Charlemagne Palestine’s Carillon Bells (AV Festival Opening)
Civic Centre; Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

[03-05-2010]

If the certainly eccentric New York composer Charlemagne Palestine’s M.O. is to challenge Western audiences’ expectations of “what is beautiful and meaningful in music,” then his ribbon-cutting bells at the AV Festival certainly did the trick. Palestine performed a trilogy of bell works at various cathedrals and other-places-with-bell-towers in Northeast England as part the “energy”-themed European electronic arts, films, and media festival (the largest, or at least one of the largest), and this opening was loaded with the most potential spiritualism and symbolism.

A projected live video of his small “studio” (read: bell tower) in Newcastle upon Tyne’s Civic Centre provided clear insight into his self-aware quirk. Dressed in a tripped-out, wildcat-patterned jacket, Palestine paced frenetically with nose to handkerchief before a warily audience-/performer-debasing introduction in which he spoke about the trueness of the bells as a musical form and his days playing carillon bells in New York in the 60s. His mention of not being able to see the people “down below” on the streets seemed particularly relevant in his windowless box, especially when he started stamping the keys with both fists and feet with a palpably spiritual but low-key fervor.

The slightly funny thing was that when he begun, no sound could be heard indoors (thanks to good insulation and huge concrete walls), which wasn’t accidental and added to the mythos as everyone moved outside into a suitably lucid, blue dusk. Weird crystalline textures in the reasonably fragile and initially quiet bells came off pretty synathestic against the near-dark, and the metaphor of expansiveness was mirrored in the gradual build up of volume and density as Palestine played on for an hour or so. And despite the probably high level of expectation from the nature of such a performance being diffused by the abundance of nearby AV Festival art openings (and free wine), as well as the loadedness of the monolithic structure in which the quirky, humble musician sat, there was a distinct and calm grandeur to his triumphant and oblique harmonies ringing out across the city.