I knew that interviewing Charlemagne Palestine could be a very difficult task due to his exuberant, independent spirit. Pinning him down took almost a year. But after some preps and with the good fortune of having Charlemagne back in New York more often, we finally got it done. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation that took place in his hotel room on April 16th, 2014 after his performances with Simone Forti at MoMA. In the fall of 2013 I had the privilege to share the stage with him and Joe McPhee at Issue Project Room.
Though my initial reaction to Charlemagne’s art was ambivalent, my love for both his work and him, a “fellow Brooklyn Jew and misfit,” as the New York Times put it, has grown exponentially over the years. Our dialogues continue via email as he keeps adding to the conversation with delightful bits such as: “conga drumsszzz,,,,I met Burroughs too, lots of weirdo poetsss and other weirdoo artists drinking espresssooo (but i was a little tiger orange catepillar then).” And, “As to when I invented the 2 piano Golden Mean. That occurred at Pro Musica Nova in Bremen started by a guy named Hans Otte, who’s dead now, in 1976 i think!! He commisssioneddd meee and Mighty Joe Youngg,,,, ndd Rileyyy and some othersss.”
Charlemagne Palestine What’s an interview? Let’s call it a splinterview.
Steve Dalachinsky A splinterview?
CP Fuck interview. Do a splinterview.
SD We will think of it as a dialogue—
CP —and a schmialogue. This way we don’t have to have any preconceptions. I am trying to confuse your neuroses.
SD (laughter) Exactly. Do you consider yourself a non-neurotic? Sorry BOMB people if you don’t like this four-letter word but I knew it would be fucked up to begin with.
CP We are in Scorsese territory. If you don’t use fuck at least every three or four words it’s considered watered-down.
SD Earlier you had mentioned your raison d’être, being introduced to Stravinsky. I think that is a nice story to start with.
CP Yes. I had been invited to the rehearsal of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra because Lukas Foss, the father of my girlfriend in those days, was the first French horn player. I was fifteen and they thought I was a new and promising schaminanun. I was sitting behind a sort of dressing screen, they did not want me to be in Stravinsky’s way, because he was eccentric and drank Johnnie Walker at the podium. I could see him conducting in between the louvers. It was something like Symphony in Three Movements. The first day went okay but the second day he became outraged and said, “What’s that screen doing there?” So they pull the screen away and there I am. He looks at me, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Everybody got nervous and I said, “I don’t know.” There was a long pause. Then he said, “You can stay!” So that is my raison d’être. Whenever things happen I say, “Stravinsky said I could stay.”
SD And here I am! Fuck you! (laughter) So now that we have used the word fuck five times—
CP Don’t be a wuss!
SD Oh shit! Oh fool that I be! Okay. This probably won’t make the cut, but the story of you at fifteen is very similar in the opposite camp to a story Cecil Taylor tells a lot. When he was twelve his father or uncle took him to a bar to see Billie Holiday. He was too young to be in the bar, but the bartender basically said the same as Stravinsky, which was “You can stay.”
CP I would have preferred to be in a bar watching Billie Holiday sing. Stravinsky wasn’t as sexy, obviously, but he did have his glass of Johnnie Walker, which here has become a Dickel. It was on sale.
SD You Dickel, you!
CP If you want to not use the word fuck, you could say use my dickel.
SD So at fifteen you were already into music. Were you a child prodigy?
CP I came from a “nowhere” part of Brooklyn—Brownsville, East New York. I was singing already in synagogues with some famous choirs. My mother found this free public school and she thought I should go there and audition. There was a whole line of kids and you would go, La la lo la lee la low. My la la la they liked and they accepted me to this school on 137th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. After my father died we moved from East Flatbush to Sheepshead Bay, near Manhattan Beach. From there to the school was about an hour each way on the subway. And I wasn’t getting along very well with my five-year-older brother; we were flashing knives at each other in this little apartment on Emmons Avenue. My mother thought it better to get me out of there, so she found a little studio apartment on 105th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. She put an upright piano in it, and being around the High School for Music and Art, I quickly began to meet kids whose fathers were Pulitzer-Prize-winning writers, conductors, actors. . . . I was from the boonies and people sort of fell in love with my sincerity, naivety, and stupidity—I don’t know. I became everybody’s favorite little kid from Hutz kibbutz. Then I got this job to play the bells at St. Thomas next to the Museum of Modern Art. I started to make this crazy music because I had watched the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the version with Charles Laughton.
