Sound

The Dense, Dark Tones of an Organ Mystic

by Charles Eppley on March 11, 2014

Charlemagne Palestine performing at Plymouth Church (photo by Bradley Buehring) (courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

Charlemagne Palestine performing at Plymouth Church (photo by Bradley Buehring) (courtesy ISSUE Project Room)

Experimental musician Charlemagne Palestine performed last Thursday at Plymouth Church, presenting a vibrant evening of deep organ drones. The performance was an incarnation of Palestine’s renowned “Schlingen-Blängen” (c. 1978), a long-form improvisation that provided an engaging, immersive experience, if at times stilted by a meandering keyboard and an unsettled audience.

Palestine, an avant-weirdo who emerged from the Downtown scene in the 1970s, spent an hour and a half improvising on the historic church’s massive pipe organ, which was originally installed in 1866. The evening was organized by the inimitable ISSUE Project Room, which also hosted Palestine — a participant in the 2014 Whitney Biennial — last year during its two-month anniversary series, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain.

Thursday’s performance began softly with a series of high-pitched, nearly imperceptible tones, which lasted for about fifteen minutes before Palestine emerged from the darkness, diligently ringing a small, handheld church bell, a ritual he has explored in the past. The organ mystic quietly, even reverently, made his way past a kitschy teddy bear altar outfitted with glowing LEDs, towards the upper balcony, where the console of the organ is located. He sat slowly on the golden bench.

Charlemagne Palestine at Plymouth Church (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne Palestine at Plymouth Church (photo by Bradley Buehring) (courtesy ISSUE Project Room) (click to enlarge)

The movements and chattering of a stirring audience accompanied the early moments of the performance, as people were still waiting on the street and spilling into the church as it began. The unassuming, slow-paced beginning, filled with footsteps, creaking wood, and smartphone chirps, served as part overture and part warning signal — a call to arms to those who would accept the feat of endurance that is sitting in church for two hours.

Palestine began by slowly opening the pipe valves and manipulating the organ manuals, a series of wooden knobs that control the pitch, timbre, and intensity of tones as they’re pushed through the massive, metallic pipes. Bright chords slowly turned into a dense, atonal wash — a recurring theme throughout the evening, and one often tinged with the inflections of a minor key. Palestine was particularly adept at controlling the texture of his tones, carefully maneuvering the knobs in order to accentuate their sonic character. At times, this manifested the rapid, binaural warbling that occurs when two nearly identical tones are juxtaposed. There was continual movement in the balcony during Palestine’s performance, as he swayed back and forth, only pausing to open or close a valve or to wedge open a tone on the keyboard. The scene was nearly hypnotic.

The dense sounds took command of the sparse, whitewashed interior of the church, which, aside from a few accentuated balustrades, contained no other artwork or noticeable decoration. The only focal point was the indomitable presence of the organ, which dominated the space with its massive size and weight. One could be fully immersed in sounds that were not only heard but also felt. The vibrations were especially strong when Palestine worked the organ’s footboard, opening the airways to larger, longer, and thus sonically deeper pipes, unleashing an intense low-end, but nevertheless controlled, roar into the surrounding architecture.

As with many of Palestine’s performances, the experience was rather spatially oriented. The tones folded in on each other, competing for emphasis, and traveled around the room, behind the seats, along the walls, and back into the ground, incorporating the listener into the aural ecology of the organ.

Close-up on Palestine's stuffed animal altar (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Close-up on Palestine’s stuffed animal altar (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The immersion only lasted so long, however, as the performance was continually interrupted by ambient noise, including from continual bathroom breaks. Near the end, the darkened church was colored by harsh LED blasts from smartphones in the pews, as well a delightful crying baby that, ironically, ended up giving the performance of the night, peaceably cooing during Palestine’s final, silent moments, an unintentional homage to John Cage.

Palestine was best while courting a dirge-like momentum, constructing rich, dense tone clusters that weighed heavily in the space, but at times he seemed unsteady on the keyboard, quickly starting a phrase only to back out of it just as fast. Indeed, the musician almost seemed worn out by the evening himself, ending the performance much earlier than anyone expected.

Before Palestine left the balcony, the organ mystic shared his appreciation with the audience by offering information about the antique instrument, stating that we had just heard pipes sounding like “hundreds of speakers.” In fact, there are many more pipes in the Brooklyn Plymouth organ: 3,403, according to an 1865 inventory, and Palestine deftly used them all, transforming the organ console into a pulpit in the process. His standard glass of cognac was present, but left largely un-imbibed.

“Charlemagne Palestine, solo organ” was presented by ISSUE Project Room at Plymouth Church (75 Hicks Street, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn) on March 6, 8 pm.

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  • Peter Becker

    It was a lovely night. I’d correct to say that he didn’t start the night by ringing a church bell but rather the rim of the cognac glass you mention later in the review.

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