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Charlemagne Palestine - Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord and Strings Ensemble

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Artist: Charlemagne Palestine

Album: Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord and Strings Ensemble

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Oct. 15, 2010

One delectable detail found within Nicholson Baker’s 1992 novel Vox was Baker’s repurposing of the word strum to connote auto-erotic activity. 1 Charlemagne Palestine has had his way with the same word: almost two decades earlier, he released Strumming Music, an LP of solo piano music that features nary a moment of finger or plectrum on string. Palestine’s strumming is instead a music of accumulation in which a rapid alternation between single notes (and later chords) grows into a resplendent bloom that seemingly exceeds the sound of one man at one piano. There’s nothing masturbatory about Palestine’s strumming, but, as with Baker’s, it can result in an ecstatic experience.

Originally released in 1974 on the Shandar imprint, Strumming Music has remained an under-appreciated landmark in the history of minimalism, and despite a CD reissue by Italy’s New Tone in 1995, the album remains difficult to find. Enter the kind souls at Sub Rosa, who’ve packaged a piano performance of the strumming technique with two variants, also from the 1970s, on Palestine’s signature sound. If disc one’s “Strumming for Bösendorfer Piano” isn’t the version on the 1974 Shandar release (Sub Rosa indicates that this is all previously unreleased material), it’s a nearly identical performance, from the climbing and descending introductory phrase to the timbral shifts that it undergoes throughout the track’s 52 minutes. His foot heavy on the instrument’s sustain pedal, Palestine slowly pushes his piano from a simple, two-note repetition into something more celestial. The music blossoms like a mushroom cloud in extreme slow motion, growing slowly in magnitude as notes and chords overtake one another amid their own reverberations, augmented by the shimmering aural mirages that emerge from the harmonic congress of clustered notes and colliding tones.

To those who’ve yet to encounter Palestine, this disc alone should prove revelation enough, but the second and third volumes of this 2010 installation of Strumming Music are (initially, at least) the more intriguing discs here, featuring Palestine’s classic technique adapted for new instruments. The music is similar in spirit, but, like any translation, they’re only approximations of the original, with the advantages and limitations of the new instruments changing the way the strumming is executed and the tenor of the results.

“Strumming for Harpsichord,” performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977, makes for the less drastic change, performed on a keyboard, albeit on an instrument with a far buzzier timbre and lacking the sustain of the piano. The more staccato strumming of the harpsichord doesn’t allow for the emergence of the rich spectrum of sounds achieved on Palestine’s Bösendorfer. “Strumming for Harpsichord” is a more earthly performance; without the aggregate mass that the piano provides, the piece revolves far more around the initial attack of the notes than the resultant reverberations and decay. Movements up and down the keyboard and changes in tempo are stark and up front, making for a less transcendent experience as the listener is jarred by sudden changes and reminded constantly of the Freeman’s hands on the keys. On the piano, strumming makes for a magic evolution, but the harpsichord lays its mechanism bare, the sense of wonder tempered by the exposed inner workings of the piece.

“Strumming for Strings” is a more novel approach, as the string ensemble forced Palestine to take drastic measures in reshaping the strumming technique. Each player was assigned a single pitch, and asked to respond to Palestine’s movements and gesticulations as conductor. The 25-minute recording on this album’s third disc exhibits few similarities to its first and second, outside of the music’s general shape. “Strumming for Strings” moves in an extended crescendo, like its predecessors, but the replacement of the percussive attack of the keyed instruments by the gentler bowing of strings makes for a more fluid and pacific buildup. The slow swell of sound takes some time to develop, not finding its critical mass until the last third of the piece. The majority of the disc is pretty, but easy to ignore, and unlike the preceding strumming pieces, “Strumming for Strings” finds its payoff largely in its climax. This manifestation of strumming music was devised at the behest of John Adams, and while it’s hard to fault Palestine for exploring a new avenue for his hallmark technique, the results are pretty conventional, at least in the context of drone and minimalism. The bravado that marks Palestine’s music is missing, replaced by a more meditative approach akin to the organ drone that Palestine would explore decades later.

“Strumming for Bösendorfer Piano” is, as expected, the anchor of this set. Palestine’s original setting for the strumming technique may rightly be argued as the carillon, which he played at New York’s St, Thomas Church in the 1960s (for an illustration of his work with the instrument, see 2001’s Music for Big Ears), but the piano is where Palestine’s strumming hit its stride. While the album’s alternate versions have their respective strengths, they can’t compare to the beauty of the original played at high volume. It’s a glorious din, this sound of one man, using both hands, strumming away at his instrument for all he’s worth.

1 In the interest of accuracy, I should note that it later arose that, unbeknownst to Baker, Martin Amis may have been the first to take use the verb in this manner.

By Adam Strohm

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