Much like his fellow American peers Pauline Oliveros and La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine has spent much of his career using the languages of minimalism and drone music to trace imaginative realms that frequently outdistance the physical. But his approach is far more abstract than that of his illustrious, better-known contemporaries, and the fact is that there is something palpably unsettling about the current phase of Palestine’s work. The techniques and approaches used are similar or even identical to those employed by Palestine in his early works like Strumming Music (1974) or the all-electronic statements collected on In Mid-Air (1967-70), but these days he delves much deeper into esoteric, even oneiric, territory. And the thing with dreams and enigmas is that they sometimes hide and conceal disturbing revelations. From Tony Conrad to Z’ev via Janek Schäfer, Palestine has spent much of the last half-decade or so reaching out to his fellow sound explorers on the weirder side of the minimalist continuum, and despite the clear delight and joy the aged Palestine seems to derive from coupling his talents to those of liked-minded musical personalities, it has not deterred him from conjuring up shady, even somber, atmospheres with these newfound collaborators. Youuu + Mee = Weeee is no exception to this trend, and in fact it might just represent the culmination of Palestine’s recent journeys.
If you’re a follower of Palestine’s work, many aspects of this album will feel instantly familiar. Palestine mostly uses his trusted Bösendorfer piano and his singular, if eccentric, singing, repeated notes clustering together into clouds of hypnotic microtones; these are the result of distinct retuning of the keyboard strings that significantly alters the instrument’s tone, allowing Palestine to create his trademark dense layers of sound. There is something liminal about Palestine’s approach to music making, as if more meaning could be discerned in a state of almost sleep. And with his formative immersion in the post-punk and “downtown” experimental scenes of late-seventies New York, Rhys Chatham, who was the first musical director of the famed cutting-edge venue The Kitchen and performed with the likes of Glenn Branca and Thurston Moore, might just be the ideal collaborator for Palestine. While the multi-talented Conrad is an old friend of Palestine’s, their recent album together, An Aural Symbiotic Mystery, sounded more like two rivals impatiently jousting, whilst his duo with Z’ev was on the carillon (a set of full-size bells controlled by a series of keys and levers) and was therefore altogether more chilly and imposing. Here, Chatham takes to the trumpet in the main (an instrument he took up relatively late in life), using loop pedals to create a startlingly accurate tonal approximation of Palestine’s piano sonority. Chatham’s trumpet opens the first piece (laconically titled “First”) with a chorus of sustained notes, already doubled up and extended, and it is several minutes before Palestine joins the fray.
Chatham is thus an excellent foil for Palestine: their respective instruments never intrude upon one another, instead meshing into a serenade of pure tones and elegant drones. It’s only when Palestine starts singing that the balance is subtly altered to suggest something mournful rather than ecstatic. His voice is admittedly an acquired taste, a wordless mew that often strains as he stretches into the higher register, and yet its power is undeniable: raw, primordial, and uneasy, its presence serves to render relatively familiar sonic textures alien. This is particularly true of the first piece, where Palestine’s drawn-out yowls distort the initially mellifluous aura, transforming the music into something altogether more inchoate. Chatham, meanwhile, stays out of Palestine’s way, something that illustrates one of the more pleasant byproducts of much improvised minimalist practice: the artists in this scene are so much more focused on the results of their playing and its transcendental potential, that they listen to one another more intently than many “mainstream” improvisers do. There’s a clear sense of communion on Youuu + Mee = Weeee, and not just between the two men performing, but between them and those listening at home.
At an hour’s length, the second piece (“Second”) forms something of a centerpiece to the album (a deceptive one, mind, since “Third” is 52 minutes long), and on it Palestine ditches the piano in favor of an electronic organ, while Chatham takes to his guitar. Here, the latter’s background in the heady deconstructionism of no wave creeps to the fore, and it’s a triumph of the unexpected, as Chatham’s fizzy, Lou Reed-esque stylings inject a street-wise, earthy, punk frisson into the proceedings, even as Palestine’s swirling, never-ending organ drones stretch towards the cosmos. Here, perhaps, lies Charlemagne Palestine’s greatest talent: he approaches a genre that is almost always fundamentally serious (I’ve seen the really stripped-down minimalist music of the 1960s and early 1970s compared to the Conceptual-minded sculptural art of Robert Morris) and yet he finds ways to toy with such preconceptions—here by taking a step back and allowing a younger musician with a slightly different background and harder-edged temperament to deform the parameters of what he normally does. Indeed, this is part and parcel with Palestine’s quirky stage persona (no Palestine performance is complete without his trusty bottle of brandy and his suitcase full of stuffed toys). He effectively colors minimalism’s gravitas with a sense of ritual that oscillates between joviality and unease, and this album comes the closest of any I’ve heard to reproducing the strangely ceremonial and often shadowy atmosphere of Palestine’s live shows. As for Chatham, he has long been a mainstay of minimalism’s non-commercial wing in his own right (check out Two Gongs, his 1971 masterpiece), having started his career as a piano tuner for Young, when he was a member of his Theatre of Eternal Music group, among whose alumni can be numbered Conrad, Angus MacLise, and John Cale (the last two of The Velvet Underground fame). But on “Second,” Palestine gives Chatham full license to take minimalism into expressive territory with which few ordinarily associate it.
Palestine adds piano to the organ on “Third” whilst Chatham returns to his trumpet—bringing the whole thing full circle—and it’s the densest, most foreboding-forbidding piece of the set. The sly, deceptive humor of the second track is gone altogether, as Palestine moans like a man possessed and pounds the keys with increasing venom. Chatham’s trumpet buzzes like a swarm of insects, and it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is an evocation of some dark cosmic drama that these two alone have glimpsed—but one that the rest of us should be mightily afraid of all the same. Again, this could not be further removed from the sometimes sterile art gallery ambiance of classic minimalism, being rather more akin to the dramatics of prog rock or classical composition. It’s stark and overwrought, but also irresistibly affecting.
Despite its garish cover and frankly ridiculous title, Youuu + Mee = Weeee exists in minimalism’s nocturnal spheres, far removed from the concert hall comforts of the genre’s more lionized practitioners. Instead of expanding the number of tools at their disposal, Palestine and Chatham burrow deep into the sonic fabric of their instruments, dwelling on textures and tones until they’ve opened up wide canvases of pure sound. In just under three hours, they cover a huge amount of terrain using deceptively simple means. Youuu + Mee = Weeee is something of an epic, but it’s one with a glint in its eye and a pair of thoughtful hearts guiding it. Charlemagne Palestine has been sounding out quite a few sparring partners of late, but here’s to hoping he’ll join his creative soul to Rhys Chatham’s for more than just the one album.
Joseph Burnett is a music journalist based in London. He has written for The Quietus, Dusted Magazine, The Liminal, Londonears and Clash magazine. He also records as Frayed and his website is http://www.jpburnett.com.
Banner image: “Spices in the Spice Souk” by Allan Caplan, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.