feb 14, 2004.
Last month, on friday january 16th there was Phil Niblock (Indiana, 1933) in Les Voûtes, at the occasion of Vert Pituite's tenth belle soirée. Two weeks later, on friday january 30th, Charlemagne Palestine (Brooklyn, 1947) played les Instants Chavirés.
Two performances, two Americans. Both 'early minimalists'. Both 'unjustly neglected', the write ups said.
(But, surely, justice here is not our concern.)
On the 16th, the former tunnel opposite les Frigos was pretty much filled up. With onlookers facing a large screen down in the deep end of the voûte. Phil Niblock projected thereupon. Being an 'intermedia' artist, Niblock's work is not about sound alone. Nay. From what I read and heard here and there, it is as much about vision. And then there are the multiple relations one can trace - or (en)force - between these two, of course.
When the voûte's door opened up, we were led right into the heart of it. Of the projection, I mean, and of the first in a series of accompanying - pardon-but-I-want-to-call-them - N_drones. Both had been going on for quite some time already while people outside were waiting, sipping their beers, cell phoning their friends, chatting, or just contemplating a friday parisian evening's relative calm and the current phase of the moon.
I recall being tired that evening. For too many days with too little sleep, too much worked and too much drank [ note: the grammatical oddity is intentional; readers that know Dutch might see why. nnote: I will try not to always annotate; for fear of sooner or later starting to give in to possible sudden urges to annotate annotations. nnnote: et cetera ] . But I looked forward to hear the music. I longed for it.
Between the screen and the first f rows of chairs one had laid down some carpets. "Surely that's where later on the musical performing will be happening," is what I sort of must've been thinking. So I did not lie down on them. Rather I sat myself down. On a chair in one of them first rows.
On the screeen there was a man in a boat. Fishing.
Later on there were women cutting noodles, or rice sticks (they were thin, long and white, like spaghettis) then wrapping them in news paper pages. I remember fish being packed like that, in paper torn from dailies, in Dutch markets.
There were men moving big stones, rocks ... they may have been building a temple. A castle. A country's next capital may be.
Then there were men cutting up trees. Cutting boards from trees.
at times I longed to hear the sound of that labour. But the only sound to be h(e)a(r)d were the ongoing N_drones. Sometimes they stopped. For no apparent resaon. And then they started again. For no apparent reason.
And no show to the carpets there came. There was not, and there was not to be. The carpets were there just for lying down. Or to sit upon. The sounds might as well have been on tape (they probably were, partly, but also produced 'live' from behind a mixing console on the door side of the tunnel, but definitively behind my back).
And I found I started turning myself away from the sounds - were they blocking my hearing [stuffin' my 'ear-ing]? - and being subjected to a curious inversion: while watching these so utterly complex and intricated _ , almost as if looping but, no, still all the time change-shifting, these _patterns_ of the movements of labour, observed by these very patient watcher/camera in long/longer/longest shots and close-up; it then were these movements, this movement of people working, these visuals, that to me became the evening's real music.
The sounds droning on, oozing out of the four loudspeakers - loud, but not too loud (maybe it simply was not loud enough?) - faded into a mere static frame, a decor for the music, which is: a dynamics of patterns, that is: the movement of people working.
January 30th was different. (Though also aux Instants there were carpets that evening.) One had taken the rented Bösendorfer off-stage, and placed it nearer the audience, so all could gather around.
For this evening was a celebration. Yes, there were flowers! And yes, there was a speech! Charlemagne Palestine started out by making part of his love & passion for Bösendorfer pianos, and talking about the legendary Austrian instrument's 175th birthday, in (sort of) French, and his somewhat squeaky, rather high pitched voice (but that may have been partly due to the 'sort of' French). He told us how he had questioned 'monsieur Philippe, l'accordeur', as to the sexe of this particular piano - thirty years of age, but - over the years - not treated too well, hence, monsieur Philippe observed, "il est très fatigué ..."
"Mais, je dis, c'est quel sexe, cet instrument ? Masculin, ou féminin ? Ou une mélange ? Et il était choqué ... '...mais je n'ai jamais pensé ça, moi, et ....' ... Parce que... il a dit ... i l ... avec le piano. Il est ça, il est ci ...et parfois j'ai connu des autres gens qui disent e l l e ... Elle est ça, et elle est ci ...Alors ... c'est quoi le sexe d'un piano ? .... Il n'était pas sûr, mais après un petit moment il a dit ... 'Je crois que c'est un piano masculin' ... Mais moi, je ne suis pas sûr. Alors ce soir, après ... je vais essayer d'investiguer ce piano comme un jockey, parce que ... c'est un, c'est un cheval qui était très mal traité ces dernières ... c'est un piano de quatre-vingt ... ces derniers vingt-cinq ans, à peu près, c'était très mal traité, les gens me disent, même laissé dans la pluie, toute sorte de choses ... je ne sais pas pourquoi, elle a eu un vie comme ça.... parce qu'il n'est... comme il habite... j'ai vu des autres pianos qui habitent dans les quartiers populairs, où les gens ne prend ... bon, un piano, on aime un piano ... et c'est vrai que c'est un meuble qui est sortie de la ... b - o - u - r - g - e - o - s - i - e ... du dix-neuvième siècle ... ce n'est pas de sa faute ! ... mais c'est un meuble, et c'est un symbole de la bourgeoisie de dix-neuvième siècle. Un type comme moi, de Brooklyn, imagine ... je sors de Brooklyn pour jouer, danser avec un instrument aussi magnifique que Franz Liszt, Busoni, Johann Strauss... beaucoup de ... Bélà Bartok ... ont aussi joué avec cet instrument ... et voilà !"