SD How old were you at this point?
CP Thirteen. I started doing all this crazy stuff because I didn’t know anything else. It sort of just happened and I had no constraints because I had never been taught or—
SD —been disciplined?
CP Yeah. No one ever told me I couldn’t. And nobody ever told me I could. I was totally unguided. I have always been deeply allergic to discipline from the exterior on any level. The only person capable of disciplining me was myself—or, sometimes people who, in their wisdom, guided me without me feeling that I was being disciplined. Like Jerome Rothenberg.
SD Before Jerry, you went to Music and Art.
CP It was called Music and Art because you were either in music or in art. I have always had this curiosity, but I didn’t understand the difference. Most of the cute girls were in the art part and not in the music part. I wanted to see what was going on in the art part.
SD The beginning of your multidisciplinary career—the chicks!
CP These girls acting all independent and talking all of this nonsense—I didn’t understand these profound things coming out of their mouths. I said, “Gee, I like all this stuff.” I was doing the music and then I was in the arts. I was everywhere.
SD So you got into this so-called multidisciplinary thing pretty early on. Thanks to the chicks!
CP The things, the wings, the schlings.
SD So let’s go from Music and Art into—
CP Well, that was a long period. It was three years. I met all these interesting people. I became the Quasimodo of 53rd Street. I became actually quite well-known: first, as an already scandalous character, because the church did not like at all what I had done and wanted to get rid of me pretty quickly.
SD How did a nice Jewish boy get that job to begin with?
CP They didn’t ask me if I was Jewish or not. They asked me if I wanted to go up a very high bell tower and bang with my fists and legs and if I wanted to get ninety dollars a month. I thought, who would be stupid enough to do that but me? So I said, “Okay.” I liked the sound of these bells, but another thing was that I had a membership card to the Museum of Modern Art and it was just next door. I began to see Matisse and Rothko and Abstract Expressionism. The Water Lilies room became my favorite place to be. At fourteen, I began to confuse all of these different mediums. It wasn’t a concept of multimedia art. I didn’t do it for an idea. I was just, as I am now, fucking curious. You see something, you’re curious. You hear something, you’re curious. You watch something move, you’re curious. You make a placement of something, it’s curious. It’s all in the Big Curious. There are people who make barriers as to what they allow themselves to be curious about. Nobody ever trained me that I couldn’t be curious in my own way.
SD So did the church fire you?
CP They wanted to fire me immediately. But I had a guardian angel. The tower of St. Thomas church actually touched the offices of CBS Media. The office of the director of documentary films and media of all Columbia Broadcasting was directly next to my bells. When he began to hear these strange things coming from the church, he came to ask the church who was doing this. He fell in love with my music. After he told the church that this was great, I had my job forever. I didn’t get a higher pay from the church, but CBS eventually had me do the logo of all the documentary films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, using my bells. I got paid a lot for that.
SD Plus you were making ninety bucks a month, so you had a fucking day job and you were moonlighting. You were doing great.
CP Actually, I was selling marijuana outside of Music and Art. That was my sort of morning job, because I played at five o’clock at the church.
SD Let’s go from Music and Art to Mannes, where you met another very big influence in your life—the aforementioned poet Jerome Rothenberg.
CP Yes. I was supposed to be going to a music conservatory, because the musician father of my girlfriend saw that I had this talent that he couldn’t explain.
SD That is pretty amazing.
CP I was lucky, I wasn’t disciplined and I wasn’t at all shy. If I thought something, I would immediately tell you what it was, even force my opinion on you in a Brooklyn-y kind of way. It wasn’t arrogant; it was like I was a little Mel Brooks. And if you made fun of me, I loved it, in exactly that Brooklyn-Jewish tradition. That endeared me to people, and that helped to open many little doors in that time.
