A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck   CB0025

The music

A Sweert Quasimodo is a piece for two pianos played simultaneously in a tremolo style that Palestine calls “strumming,” a technique that has defined his piano music since the late ’60s. It spins out its sonic tapestry in surges and ebbs, and dense sonorities with hypnotically dancing overtones grow from its few opening pitches.

This live recording from the Maybeck recital hall also contains Palestine’s short comments about his life in California in the ’70s and, accompanied by a rubbed brandy snifter, his singing of a few very short “ritual” songs in his unique falsetto vocal style.

The composer-performer

Charlemagne Palestine is a composer/performer/visual artist, who grew up in Brooklyn, singing in his synagogue choir. At age 16, he became carilloneur at NYC’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church. In the early days of his professional career, he had important musical associations with Tony Conrad, Morton Subotnick, Pandit Pran Nath, Ingram Marshall, Simone Forti, and Philip Glass. During the 1970s, he was active as a much-acclaimed composer-performer on New York’s minimalist music scene. His performances, particularly his piano “strumming” events, have always embraced eccentric elements–extremely physical performances on pianos covered with stuffed animals while consuming prodigious quantities of cognac and clove cigarettes. In the ’80s, he all but retired from music and turned to creating visual art, often involving animal and stuffed-animal imagery, which has been exhibited throughout the world. In the 1990s, he resumed his music career. Today, his audience larger than ever, he tours throughout the world, performing his own music and creating installations. A large, illustrated book about his life and work, Sacred Bordello, was published in 2003.

“Palestine’s work offers sonic sculptures to be thoroughly inspected and savored at every moment.” —Dean Suzuki, Wired

“Palestine has a way of choosing notes so as to tremendously affect the thickness of the sound and create panoramic variety (and even microtonal anomalies) among the overtone masses he is creating, sort of a one-man acoustic Glenn Branca symphony.” —Kyle Gann, Village Voice

“[T]here is nothing typical about Palestine, he seems to fit into no known vessel.” —Ingram Marshall, from Schlingen-Blängen liner notes (New World Records)

“Charlemagne Palestine once rivaled [LaMonte] Young as being the most dynamic and compelling early minimalist figure, a legend for giving night-long performances frenetically strumming pianos … ” —Kyle Gann, NewMusicBox


“Hearing Charlemagne Palestine’s magical approach to the piano live is one of the great “have to be there” experiences. As wonderful as his all-too-rare appearances on recordings have been, none really captures the total experience: in which his maniacal minimalist solo piano pyrotechnics are often accompanied by a sea of teddy bears and a snifter of cognac. But Cold Blue’s new A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies, in which Palestine simultaneously pounds on two pianos, eking out otherworldly resonances, comes really close. There’s even a short prelude featuring the composer speaking and singing to the audience, as well as sharing some cognac.” —Frank J. Otari, NewMusicBox (Amer. Music Center)

“Charlemagne Palestine…is among the most distinctive figures to have emerged as part of the late 1960s counter-culture. Although he is often referred to as a Minimalist, his work has little systemic abstraction: indeed, its ritualistic and ceremonial qualities have more in common with John Cage and Lou Harrison.… A Sweet Quasimodo opens with a typically informal address to the audience, toasting them with a snifter of cognac and setting the mood with a raga-like vocalise sung falsetto. There follows a 36-minute piece played simultaneously on two Yamaha pianos.… Its rapid and parallel repetition of notes gradually fuse into a haze of harmonics which mutates into myriad timbres, accentuated not only by the detuning of the instrument but also by the ‘deep listening’ such a process of imperceptible change induces. When Palestine breaks off the performance, with the adage that he is really just getting going, there is indeed a sense of coming back to reality—albeit after an experience never less than pleasurable.” — Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review

A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies is another instance of [Palestine’s] strummed piano music, alternating tones conspiring with a depressed sustain pedal to create a deep well of resonant clusters radiating overtones.… Palestine uses two Yamaha pianos simultaneously. The initial impact is absorbing—once again, an enveloping music. A secondary impression is, once again, astonishment at the physical control exercised by Palestine in terms of stamina and attack. The title of the piece may carry an air of decadence, but this remarkable music crucially involves muscular strength and highly disciplined touch. Pleasingly, the recording retains Palestine’s introductory comments to the audience and a brief song delivered with accompaniment from a rubbed brandy glass.” —Julian Cowley, The Wire magazine