He started decorating the piano and its surroundings. With flowers, tissues and toy animals ...
"... Ah voilà ... éléphant ! ..." Charlemagne laughs. "Je fais cette tradition ... idiote ... depuis plus que trente ans, et elle est devenu classique maintenant. Je ne sais pas pourquoi ... parce que je trouvais tous ces concerts tous vraiment ... oufff ... rigide et tout, et j'ai commencé à just décorer en époque et ... il a une significance pas spécialement profonde ... "
He got evermore stuff out of the bags and posed it on the floor, near the indulgent Bösendorfer. Among them there was a big-eared dog.
"Putain !", Olivier Brisson whispered in my not-quite-so-big hearing fold. "C'est le chien que j'ai offert à ma nièce !"
Then there came a glass and a bottle of cognac.
"Et ah! quelque chose aussi depuis plus que trente ans... Rémy Martin ... !
Uncorking of the botlle, with a nice, deep & rounded ploup... followed by the gurgles of pouring the 'to-be-drank' into the glass.
"Pour moi, toute cette préparation est essentielle," Charlemagne continued. He took a zip from his cognac, followed by a gulch of mineral water. From a different glass. "Pour moi c'est essentiel, avant jouer, à chaque fois. J'ai probablement appris ça chez les Hindus. Pas les Hindus en Inde, mais à New York, quand j'étais à un certain époque - on peut dire ... des h-i-p-p-i-e-s... j'ai vu des indiens, qui sont venus avec le sitar, le sarot et tout, et ont pris énormement de temps ... à accorder ... à préparer ... c'était une rituel, mais aussi magnifique, avant commencer... comme ... chaque espace est différente. On ne peut pas juste présenter, parce que je ne sais pas combien de gens vont être là ... il y a quelques jours, j'ai écouté cette espace, maintenant j'ai aucune idée comment va sonner ... avec... maintenant il y a une centaine de personnes ici..."
Charlemagne seated himself behind the Bösendorfer's keyboard, took another zip of cognac, another zip of water. "Et maintenant je vais commencer avec mon fameux 'fifth', que j'ai toujours commencé avec ... parce qu'on va voir ce qu'il donne ... je vais voir, comme une chauve-souris... et ça c'est l'approche qui vient vraiment de Ravi Shankar, Ali Akhbar Khan ... qui ont pris une bonne dix minutes, essayer à voir l'espace ... et pas juste 'boummm', sans préparation de l'espace même... " [ gulping sounds, cork sounds ] He laughed, and raised his balloon. "Santé pour tout le monde... Quand je commençais cette musique, en Californie, il y a trente ans," Charlemagne told us, "j'ai eu une ballon de cognac é-n-o-r-m-e, et à chaque personne j'ai donné à boire avant de jouer. Ca pris encore une demie heure ... Mais maintenant, avec tous les ... les virus qu'on peut avoir ... "
He brought a final toast. To the piano. "Happy birthday ... Montreuil ... Bösendorfer."
Then started the fifths. All with full pedal.
... e .... b ... e .. b .... eB ... EB ... EBEBEBE B EBE EBEBE B ...
And Palestine 'investigated'. A tranced explorer, a Bösendorfer 'Mulder', sensing, knówing that 'the truth is out there', and determined that somehow, somewhere, he'd uncover it. He slowly descended, ever so gradually, but hammering fiercely, breaking his way deep down into the cavities at the piano's bass side. En route hitting upon bags and bags of harmonics, let loose as the hot air from a balloon, filling up and resonating, bouncing between the walls circumscribing the Instants's espace.
From there down under Palestine then emerged, climbing up again, through the middle and on to Bösie's tops - not as crystalline and clear as one might have wanted or expected, so maybe that's where maltreatment and fatigue did show up.
There were a couple of echoes of the opening fifths ... E .. B ... E ... e .... B ... Then it was done.
Funny, I thought. What will stick with me? Probably not the on-bouncing and resonating swarms of the Bôsendorfer's harmonics. Again it'll rather be visual, not sonic. The image of the explorer exploring. Charlemagne's eyes closed in near ecstacy, and all the time biting his lips, while tensely hammering up, and hammering down along the piano's keyboard.
Movements of man working. No more. No less.
[ The French quotations were transcribed from the dictaphone recording I made of Charlemagne Palestine's introduction to his performance on january 30th aux Instants. The transcription is pretty much literal, but I did leave out some phrases here and there to shorten it up. Also the photographs were taken during C.P.'s performance aux Instants, by - in that order - Arnaud Rivière, Etienne Foyer, Arnaud Rivière and Guillaume Constantin.]