SD So at Mannes you met Jerry who was your literature teacher—
CP Well, a literature teacher in a conservatory. It was a Bachelor of Science degree. Leopold Mannes was one of the inventors of the Ektachrome Kodachrome process and with the millions that the family made with the copyrights, they opened a school. They were German Jews and loved to play chamber music. These scientists wanted musicians to get a diploma education, so that was why they forced you to at least get a Bachelor of Science degree, not Bachelor of Arts. They had science and math classes and English. But Jerome Rothenberg’s class was often empty because the musicians were busy practicing for the next concert or audition. He and I just hit it off, because in those days I had just started going to the Donell Record Library, which was across the street from the bells. I listened to all the records that Moses Asch brought out in the ‘50s and ‘60s that became Folkways Records. He assembled hundreds of different ethno-musicologists who had gone out to islands and far-off places in the world and done these field recordings that I could take out with my library card. I was also listening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and to Bartók and all kinds of the New Music, Stockhausen, and Berio and all of these things. But I was more excited by the Polynesian and the aborigines’ and the Hopis’ music. The things they were doing were so incomprehensible, so mysterious. Blah bah dah dah doh. I began to have this personal cosmology. At that time Jerry Rothenberg was writing his book Technicians of the Sacred, which brought all of these different things together: happenings, Dada, the Futurists, and indigenous peoples’ rituals. He explained the how and what: they did this and then they made a pumpf, they turned around three times and then they took off an armband. All that stuff was exactly what I was hot for and where I was going. Jerry was a very quiet person. He still is a very modest, mild-mannered person. He is not emotional. But the rituals he was describing were the opposite of who he was—people screaming and jumping, kicking and punching each other. I was an up-and-coming psychopath and he found that very charming.
Installation view of Bodyy Musicxx, 2014. Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
SD This is when you start to develop what you call your form of folklorica?
SD So we have all of this stuff that is now filtering through you from the Sam An—
CP The Sandman? (laughter)
SD Yeah, Sandman. The Mo Asch stuff.
CP (singing) Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.
SD Shut up already!
CP (continues singing) Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen.
SD Hey! I’m the interviewer. Give me some space here. Now, through this you develop, what I consider, a really profound aesthetic—
CP —A profound aesthetic? You say that in a very Brooklyn way.
SD Yeah. That’s my accent.
CP It doesn’t sound like David Attenborough.
SD Shut up! My Brooklyn accent won’t show up in print. Where does your chanting originate?
CP When I was a child, there was a weekly television program—maybe you knew it too—with a guy named Ed Herlihy.
SD The Children’s Hour.
CP They had children come and sing or dance on national television and if you won, you could have an early career, like Shirley Temple. In those days, my favorite singer was a singer of popular music called Johnnie Ray. He wore a hearing aid.
SD (singing) Talk to her please, Mr. Sun.
CP When he sang he would have this strange way of tuning his sounds and he made these grimaces with his mouth and these spastic gestures that I adored. (singing) When your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye. Or The little white cloud that cried. He was my favorite singer.
SD One of my favorites too. We grew up with the same songs.
CP From Johnnie Ray to Pran Nath to these Jewish cantors to this New York Times critic who said two days ago that I make unpleasant noises—
SD The heck with that guy!
CP No, but I like it. I find it very interesting that we can accept all kinds of art—like Damien Hirst putting animals in formaldehyde—but my voice, singing this way, is considered noise by the New York Times in 2014. Anyway, where were we?
SD We were into that thing about your strange, highfalutin, high-pitched, nonverbal sound poetry.
CP I love that. You have never said that to me. That’s so beautiful. Sound poetry. Oh!
SD And I will tell you why I say that. This strange, high-pitched, nonverbal sound poetry is always part of your opening libations.
CP My opening libations? Oh my God!
SD Which seem very Christian and blood-of-the-lamb-like. It’s kind of chant-singing and the reason why I call it sound poetry is that you are making post- and neo-language sounds.
CP Oh, I like that, too. Let’s have a little more whiskey. Now you are inspiring me. I’m falling back in love with my own work.
SD One word that we almost simultaneously mentioned in the context of your performances was ritual.
CP Many rituals that I know of in voodoo tradition, or in the traditions of indigenous peoples—they have been doing the same kind of stuff each day, like we eat and drink and shit.
SD They are all repetitive rituals.
