Hit a key on a piano with the sustain pedal pressed down, and you’ll hear the struck string ring out unencumbered. Add another note to make a chord, and the undamped strings will begin to resonate with each other and those around them, creating ethereal harmonics that ghost over the notes being struck by the hammers. Repeat in rapid succession for fifty minutes. This is the principle behind Strumming Music, an early 1970s piece by the idiosyncratic composer, artist and stuffed toy enthusiast Charlemagne Palestine.

Charlemagne Palestine © Agnès Gania
Charlemagne Palestine
© Agnès Gania

Though Palestine emerged from the musical and artistic milieu of the New York avant garde of the 60s and early 70s, his name is rarely mentioned alongside those of his more celebrated contemporaries such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. However, his distinct musical language has proved to be as unique and enduring as any of those composers of the minimalist mould. Born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine in 1947, Palestine’s early dalliances with music lay firmly within the traditions of his Jewish heritage – both with klezmer and the singing of sacred music in synagogues. This latter pursuit instilled in Palestine not only an interest in music’s role in sacred spaces, but a tendency toward music of long duration. Perhaps most influential in his development as a composer, however, was his appointment to the position of carillon player in St Thomas Cathedral, near the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was there that every morning, after spending fifteen minutes playing the hymns he was commissioned to perform, he would spend hours improvising and experimenting with the ringing sonorities and seemingly endless sustain of the carillon bells. Soon, everyone from members of the Velvet Underground to street musician Moondog and minimalist composer Tony Conrad were coming to the cathedral to hear Palestine perform his spectral improvisations of the church bells – arguably the genus of his concept for Strumming Music.

Conrad’s “discovery” of Palestine in 1964 introduced the young artist to the New York art world, but he was largely disdainful of its leading luminaries. He derided the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman as establishment figures, even sending Feldman a strongly-worded letter that reportedly encouraged the older composer to write more lengthy pieces. After experimenting with electronics with Morton Subotnik, Palestine turned to the piano. He found that a rapid repetition of notes would cause the strings to resonate and produce overtones – frequencies that can be heard in addition to fundamental tone of the note. He described this “strumming” technique in a 2002 interview with Perfect Sound Forever: “My first piano music resembles impressionists like Debussy or Ravel but it’s played through four or five hours, including some little arpeggios and played over and over again in thousands of different ways... Later on, I began to see that I’d played the piano like a flamenco guitar, that many overtones could change and the music that came out had a density and verticality – thanks to the overtones – which was extraordinary.” Performances of Palestine’s piano music were known to last hours, sometimes with the composer’s blood flecked across the keyboard from the repetitive motion of his fingers hitting the keys. On other occasions, the strings of his grand piano would snap due to the prolonged tension from the performances.

In 1973 Palestine was commissioned to write a piece for the founders of the French label Shandar. Shandar had released music by the likes of Glass, Reich, Riley and La Monte Young, but also by Stockhausen and avant garde jazz artists. The perfect place, then, for Palestine’s eccentric brand of contemporary composition. The recording was released as an album the following year – the same year that La Monte Young premièred The Well-Tuned Piano, another classic work of minimalist piano composition. Instead of using a repetitive playing style, however, Young’s piece uses a piano tuned in just intonation – a kind of tuning that uses whole number ratios to determine the intervals between the notes – to achieve a similarly strange, overtone-rich effect.

Strumming Music opens with a plaintive pentatonic chord progression, before an insistent two-note motif of E and B sets up a rhythm that will persist throughout the piece’s duration. Slowly, gently, more notes enter the fray, as singing overtones flicker over the sounds of the struck piano strings. Very quickly, it becomes difficult to discern which notes are being played by the pianist and which are merely resonances being made within the body of the Bösendorfer Imperial piano that Palestine insisted on using for the piece. Regarded by some as the “Rolls Royce” of pianos, the Bösendorfer’s combination of thick strings and a relatively lightweight body makes the sound project outwards toward the listener and the concert hall rather than back toward the player. It is also one of the loudest grand pianos in the world, and Palestine has been known to cut short performances (2 hours into a 4-hour performance, on one occasion) because the resonant potential of the Steinways he was furnished with just didn’t match up to his beloved Bösendorfer.

As the piece progresses, Palestine introduces increasingly dense chords, which only adds to the heady effect of the swirling harmonics, amounting to something not unlike a phaser effect that one hears in popular music. Minute flickers of tones seem to bounce off each other – are they really sounded notes or just aural hallucinations? If you give this piece your full attention, you will see why Palestine loathes the minimalist tag, preferring instead to think of himself as a “maximalist”. He explodes the potential of the piano using the most basic of techniques, maximizing the instrument’s capabilities without resorting to modified “prepared piano” techniques.

Following the release of Strumming Music as an album in 1974, Palestine fell relatively silent as a composer, instead choosing to focus on visual art and filmmaking. In the intervening years, Strumming Music was adapted by both Betsy Freeman, who performed the piece on harpsichord in 1977, and the composer John Adams, who adapted the piece for string quartet (also in 1977). In 1987, Palestine returned with a collection of solo piano works using the strumming technique entitled Godbear. More harmonically complex than his previous work, and reflecting his early love of Ravel and Debussy, Godbear is the terse counterpart to Strumming Music’s serene, ecstatic glide.

In recent years the world has become more acquainted with Charlemagne Palestine’s musical output and personal eccentricities. He has a propensity for cognac – initially used to dull the pain in his hands during his early piano marathons – and likes to surround himself with stuffed toys (which he calls “animal divinities”) while working and performing. Such idiosyncrasies are inextricably linked to his work as a composer, and perhaps that’s why he has yet to receive the credit afforded to his peers. He has none of the mathematical precision of Reich or the poise of Glass. Instead, his is an intuitive and highly personal approach that is evidenced in Strumming Music: he feels his way around the instrument, interacting with its natural resonances rather than imposing structure on it. In this way, as opposed to many contemporary composers, Palestine is an artist of feelings rather than systems, as he says in the 2002 PSF interview: “I felt so lonely in the Western contemporary music scene. It’s very cold, analytical and so it’s not existential. It’s atheistic, especially the early contemporary music that I’ve heard, like some Stockhausen and post-Webern music. I felt the desire to bring a certain kind of religious ritual into it without the religious domain.” Decades on, Strumming Music stands up as a unique statement in contemporary piano composition: ecstatic, involving, boundless.