Young and Steve Reich, Palestine resists the label of minimalist, opting instead for the term “maximalist.” Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Palestine chose the glorious 4,162-pipe organ for his performance. Once known to be the largest pipe organ in the United States, the Aeolian-Skinner demands respect not only for its sheer size, but also for its prominent position in the layout of Plymouth Church, the pews arcing around the instrument. As an impressively large turnout filed into the room—the overwhelming majority of those in attendance cannot have been alive before Strumming Music was recorded—a lush texture of sound filled the air.
Palestine, flamboyantly outfitted in a pink hat, various scarves and shawls, and the most garish of overcoats, paced behind the organ with a glass of whiskey in hand—one of his trademarks, though the clove cigarettes he often smokes were absent from this performance. Plush stuffed animals, another hobbyhorse of his, had been placed on the organ and around the altar. It all had a very ritualistic feel to it, quite appropriate given the endless repetition found in Palestine’s best work.
Finally, Palestine approached the organ, and sitting down, he began to explore the range and texture of the instrument’s vast tonal vocabulary and to pulsate every crevice of space in the church with its sound. It was a haunting, hypnotic performance. Cell phones were ignored and mouths hung agape. The continuous noise emanating from the organ varied more than expected, even though the sustain pedals were undoubtedly depressed for nearly the entire duration of the concert. Palestine’s style of play is such that even minor modulations can bring about a great sense of dynamism. Here, though, the modulations were sharper than expected. Melodies often presented themselves, albeit briefly, before disappearing into a glowing orb of tension. Once or twice, the music would shift on a dime, only to eventually build again into a thick, swelling drone. The enormous pipes were utilized to great effect, and the sound levels that filled the church were appropriately loud, employing just the right decibel level to take full advantage of the spacious room.
Time stands still in a performance such as this one. Palestine could have been playing for hours or mere minutes. When he abruptly disengaged the organ, just after an hour into the performance, it was unclear whether he was truly done playing or if he was taking a short break. As the composer slouched in his seat, the silence in the room, which must have lasted a full three minutes, grew almost uncomfortable. Palestine knew what he was doing. He was giving the audience a chance to soak in and reflect on what they had just witnessed. Then, he got to his feet, raised his glass of whiskey in a toast to the great Aeolian-Skinner organ, and retreated into the darkness.