CP I have never imagined myself doing things that are too premeditated in the Western sense of being conscious. But ritual I am okay with. Rhys Chatham and I started to play together two or three years ago. When he says, “What key are we going to play in?” I say, “Well, We-key or Kiki or Sliki.” Then we go where it turns out we go.
SD Which is exactly what happens with me, in a much less elaborate sense, because I am just up there reading and whoever is playing is playing. I wanted go into something after this highfalutin-sound-poetry stuff—
CP Oh, highfalutin. I love that word. I haven’t heard it in such a long time. When you come from the streets that is a term that you use. Highfalutin meant the upper-schmuppers.
SD I grew up around a lot of those. In regard to the ritual-thing and the music-thing, when I mentioned to you that BOMB magazine asked me to talk to you specifically about that, you responded in three consecutive emails—“We can talk about Latkemusic, Kishkamusic, Knishemusic, Creplachmusic, and Pastramimusic.” In the second email, your coda was, “Can we throw in Gefilte-fish music with a side of red horsing-around radish?” Your third email ended with, “Don’t forget the Schmaltz-Herringmusic.” Now how much of all that figures into your music?
CP That’s it. I don’t like the word music by itself. It has nothing to do with me. I’m sure there are musicians, and I have met some of them, and there have been musicians for centuries, but they are not me. Sometimes I enter a world where sounds do things that could resemble music, but again I prefer curiosity: I move. I groove. I sit. I fall. I sing. I sming. I ring. I ding. I flip. I flop. I schmip. I schmup. For me those are all part of gesamtkunst—total art. And it’s not something I invented; it is a German term from the end of the nineteenth century. Gesamtkunst is what pop Balinese people do. It’s what Hopis do. That’s what the Mesoamericans did centuries ago. They painted. They danced. They vomited. They fucked. They swung around. They drank. They ate. They built. They destroyed. That was their civilization. It was a civilization that also did these certain disciplines.
SD Yeah, it’s what we call interdisciplinary now.
CP Which is a very Protestant way of putting it.
SD Many in the scene felt that you were only a pianist.
CP I was a pianist. It destroyed fifteen years of my career. I couldn’t get any work because people saw me as a pianist. Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, and Matthew Barney became the kings of a form that I helped to invent, but because I was a pianist, I was nothing. Being a pianist was like being the waiter in a small hotel in the Catskills.
SD What did the real pianists think of you?
CP They did not care to know me. I didn’t care to know them, so we had no problem. But for twenty years I was not invited to any galleries or to Sotheby’s to have my work selling for two million dollars like Kelley. And Kelley, he denied that I existed. I wasn’t permitted. It felt like being a nigger or a fucking Jew.
SD How would a guy like Philip Glass react in those days?
CP Philip Glass is a musician. He wouldn’t have a problem. I knew him and I knew artists like Daniel Buren and Nancy Holt. I knew Robert Smithson, we used to drink and vomit at Max’s Kansas City together.
SD Were you playing minimalist music at that point?
CP No, but there was this idea that you have to choose a side.
SD You have to choose your high, squeaky voice, right?
CP Not being chosen was devastating, as it still is. Happily I have a life in Europe. In 1997, a piece of Mike Kelley’s went up for sale at Sotheby’s for $1,900,000. Jenny Holzer puts a poem on an electric machine and all of the sudden it’s worth $200,000. But if you write it on a piece of paper, it is worth bupkas. I have problems with that.
SD What traditions musically and art-wise do you feel you are a part of, what influences—minimalism, older scene, flirting with disaster, self-destructionist, video—
CP Wait, wait. Flirting with disaster I like. Self-destructionist I like. Minimal, I think that is when you go for a dinner or take a taxi and you don’t leave a good tip. I am a maximalist.
SD Are you?
CP I don’t like minimal. I hate that term—even for the people who are now known as that.
SD Do you not like labels at all?
CP I like flirting with disaster. I like terms that are open and provocative and unusual and evocative and we don’t know where things will be going next. Abstract Expressionist, I would not have minded that. Impressionist I adore. I would masturbate to being an Impressionist. But I find you use the word music too much in my case. I do not like that word. I am a sound artist. Or I am a sonarist, maybe. Or a noisy bastard. Making sounds and music are something quite different. I like music and I listen to it from time to time, but it is not me.