“As a celebrated performer and composer of some forty years standing, Palestine’s reputation naturally precedes him.… His ritualistic, sometimes hours-long piano performances develop organically with the focus on overtone interactions generated from a small selection of notes. The Cold Blue set begins with spoken reminiscences about his early years in California (accompanied by the soft drone of a rubbed brandy snifter no less).… it lends an intimate character to the performance, making it feel as if one is hearing him perform in his living room.… The thirty-seven minute piece proper begins with Palestine worrying a two-note cell obsessively, as if contemplating the journey ahead and the route to follow. His playing rapidly accelerates and then slows; quickly establishing the work’s tremolo character, he almost surreptitiously adds layers from a second piano. The notes swell into ‘architectonic’ masses, and the work ruminatively ebbs and flows, and intensifies as Palestine’s attack turns ever more aggressive. Shifting waves of sonorous clusters reach their peak at the thirty-minute mark before the tempo slows and the introductory two-note cell reasserts itself; Palestine then guides the listener towards the work’s close with the comment ‘Normally, I would do an ending, but this is just the beginning’ and a brief bit of falsetto musing.… A Sweet Quasimodo…[is a] compelling addition to Cold Blue’s catalogue” —Ron Schepper, Signal to Noise magazine

“Palestine’s work is minimalist in that it uses an extremely limited range of musical materials repeated with very slowly evolving changes, so that small differences—an added pitch, a slight shift in tempo or volume, a new timbre or overtone—can take on monumental musical significance. [In] A Sweet Quasimodo…he plays the piano, in a manner similar to his Strumming Music (1974), repeating a single note and very gradually adding more notes, increasing the speed of the repetitions and the volume until huge clusters are struck at what seems like an inhumanly fast tempo. Palestine creates and maintains a high level of drama and powerful visceral engagement through his constant varying of articulation, volume, and sonorities, and the astonishing overtones they create. Close attention to the sounds rewards the listener with a sensuous and compelling sonic experience.” —Stephen Edins, All-Music Guide

“A compelling concert experience.”Sequenza21

“Charlemagne Palestine’s improbably titled record, A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck, begins with an endearing recording of Palestine addressing the audience at Maybeck in Berkeley, California. Part audience repartee and part performance art, Palestine reminisces about the rituals that have seeped into his art as a result of his relationship to the ‘Eureka’ state, all the while toning the rim of a large brandy snifter that, he assures the crowd, everyone will be invited to drink from at the end of the show. What follows is almost forty minutes of endlessly modulating, pulsating, piano drone. Played simultaneously on two Yamaha pianos (maybe it’s hard to find Bosendorfers in California), A Sweet Quasimoto… begins with a deceptively simple two finger pulse that quickly builds into a rich, hypnotic stream of superimposed chords, ghost notes, and beating tones—the two pianos, with sustain pedals depressed, resonating sympathetically to one another. As always, Palestine builds and moves through complex frameworks of consonances and dissonances to admirable effect, creating a sensual, shape-shifting web of tension and relief that one doesn’t so much listen to as give in to and immerse one’s self in. Now, where’s that brandy?” [CC] —Other Music Update

“Described simply, Palestine’s music comes from the inherent minute variations and overtones associated with sustained tones, and their less than ‘perfect’ interactions with each other…what are known as “beating” tones, for example. The music lives on the border of scientifically explicable wave physics and ambiguous, inexplicable mysticism.… A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck qualifies as one of the best titles I’ve heard all year.… During the work’s initial moments, he contents himself with a single note struck repeatedly (alternating between the two pianos?), varying the speed of the repetition and the intensity of his touch. As time goes on, he varies the texture by adding or taking away notes, all the while building up gargantuan sonorities through repetition, aided by the sustaining pedals. The composer calls this technique, which creates a tremolo effect, ‘strumming.’ Compared to Palestine’s rarefied Schlingen-Blängen, a work for organ, A Sweet Quasimodo is in at least one way confusingly ‘maximalist,’ in that so many different notes are used. The composer’s sometimes hammering insistence on them keeps the music firmly in the camp of old-school Minimalism, however, and the accumulating jet engine-like sonorities, which are both shimmering and monolithic, are inexplicably gorgeous … One feels that his music could go on forever, and that his performances simply take chunks, large or small, out of that ‘foreverness,’ if you will.” —Raymond Tuttle, Classical.net

“Palestine begins with a short spoken introduction, also rubbing harmonics out of a glass of cognac and vocalizing in his own unique falsetto. Then the piece begins.… Starting with the usual reiteration of solitary notes, Palestine builds in a dynamic process that’s almost violent at times, a breath-like, come-and-go cycle of superimposed dissonances that ends with a long silence and a few final words before the applause. As always, you’ve got to play the thing quite loud to perceive the high resonances fighting and embracing, which is what Palestine’s music is all about.… [R]epeated spins convince me of its staying power.” —Massimo Ricci, Paris Transatlantic

