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Concert Report: Charlemagne Palestine

img  Tobias

It is the last night of the Approximations festival on a warm summer day. Darkness has fallen over Düsseldorf and we take the long walk from Central Station to the old part of the city just to feel this special blend of cordiality and trendy coolness once again, which makes this town so special and agreeable. As we arrive at the “Salon des Amateurs”, a man with a Panama hat, a scarf and a flamboyant red-and-white shirt has just gotten off the cab and is now walking down the same street with us, a leasurely sauntering cluster of friends around him. This is Charlemagne Palestine, chatting with his entourage and obviously enjoying the weather and the atmosphere to the full. For a second, my thoughts wander off to some exotic location, to Cuba and to luxurious hotels filled with the smell of fine cigars, excuisite liquors and perfume. A flight of stairs breaks my dreaming and we slip into the Salon, which has emancipated from a mere lobby to the Kunsthalle over the last few years and turned into an insider adress for CD- and magazine release parties, music events and concerts. A longish, rectangular sort of oversized shoe box, it has a strectched-out, sympathetic bar on the left side, a row of comfortable black sofas remiscent of a Pre-Perestroika Russian embassy on the right, some regular chairs in the middle and a stage-area at the end, where a blue upright Boesendorfer piano is awaiting “one of the five decisive figure heads of minimal music” as the introductory text puts it. We order a drink and take our seats, tired from a hard day’s work, but full of anticipation.

What the introductory text doesn’t mention, though, is that Charlemagne has, for different reasons, never really felt a part of the minimal music movement. For one, his perception of rhythm as a dangerous tool, which ought to be used with utmost care, has only increased in intensity over the many years of his career. And secondly, the term simply doesn’t even come close to describing the intention behind his work. Which, if one had to condense it into a single word, would have to be ”trance”. As he put it himself in an interview in 2002: “As my voice resonates in certain places, my pieces depend on a definite architecture, so for me, I agree with the question of respecting a "wider concept." Sometimes my pieces are very dense with sound and they are not minimal at all. But it's true that sometimes, the pieces have a very long duration and some people say that they hear very little in the music and other people say they hear very much in my music. So, it's very much up to the listener to decide... some people think it's minimal music and others think that it's "maximal" music, which is the opposite.” And thirdly, his live approach is too singluar to be confined to a single drawer of the musical cupboard. Neither content with just playing his pieces from the sheet, nor with total improvisation, his aim is to be “Authentic! Present! Ready! Vibrating! Communing! Communicating! Inspiring! Levitating! Ascending! Ecstatic!” on stage. Sounds like so much more than your average Sunday night? You bet!

In the meantime, Palestine has finished preparing the piano, decorating it with colourful draperies and a row of toy animals, such as an elephant and a few little monkeys. The friendly bar tender has also been kind enough to equip him with two bottles of mineral water and a bottle of cognac, from which Charlemagne is taking deep gulps, while dancing around his instrument. Volker Bertelmann, curator of the festival, grabs the microphone, first to announce a few corrections Palestine has had to make about the liner notes in the program, which have dubbed his beloved early synthesizers “cranky machines” (he swings his fists and promises: “If I catch the guy who wrote it, I will fight him!”) and then to ask for everyone to stop smoking and order their last drink, so as not to disturb the preceedings on stage. For a few minutes, there is a slight surge in commotion, as people gather around the bar and the noise of tinkling glasses and bottles can be heard. The sounds slowly die down and then a translucent, high-pitched tone fills the entire room, immediately grabbing everyone’s attention and quieting things down. It is Palestine, who has dunked a finger in his glass of cognac and is moving along its edge in circular motion, singing to the swirling harmonies in a far-off voice and with both eyes closed. Silence fills the room, as he takes his place in front of the piano, removing his wrist watch and composing himself. Then he starts to play.

A fragile piano note appears, hanging in the air, then overlapping with its succesor, again holdings its breath, before a second one appears, first as a mere interval, then as a chain of motives. A rhythmic pattern establishes itself, pushing forward and calling in a third part of the triade, forming a chord, which pounds incessantly, strumming and humming, making the harmonics stick together like a white canvas, then slipping into clusters and oriental dissonances, splurging black paint across the screen. A duochromatic dream of interweaving structures, of shifting energies. The groove has settled in, but it never marches blindly on, instead ebbing and flowing like a breath, like the natural tide of a conversation (Palestine will later stress the importance of communication and call himself a “syncopator”). Suddenly, a chordal motive makes its introduction, a sad and msyterious theme, before sliding back into the source. And what a power this man has in his hands! His fingers pound the keyboard in total concentration, like a voodoo priest in a delirium. By now, his face has turned as red as a turkey’s neck and it is still growing in glowing intensity. Drops of sweat are hanging on his forehead and running down his face in thin streams, glistening in the light of the spots. Occasionaly, he will rear his head towards the audience, staring at the crowd with a glassy look full of passion and frenzy. His hands move down the registers, towards the lower end of the spectrum. The motive returns, sounding comforting and reassuring this time, only to loose itself in brutal metallic outbursts, which hit the first few rows like a pressure wave. It is a physical sensation that strikes us and listeners either remain static, afraid to move or glance at the instrument in disbelief, refusing to accept that it is in fact a regular piano that is causing this earthquake. Slowly, the fingers surge upwards, while rocking the wood so intensely, that the chimpansees on the top are shaking and coming dangerously close to taking a leap. With a sudden implosion, the tension disappears and a tiny romantic melody appears at the top of the keys, to the point of becoming inaudible. Then the opening notes make one last appearance, delicate and dreamy, before Charlemagne picks up his glass, thinks again for a second and then ends the performance.

In the aftermath, he paces across the room, gladly talking to everyone who come over to him, empties the bottle of Cognac with all those who want to join him and takes off his shirt to demonstrate its soaked nature (from what we can hear, it indeed seems to be drenched in sweat). Bertelmann is also chatting in a very relaxed mood – he has organised a brilliant festival and if there is one thing to regret it is the fact that we couldn’t come over for the other concerts. Charlemagne Palestine leaves, pulling his trolley and shouting “Bye” across the room. Slowly, the Salon empties and we, too, leave into the night, which greets us with a refreshing summer rain. With a smile on our face, we head home.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Charlemagne Palestine
Homepage: Approximations Festival Düsseldorf
Homepage: Volker Bertelmann / Hauscka

Picture by LEM Festival

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