SD Let’s forget about music. As far as I am concerned, you do many things and you do them all your own way.
CP You got it. I wouldn’t ask people to banish the term music. Just banish it with me. I use an organ if it happens to be available. I use bells. I use my body or the bodies of others. Or I use a drink or a glass. I use whatever can evoke magical things.
SD In regard to your art—
CP My art?
SD Well, that is what it is. I’m sorry.
CP No, no. It’s okay. It was your accent. All of the sudden it wasn’t Brooklyn anymore.
SD Anyway, with all of this shit that you do—
CP All of this shit! I prefer that.
SD Where do your religious and ethnic roots fit in, the balance or unbalance of your psyche? All of these performances that you do are, as far as I am concerned, interrelated.
CP What you see here is what you get.
SD Someone once told me, although I write very few poems about Judaica or Judaism, “You will never get away from it.”
CP They have said that to me, too.
SD Everything you do, you’re a Jew. That’s how it goes.
CP I like it, but I will never do things that are Jewish—
SD —but in a way you do, because you are very into ritual.
CP Someone said to me, “You know what I really love about your singing is that incredible religiousness and sacredness, but from no particular religion or place.” I said, “That’s exactly right.” A sacredness without specificity.
SD Whichever God we are going to talk about.
CP Well, they are the messengers, really. Even Ganesh doesn’t want that job.
SD So these stuffed animals: When you did the organ solo in the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn this March, you set up an altar and on each side the “kids” had alternate, blinking lights.
CP They are there: Lucino and Luciano.
SD To me that is very religious.
CP I have nothing against altars, but I don’t like specifically being known as a Lubavitch, Methodist, Buddhist, or a Moonie altar boy.
SD We are not talking about you. We are talking about how you use your children.
CP It’s an altar, but only if an altar means something a little off, higher than or somewhere on a different level than ordinary—
SD Like the Golden Calf?
CP Now you’re being very Jewish. When I did my bear with three heads and two bodies for Documenta in 1987 with Steiff Toy Company in Germany, the man helping me was the great-nephew of Margarete Steiff, who founded the company at the same time the Michtom family here invented the teddy bear in Brooklyn. We tried to find the title for the bear. I wanted to call him the God Bear. That scared him. He wanted it to be called the Buddha Bear. I didn’t like that. Then I thought to call it God’s Bear, meaning like everybody has a bear and this was an enormous one. Why can’t God have his own toy bear? When you make a larger-than-life, totemic religious or potentially religious object for adoration, its implications are important. I like to call him a God Bear because he is the God of those teddy bears. It had nothing to do with God-God, not the Golden Calf instead of God. He has his own world. Bears have their own things. Poodles can have their own God. Squirrels or crocodiles can have their God. I’m not sure if Jehovah was upset that I gave another God to them. I’m still around.
SD What is your connection to your creatures, your “children”? When did you start using them? When did you start traveling with them?
CP These creatures are in my everyday life all of the time. We have been together fifteen years. Some of them Aude and I got together. We take care of them. They are like our family. We are like a circus, traveling together. When we are at home, they also have their place.
SD Do people think you’re crazy? This attachment to these stuffed animals.
CP There’s attachment to money. They don’t think that is crazy.
SD How long have you been involved with the animals to this extent?
CP From the beginning, like all children. I have been looking at different tribes from early on. I prefer them to modernist, Western culture.
I found out much later, from the great-nephew of Steiff, that the Michtoms came from Belarus, Russia where my mother is from. Their house was one mile from where I was born. He said to me, “You are like the descendent of the Michtoms. You come from exactly where the teddy bear was born.” So I’m thirty and I find out that the tribalism that I have been looking for, I had already been traveling with, in my red suitcases.
Like all parents in Western culture, my mother thought that at a certain moment I would be too old for stuffed animals. She let me go a little longer, to eleven maybe. Well, one day I come home from school and all of my animals are gone. I say, “Where are they?” “They’re gone.” And so I have a great crisis. She won’t tell me where they are. It’s time now that I am an adult. My father was an unimportant member of the family, he was always ill, and it was my mother who made decisions. Even though my father worked for the Jewish mafia as a builder, he didn’t make decisions at home.
