Concerts of this nature- inordinately long and consisting of only one, highly rigorous minimalist work- are rare, and they require a special type of commitment of their audience. Morton Feldman’s second string quartet for instance is a famous example of affect dominated by duration. That work’s six hour span crystallises through its course a unique mode of listening where event, time and even self become totally reconstituted and transfigured in the face of the eternal sublime of the music.
As in many of La Monte Young’s works, or the recent novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy, or John Cage’s extreme version of this idea Organ/ASLSP, the smallest of details become magnified in profile and in importance until finally every action, however tiny, reveals an almost unbearable diversity of depth and colour.
And so it was on Saturday last in the gilded baroque setting of London’s St. Giles in the Field church, where Charlemagne Palestine gave an astonishing, spellbinding performance of his organ work Schlingen Blangen. The concert lasted about five hours and twenty minutes, consisted of one (very) slowly building organ drone coloured by a gradually expanding motivic compass in the mid-range, and felt like the most profound and humble testament on behalf of sound it would be possible to give. Despite Palestine’s very deliberate and creative stewardship of that sound- so well judged and so dramatically effective was he-it would be foolhardy to hear that testament as being somehow of his dominion. The splendour of the experience cannot be ascribed solely to the performer. No, it is more as an unassuming ambassador of the drone, as a sort of priest of sound, that we should see him. It is the grandeur of unmediated sound itself that is celebrated in works such as his; much of the praise called up by these experiences must necessarily be ploughed back inwards, into the music, if rectitude is to be the goal, and empty critical rhetoric to be avoided.
The richness and variety of the sound world brought forth by Palestine became apparent quickly, once the bare octave and fifth of his quiet opening had time to resonate sufficiently in the ear to generate some sort of density of action. Before this though the audience had to get to grips with the hard wooden pews, the austerity of the setting, and the vaguely unbelievable prospect of six more hours of music ahead of them. Charlemagne himself presented an impish figure, as his wont, with his colourful clothes, his teddy bears, his glass(es) of red wine, and his clear abandonment to the music as he danced around (occasionally) altering stops and adding notes. Organ keys were left depressed by the placement of little weights on them, and Palestine kept to his plan (quite how much of the piece was improvised and how much designed is unclear) by monitoring the large timer ticking away silently on the screen of his laptop.
As the audience settled into the parallel time space of the elastic, immanent drone, people gradually became less tight, less distracted. They began to move around the church, moving downstairs away from the most immediate sound beside the organ, and savouring the different impressions of sound available to them wherever they sat, and however they inclined their heads. By the last two or so hours people were strewn chaotically round the space- on the altar, lying on pews, on the ground, standing mesmerised, rocking intently. This was an experience of a strange, ineffable beauty that called up a deep feeling of belonging, and communal union. Music such as this, so empty of conventional rhetoric as it is, suggests a sort of moral value to the listener, as if the emptiness of its sign is an invitation to dwell upon the experience of judgement itself as a more or less valid occurrence. The sheer absence of intellectual imposition, of dialectical game playing, within the architecture of its sound is totally humbling; any sort of arrogance or bombast in its listeners is immediately exposed (to themselves), forcing them to consider again their attitude to the world, and their bearing in it.
The power of the music itself had a strange, somewhat amorphous hold. On the one hand there was the incredibly busy third-ear activities ongoing throughout. This stratum involved each listener perceiving within the sound a bewildering variety of actions, from strange pulses to dense counterpoint to glassy harmonics, through the resonating overtones of the drone. So for instance about half an hour in an insistent pulse thrust itself into my inner ear, causing a noticeable shift of intensity and texture (independent of any action of the performer). About ten minutes later a series of high harmonics suddenly appeared above the altar, at the opposite end to the organ, pulling the emphasis of the sound into a more elegiac, desperate arena. This subject driven narration meant that I experienced constant rises and falls quite separate from my neighbour (confirmed in discussion afterwards); later on the higher frequencies seemed to scream together at one point, causing me to abruptly sit up, but no one else reacted. For the fourth or so hour, the second partial of the finally established low tonic note began vibrating with the actual fifth in the same register to produce stunningly intense beat tones (pulsing caused by two notes of almost same frequency gradually merging) every couple of minutes or so. But this was not apparent to someone I questioned about it afterwards. Whole empires rose and fell within the sound, and in a million different ways.
But something much more standardised was the sempiternal, mammoth carriage of the drone. There was a distinct pleasure in losing oneself to the utter certainty of the sound, as if its unshakeable firmness was a reassurance of something certain outside of oneself. In this sense it could be said that what is being celebrated in drone music, or in any music with a continuous bed of sound (such an attractive, stabilising quality in music after all) underlying it, is a positivistic ontology that belies existential ambiguity. Here, at last, was a sturdy robust to the transience we see all around us every day.
The final layer of action concerned the gradually expanding set of notes, volume, and motives controlled by the performer. The sound grew over the first five hours into an overwhelming intensity of octaves and fifths. But within that mass Palestine offered high and middle range flat sevenths, then flat sixths; the sudden ratcheting up of activity at about an 1hr 30 in was momentous, as he played around grandly with the middle frequency sixth and seventh. Then from 2hr 45 a stentorian, devastating descent that took in the fourth and flat third degrees arrested attention and imbued the already rich sound with a clutter of personality. Finally after four hours the aforementioned low tonic was struck. The effect was stupefying, and enormous, as if some great battle had finally been extinguished by the detonation of a nuclear bomb. The overwhelming tonal power of the work also came into focus here- what is it after all other than a dramatisation of the most basic tensions of tonality?
Following this highpoint, Palestine gradually introduced more dissonant notes, collapsing the sound near the end of the fifth hour a couple of times using the mechanisms of the organ, before the unexpected, but totally effective, resolution onto simple tonic notes at 5hr 10, a la Ligeti in his Chamber Concerto. These notes had lost all their pathos from earlier, and appeared now more as concentrated, bare gestures of comfort, as if time was being placed again in normal order, and music had recovered its common aspect of modesty. As the final echo faded out, the audience rose to their feet, wherever they happened to be, and cheered dumbfoundedly for the insight Charlemagne Palestine had afforded them into the unheralded majesty of untutored sound.
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