AMONG THOSE FAMILIAR with him, Charlemagne Palestine is known for a few things: his colorful outfits, the stuffed animals he brings with him everywhere, and his infectious, playful spirit. But the 67-year-old will undoubtedly be best remembered for his efforts as a composer and a performer. A contemporary of fellow New Yorkers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Palestine's music has evolved from the repetitive tumult of his piano-based Strumming Music (two single notes played rapidly over the course of 45 minutes) to the long, sustained chords and tones played on either synthesizer or pipe organ, or sung by Palestine himself.
We'll get a taste of all of that this weekend when Palestine—born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine, or Charles Martin—makes a rare visit to Portland to perform with piano and voice at the Yale Union on Friday, and on the pipe organ at Lewis & Clark's Agnes Flanagan Chapel on Sunday. On Saturday, he'll show some performance videos and engage in a discussion of his work at the Yale Union space.
I caught up with Palestine, who now lives in Brussels, during his recent visit to New York—where he performed with violinist Tony Conrad—to discuss his career, his animals, and losing himself completely in his music.
MERCURY: How did growing up in a Jewish family affect your view of the world?
CHARLEMAGNE PALESTINE: To be Jewish in New York City is a wonderful thing. It has a certain atmosphere. Whenever I'm in Europe and people say to me, "Ah, you're American," I tell them, "No, I'm not American. I'm from New York." There was anti-Semitism here like there's anti-Irish or anti-Italian [sentiment]. Everybody says, "Well, fuck you! You fucking wop! You fucking Jew!" It was a very tolerant atmosphere.
So much of your work is dependant upon overtones and the resonance of instruments. Do you remember how you became aware of those sounds?
Probably it came from synagogue music. There are no electronics permitted; the only instruments are your voice. When we would sing and the hazzan would sing, you could hear easily all that was going on. You can hear all those overtones. But I didn't know what they were. Later on I bumped into [Hermann von] Helmholtz's books on the sensation of tone. I began to become more conscious of what those things were. And at that time in New York City, we were more conscious of other cultures and the mumbo jumbo of the om. Because om is exactly in that point of view—very religious and specific—but I was never at home in the om.
Your performances, especially when you're singing, are so physical. Your body moves around so much.
That's how Jewish men sing in the synagogue. It's called davening. I've read several definitions why we daven. My favorite is the one that says, "Well, because man is like a flame. Only God stands still and is eternal and we, like a flame, flip-flop around." It's totally ridiculous but I like that.
Are you aware of it as it is happening?
Of course I know what I'm doing, but at the same time I let it go. I do try to forget what I did the day before and don't try to analyze too much. Yet I wouldn't call it improvisation. That's another one of those lazy words. In this whole century, that's the only word that they came up with for doing something that's not rigidly preordained.
That letting go seems related to the trance state that you seem to go into when you perform.
It's always amazed me. With the performance last night, everyone said, "Oh, it was so great," but I can't remember most of it. I remember the room and the people in it. I remember what the feeling was in the room. I saw that time was passing, but I can't remember how that time passed. But at the end, they had a feeling that they were pleased and amazed, but I don't know what did that. It's another experience when you live in the present and you present something in a certain way. When you really innocently and purely present the instant, it's a shocking and elevating and amazing experience.
Your stuffed animals are so important to you and your work.
I call them "divinities."
When did that start for you?
Well, I was normal like any kid and had my animals. I had them until I was too old, my mother thought. I was 12 and I would make tents with them in the bed and we would watch television together. She thought, "This is getting weird," and she decided to get rid of them. It took her twice because my father... he was a very conservative man but he had gotten used to me talking with my animals and I used to have them talk to my parents together. My mother gave him my favorite bears and he put them in the trunk to throw away somewhere or leave at the Salvation Army. Later they were on a trip and the car got a flat tire. He opened up the trunk and there were my animals. My mother was furious, "What are those animals doing there? I told you to give them away." And he said, "They started to talk to me and they said, 'Don't throw us away.'" I thought that was an amazing story. They were already animate divinities and my father realized that.