Well, one day after this terrible moment of loss, we’re on a trip to Rockaway Beach. We are in the car and we get a flat tire. We stop on the side of the road and my father opens the trunk to get a spare tire. In the trunk of the car are all of my stuffed animals. I go crazy amazed, because I used them to talk to my parents when I had trouble communicating with them. My animals used to talk in different voices to my parents to act as my lawyer or whatever. They would explain things. My father was a bit of a simpleton, in the most poetic sense of the word, and he had gotten used to them talking. My mother, furious, said, “Phil, I told you to throw those things away! Why are they here?” My father’s answer was, “Shirley, when I tried to throw them away, they started to talk to me, Don’t throw us away!” And my father, who had no fantasy, no sense of humor, had felt that these animals had become creatures for him, too. He couldn’t throw them away.
Anyway, my mother threw them out a second time—just before my Bar Mitzvah. My father died three months after. I never saw my animals again. But the story continues. When I am about eighteen, a girlfriend of mine gives me a bear. Then I meet a woman at CalArts who buys me a teddy who becomes my famous bear. By the early ‘70s I have these stuffed animals all around again.
SD And you start using the animals in your performances?
CP Once I left home and was no longer constrained by a matriarch who wanted me to be an adult, it started all over again. It’s my destiny.
SD Earlier I talked about your emails and the Latkemusic, the Kishkamusic and so on, but here’s how I read it in the email: “Issss itttt, orrr issss itttt weeee all gonnnaa beeee inn apple sauceyyy toggethhher in Aprrril, Monday, the fourteenth? Or the fiffteeenth at MoMMMa? Can you guyyysss bee thereeeeee?”
CP Beautiful. Wow. (clapping) I never thought that anyone would read my emails like that. That is exactly the spirit that I write them in, not for the gravelly voice that you have, but certainly for the long way of saying it like that.
SD The first time I saw you perform, you came to New York to play at David Tudor’s memorial at Judson church in 1996. It was a pretty incredible event. Then we actually met through a mutual friend [Alan Scarritt] in Paris around 2006 or 2007.
CP I didn’t like you then, with those highfalutin terms.
SD You hated me? I didn’t know this.
CP But now with these highfalutin terms you have endeared yourself to me.
SD As far as I can tell, you are and always have been an individualist, a truly unclichéd person, one-of-a-kind. There was something about the night we met, besides that we had a very colorful talk about our childhoods. When we left the gathering it was raining hard and we were all very worried that we were going to miss the last metro. But you suddenly said, “Wait! It doesn’t matter. I have to go kiss the butt of the lion. He is there in the middle of Denfert-Rochereau.” Does the lion relate at all to your family?
CP I’m a Leo. I was born the 15th of August. That’s not all. I love that big lion. He needs his ass kissed. We kiss the ass of Obama. We kiss the ass of Putin. We kiss the ass of Warhol. We kiss the ass of Yoko Ono. We kiss all of these asses. If we are going to kiss any ass, I would prefer to kiss the ass of that lion.
SD When you left New York in the early 1970s, you were completely disheartened with the art world in all aspects: music, painting, blah, blah, blah. Amazingly through some people in France, your career—
CP There were people who believed in me. In Europe you can find so much support. There are a lot of little festivals that you could make enough money to get to next Tuesday and to the Wednesday afterward. Now I am playing with Thurston Moore. We just did a BBC show. We all play together like in the old days, like when Mingus said, “Hey. Tenor Player!” Now I can say, “Hey. Zoomba! Let’s play. Tonight I have a gig.”
SD Just in this year you have been in very major events—the one-man show at Sonnabend, the show with Simone Forti at MoMA, the Whitney Biennial, and the Issue Project Room gigs.
CP Like poetry, we’re on a low totem pole. I have had a flash in the pan, you could say, this year, but nothing major has happened that gives me confidence that things are getting seriously better. To have a life point of view, I am now being honored for something I did after all of these years, that I deserve. But the life of a performer in this time and in this place, I don’t see it becoming much better. The major players in the financial art market weren’t at our events. They want to be in control and they don’t like it when I make a flash in the pan without their permission. I think it is a temporary feeling.