Charlemagne Palestine’s Perception March 15, 1973

Charlemagne Palestine is from New York and studied electronic music with Morton Subotnick here, but he has lived in California for the past few years, where he was teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. His March 9 concert, presented at a Greene Street loft by Acme Productions, can best be discussed in terms of the three basic media he uses, namely electronics, voice, and tubular bells.

His electronic music deals with sustained chords. The same pitches drone on for long periods of time with slight changes. Different notes seem to protrude at various times, and occasionally a pitch will seem to change octaves. It is often difficult to tell whether some change is actually occurring on the tape or whether it is taking place inside the ear as one’s attention shifts from one thing to another. It is similar to Op Art in that it deals with perception, often creating illusions of motion, even when no motion is actually taking place. The effects are subtle, and at first one does not realize what is happening, but after a while these phenomena can become quite fascinating.

Palestine has a rather large, well-controlled voice. I was not too interested in his semi-Indian singing against electronic drones, but I liked his ‘Overtone Study for Voice’ very much. In this unaccompanied piece, he walks around in slow circles, singing the same pitch for perhaps 15 minutes, continually changing vowel sounds and voice placement. It is remarkable how many ways he can color one note, and he sometimes manages to produce very sensitive phrases within this severe limitation.

Palestine’s music for his set of seven tubular bells is also concerned with perception and color changes. By playing the same bell at different points, he emphasizes different overtones and produces subtle variations of color. This piece, unlike the others, takes a dramatic form, gradually working up to a climactic point in which he plays many bells simultaneously with relatively hard mallets.

Since Palestine is so concerned with perception and acoustics, his music sometimes seems more like a demonstration than a thoroughly musical statement. I can’t help thinking of the painter Joseph Albers in this regard, since many people feel his work is also more concerned with perception problems than with artistic expression. But we have not had an Albers in music yet, and there is certainly much to be gained by paring things down and trying to figure out how they work.