A Sweet Quasimodo…, one of Palestine’s most recent releases, documents a 2006 performance by the artist recorded in Berkeley, California. A solo duet of sorts, played simultaneously on a pair of pianos, the piece begins with a slow alternation between two notes, with plenty of sustain; the inertia building as the playing becomes more rapid. Especially in its simplest moments, A Sweet Quasimodo… focuses as much on the sonorities that arise as the notes decay and intermingle as it does the sounds of initial hammer-on-wire contact. As Palestine’s playing grows denser, the clustered notes and their increasingly opaque aural trails blend into a rich sound field that, at its best moments, starts to peel away from the physical act of a man playing pianos, music that doesn’t deny its source, but grows into something more than the relatively simple actions that cause it. The piece moves at largely steady tempos, with occasional changes that act as the music’s joints, providing ample segue for movement up and down the keyboard. Palestine’s vaunted ‘strumming’ technique steers the piece from a gentle glimmer towards something far more formidable, and the music moves from something more conceptually stirring into sound that achieves a certain physicality of effect, even on disc. ” —Adam Strohm, Dusted magazine

“Certainly the array of bizarre textures Palestine conjures from his twin pianos is fascinating—from ghosts of xylophones, and even sitars, to huge sweeping howls of sound. Furthermore, the more minimalist moments are very beautiful, the (occasional) chord changes very well judged, and his quick flourishes delightful.” —Joe Boswell, Stride magazine (UK)

“Charlemagne Palestine has never moved me. His brand of minimalism has been of such an extreme sort that it has seemed almost inert. But I feel differently about him now after hearing this live concert recorded in Berkeley. After a brief and effective preparatory section where Palestine wordlessly vocalizes while rubbing his wet fingers on a brandy snifter, he launches into about 35 minutes of solo piano. A long, slowly building performance is marked by several gradually developing ascending, descending, curling, and arching lines. These improvisations have a diamond-like sculptural quality—glittering, light-filled and hard, making for pared-down, aristocratic minimalism. The structure of Palestine’s lines is clear and open, ready for the ear and mind to examine and revel in. A few days after listening to this I was in a building where, a couple of floors down, a man was tuning a piano. He spent over forty-five minutes going slowly up the keyboard from the low to high keys. The tuner exhausted the patience of every listener in the building except me and maybe himself. It sounded to me like a beautiful, meditative act and I think this is largely due to how Palestine opened up my ears to the detail a piano can offer in the right hands, even in the hands of a tuner. (Incidentally, for the first time I heard Palestine’s speaking voice on this record, where he introduces and makes concluding remarks about the concert and various things. I was surprised to find out that he sounds much like Truman Capote).” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor

“With microtonal assonances reminiscent of the American minimalist tradition, Charlemagne Palestine excites us again with A Sweet Quasimodo…, playing on two different Yamaha pianos at the same time, with polished abstract soundscapes, dreamlike sound passages, trembling reverberations.… The end result is a hypnotic iterated enchantment, gently repeated and with complex and finely modulated threads in the recording, made during a performance at the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley in 2006. There are also bonus short comments by the author about his life in California at the end of the sixties.… An absolute creative talent, highly imaginative in orchestrating conceptually and practically the dissolution of every superficial melody.” —Aurelio Cianciotta, Neural (Italy)

“Charlemagne Palestine is one of the original minimalists, the trance minimalists who, like La Monte Young, early Steve Reich, Terry Riley, creates music of repetition that by virtue of the sound worlds crafted, gives listeners the opportunity to enter a kind of mental realm that is not akin to everyday awareness, but rather a heightened condition. Since the late ’60s Maestro Palestine has been known for solo piano works that utilize often the sustain pedal and feature actively busy, shifting tremolo patterns on the instrument that simultaneously make for continual rhythmic patterns and a harmonic, ever-changing overall drone. He calls the technique ‘strumming.’

“A rather stunning example can be found on his concert recorded live at Maybeck Studios in 2006. A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck puts that 40-minute performance before our ears. Palestine holds forth on two Yamaha pianos simultaneously, doing what he does best, and doing it exceptionally well. Like much of his solo work, if not all, he occupies here a place somewhere between formalist new music and free improvisation. Palestine creates a maelstrom of sound to transfix and transport your listening being. His recordings don’t generally stay around long and since this one is one of his very best, grab it now and get into his world full-force. Recommended.” —Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review