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Issue 16 – Easter 2023


Philip Glass

On the most influential of the minimalists.


Charlemagne Palestine looks like someone who has wandered into the church by mistake. Instead of the usual black concert dress favored by organ recitalists, he wears a loud Hawaiian shirt and two colorful baseball caps, one on top of the other. During the first half of the concert he can be seen in one of the front rows of pews listening to the other performers; eventually he gets tired of listening and wanders around the church reading the memorial plaques on the walls. Finally he climbs onto the organ bench for the second half of the concert: for his performance the console has been decorated with ribbons and an array of small plush animals, and a small table has been set up with a wine glass from which he drinks during the performance (I later learn that it is full of cognac).

Once a fixture of New York’s downtown music scene, Charlemagne Palestine (born Charles Martin) has been based in Europe since the 1980s and is largely unknown in North America; his performances on this side of the Atlantic are rare. I have no idea whose idea it was to book him to perform at an organ festival in Toronto, a city with a markedly conservative organ culture, but I cleared my calendar immediately and arrived at the church on the concert day in a state of high excitement. As I spoke to the other concertgoers, however, it became clear that I was one of a small minority who had come to hear Charlemagne Palestine; most of my organist colleagues were there to hear the new Canadian compositions on the first half of the concert program. I tried to convey to the other audience members that an opportunity to hear Charlemagne Palestine in Toronto is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that to be present for a live performance of his piece Schlingen-Blängen was for me the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but it seemed to have little effect: despite my advocacy, a noticeable number of people had left at intermission.

There is no sheet music for Schlingen-Blängen; this is not a musical work in the usual sense, but a framework for a semi-improvised performance that is different at every venue. Palestine begins with a long sustained low E and gradually adds more and more notes until an increasingly complex chord begins to coalesce. A point is quickly reached where the organist needs to press more keys than can be played by ten fingers; for this purpose, a set of cardboard wedges is used to hold down the keys, conveniently leaving the performer’s hands free for the occasional sip of cognac. But if the music surpasses the limits of the player’s physical capabilities, it also quickly exceeds what a human listener is able to process. A good musician can make sense of complex polychords containing eight or ten different notes, but nobody can hear a sonority of thirty or forty different pitches and understand it as a musical chord in any conventional sense; what you hear in Schlingen-Blängen is a continuous, overwhelming wash of sound. For Charlemagne Palestine, the organ is not a conventional keyboard instrument but a kind of synthesizer, with each of its thousands of pipes serving as individual sound sources that can be combined in limitless permutations.

What this description cannot convey is the extraordinary, overwhelming experience of listening to Schlingen-Blängen. From one perspective, there is nothing much happening: the organist is playing one continuous chord, which he gradually varies by adding and removing pitches and changing the organ stops to change its volume and tone color. But the resulting sound is so richly complex that the listener hears constant change and fluctuation. The sound ripples and shimmers; it seems to move around the room, coming from different places in the church that do not correspond to the actual positioning of the organ pipes; particular chord configurations create the illusions of ringing bells or of ghostly pitches different from the notes the organ is actually playing. Schlingen-Blängen is designed to exploit the resonance of a large building and the extraordinary effects that can be heard when the sustained sound of the organ mingles with its echoes and reflections from other parts of the room. Palestine can sustain the listener’s interest over a long period of time because Schlingen-Blängen is not finally about the manipulation of time: it’s about the exploration of space. The 1988 studio recording of the piece lasts seventy-two minutes; I have no idea how long the performance in Toronto lasted.

Is this minimalism? If musical minimalism is defined by repetition or austere simplicity, then Schlingen-Blängen is not minimalist. There is too much going on; the music changes too rapidly, the musical means used are too complex and too extravagant. Certainly we are worlds away from the metronomic, repetitive patterns of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Palestine’s music has more in common with the more radical and lesser-known manifestations of musical minimalism: the drone music of La Monte Young, the slowly shifting electronic soundscapes of Eliane Radigue, or the tape compositions of Alvin Lucier. What links all these kinds of minimalist music (if so they are) is the special quality of attention that they demand of the listener. None of these composers are interested in using their music to convey a narrative shape with dramatic climaxes; they simply set a process in motion over a long time span and allow their listeners to react to that process as they wish. Listening to Schlingen-Blängen, you have the choice of blissing out and letting the music wash over you or listening carefully to concentrate on the changing acoustical effects that the organ produces. The one approach that is guaranteed not to work is listening for the traditional narrative arc of musical form; there is no “development” to be heard here and no “themes” to listen for.

Twenty years ago, it seemed like American minimalism was set to become a new lingua franca of contemporary classical music. The post-minimalist composer John Adams won the Pulitzer in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial piece On the Transmigration of Souls; Steve Reich won in 2009 for his Double Sextet. Adams was perhaps the most influential American composer in the early years of the new millennium, with a unique synthesis of styles that proved immensely popular (all the groovy rhythmic patterns of minimalism, but applied to a more palatable Romantic tonal scheme to suit the attention spans of symphony orchestra subscribers). But this music now seems dated, redolent of the cloying optimism and naïve self-confidence of its time. Music students of the Nineties and the Aughts thrilled to the music of Adams’s Nixon in China (“The people are the heroes now”; “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”) but today the opera comes across as vaguely embarrassing. It’s not just that today’s musicians cavil at the opera’s self-satisfied Wilsonian politics or the monolithic way that it depicts its Chinese characters; they find the whole thing cheesy. Minimalist-influenced music is still very much with us, especially in commercials and film soundtracks, but no one still thinks that post-minimalism is destined to become the dominant soundtrack of a new “post-style era.”

Now that the institutional dominance of post-minimalism has faded, the ultimate legacy of minimalist music is all the more controversial.

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About the author

Aaron James

Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.