Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord & Strings Ensemble (3xCD, Sub Rosa, October 2010)

I’ve seen Charlemagne Palestine live three times. Each was a mesmerising, transformative, and unique experience. I’d never bought any recordings because I’d been slightly underwhelmed by those I’d heard. After all, how could it be the same without the ritual, the teddy bears and the bunting and the brandy, and how could it hope to capture the subtlety and strangeness of the throat-singing and the brandy-glass-playing? Then I came across this triple-CD of performances from the 70s. The first disc, and the main attraction here, is CP himself performing Strumming on a Bösendorfer piano: after a short melodic introduction, he starts hammering two notes, until subtle resonances and beats start happening somewhere inside the instrument, he adds those notes into his playing, more resonances appear, and over the course of 52 minutes the whole thing evolves and mutates while slowly building in its rhythmical intensity. You can hear that the playing is physically changing the piano, and you can easily imagine that it’s physically changing the brain of the listener. There are strange unearthly floating sounds which I’d swear are beyond the range of my normal hearing. Truly and quite literally stunning. The minimalism seems to work tolerably well on disc, too (though I’d love to go back in time and see it live).

The second CD is Betsy Freeman, under CP’s direction, doing the same thing on a harpsichord. I’ve read suggestions that this is a purer performance, because obviously the strings don’t resonate in the same way that a piano’s do, so what you are hearing is more the performer’s own work without a helping hand. It’s interesting, sure, but I actually miss the way the original is a collaboration between the performer and the instrument, and it lacks some intensity.

The third is played on strings by musicians from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For the most part, they appear to be bowing as evenly as possible, often playing perhaps a note with its fifth and its octave. The equivalent, I guess, of the piano’s resonances is here in the fallibility of the players, as the parts shift slightly in volume or smoothness. There’s a certain beauty to that, although it’s not got the power of the wonderful sound of that big old Bösendofer.

I bought this from the Sub Rosa shop. It is part of their Unclassical series.

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