Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Charlemagne Palestine's "Schlingen-Blängen" in L.A., March 16

Before yesterday's concert by Charlemagne Palestine at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, my wife read in the L.A. Times that he was planning a two or three-hour long "Armageddon." Sounded good to me.

"I don't know if I'll last that long," she said with a laugh.

I had my own covert doubts that I'd last through a three-hour drone, especially with a sitter watching our kid. So, I said, "Let's see how it goes."

A note on the venue: The church is a huge, vaulted, Gothic structure that serves this Protestant congregation. Its reflection in the multi-paneled glass of the Superior Court on Commonwealth is a local happy accident of architecture. But the real curiosity is the pipe organ on which Palestine played. It's the largest in any church in the world. I've been to one of their weekly Thursday afternoon recitals, so I knew the sound would be big.

We were amazed at how many pipes were visible in different areas of the sanctuary. Sitting about three-quarters of the way to the altar area, we could see pipes in four places. Turning toward the back, however, revealed the largest pipes in the rear of the sanctuary. Yes, it would be big. As we entered the church, a guy was handing out earplugs like Halloween candy. Oh yes, it would be big.

I expected Palestine to have more of his "family" with him, the totemic stuffed animals that I'd seen pictured in the Monday Evening Concerts brochure. I only saw a couple of teddy bears off to the side of the keyboard. With fewer of the expected theatrics, the music became its own ritual.

The piece he played was "Schlingen-Blängen," which I'd heard before on the CD of the same name. It's a nonsense Teutonic-sounding name, a bit similar in principle to the namers of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. It's a nonsense word, but people trust a Scandinavian-sounding ice cream. Palestine's naming, though, was more of a jibe at the self-importance of much modern (or post-modern) new music.

After a brief greeting from a church representative (who warned us that Palestine would likely blow an organ fuse), Palestine started the show by pulling out one or two stops on the organ, letting out a faint tonal chord (reminiscent of the "Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone" CD performance). Over the next 20 to 25 minutes, the one chord built tones upon itself as Palestine pulled out more and more stops, intermittently musing over the smorgasbord of a keyboard and gently pressing notes here and there. As I looked up into the ceiling of the church, I could hear overtone washes emitting from the chord. Within these sounds, unleashed by Palestine's shamanistic efforts, the overtones floated through the church like ghosts.

At one point, I could swear that the higher-pitched reverberations sounded like strummed harps. An angelic sound for a holy place.

In time, he added lower and lower tones, until after 40 or so minutes, the higher pitched ringing was joined by deep, flapping reverberations. The flanged effect was immense, and I could picture the vibrations beating against the stone walls and columns like waves of water.

Twice, Palestine got up from the seat of the organ in the apse of the church. He wandered off through a door to the side, then emerged and drifted down the central aisle through the church's nave. The sound continued as he moved. Palestine appeared to just be enjoying the sound from different angles. Why not hear your own creation in this amazing space? That's the advantage of making drone music.

After an hour or so, he leaned his head on his arm, draped across the keyboard. His hat fell off. I actually thought, he could be having a heart attack. Did he pass out? The dissonance produced by all those depressed keys and dozens of pulled-out stops was now deafening, but for my earplugs. I don't think he blew a fuse, but he pushed the organ to its limit. Oh, and no, he did not have a heart attack.

The concert ended shortly after with a silence, and then a short, quiet piece. No three-hour Armageddon. Not even two hours. Was it his mischievous way of undercutting our expectations? Or was he thinking of the recording being made? More likely, the spirit just didn't move him to go any longer. At least he left me wanting more. He finally took off his hat and received a standing ovation. But his open-armed gesture to the pipes and to the church-space itself revealed his gracious attitude of collaboration with architecture.

The show was recorded, so be on the lookout for the CD.

NOTE April 1, 2009: My friend VC noted the title "Schlingen-Blängen" is Jerry Lewis Yiddish.

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