DUBLIN – One of the best things I’ve done in Europe was spend 25 bracing hours with one of my composer heroes, Charlemagne Palestine. I’m astonished to have had the opportunity. I had heard stories of Palestine from the early ’70s on, but never heard a note until 1994, when his old Shandar vinyl disc Strumming Music was finally released on CD. I had come to figure that he was a legend whose music was lost to history, but since 1994 more than a dozen Palestine recordings have appeared, some of them old archival recordings, others documenting brilliant new work. He says now that he gave up music in the ’80s because the categories of that conservative era left no place for his music, but he’s never quit making art and film. I had had lunch with him years ago in New York, and finally got to hear him perform in 2000, but it was even more amazing to see him at his home in Brussels – a truly wonderful, livable, charming city – and to be treated by him to an incredibly hospitable tour.
Endlessly energetic and endearingly immodest, Charlemagne is a wealth of hysterical stories, all of which will have to appear in a book about him someday. For now, one that relates to my life will suffice. In 1969, Charlemagne recalled, someone asked Morton Feldman at a public interview whether his music was part of the “Downtown style.” “What Downtown style?,” Feldman answered dismissively. “I don’t know anything about any Downtown style.”
Well, Charlemagne was outraged. (Keep in mind that at this point he was 22 and Feldman was 43.) He went home and wrote Feldman a hilariously obscene letter which I won’t try to replicate here, because it wouldn’t be nearly as funny as hearing him tell it with appropriate hand gestures, but it had to do with where Feldman could stick something. And Charlemagne ended by signing it, “The Downtown community.”
In 1969 as this happened, I was an awkward 13-year-old kid at T.W. Browne Junior High School in Dallas. So for those of you who think that Downtown music was my invention (as has been publicly asserted more than once), or, even worse, a figment of my imagination, there you have vivid evidence of the Downtown scene, and its aggressive self-assessment, in 1969. I first heard about Uptown and Down ten years later, in 1979, when my teacher Peter Gena returned from the New Music New York festival. Then in 1986, as Village Voice critic, I inherited the Downtown scene that Tom Johnson had long been covering – I did not will it into existence through my verbal magic.
After that letter, Feldman could never bring himself to speak civilly to Charlemagne, which the latter sees as a major failing – if Feldman had had the same real kind of Brooklyn Jewish sense of humor as Charlemagne, he says, he would have just laughed it off. (The impressive number of important people Charlemagne has alienated makes me feel like a rank amateur in the provocation department.) Nevertheless, around 1969, Charlemagne and La Monte Young and Terry Riley and some other Downtowners were starting to give performances four, five, six hours long, and Charlemagne – who is a tremendous fan of Feldman’s late music – is convinced that by drawing Feldman’s attention to what was going on Downtown, he helped inspire Feldman’s ambition to write longer and longer pieces. So if anyone wants to partly credit Charlemagne’s scabrously funny letter with having contributed to one of the great repertoires of late-20th-century music – well, suffice it to say he won’t mind.
UPDATE: Another of Charlemagne’s alienation stories is a little more heart-warming. He and James Tenney didn’t speak for 30 years. What happened was, in the interview with Walter Zimmermann for Desert Plants, Zimmerman mentioned Tenney, and Charlemagne responded, “He’s the Mendelssohn of new music!” What Charlemagne was thinking, he says, was that Mendelssohn was a central figure of Romanticism who did a lot for other composers, and he was trying to say that Tenney held that same position. But apparently Tenney had such a low opinion of Mendelssohn’s music that he was terribly offended, and thought Charlemagne was calling his music facile and superficial. In any case, months before Tenney died the two of them were invited to a dinner party together and humorously made up. Aren’t you glad?