Charlemagne Palestine From Etudes to Cataclysms

[Sub Rosa; 2008]

Styles: weird piano, minimalism, drone
Others: Anthony Pateras, John Cage, James Blackshaw, Terry Riley, Steve Reich

The album cover of From Etudes to Cataclysms bears a badly focused photo of a man (presumably the artist himself) ascending a staircase. This is an appropriate visual summary of the music contained within: the staircase, of course, is a common metaphor for the series of intervals in the chromatic scale, and it’s Charlemagne Palestine’s gradual, exhaustive blurring of a chosen interval that is the core substance of this music.

Reminiscent of his Strumming Music of 1974, in this imposing work we find the pianist flaunting one of music’s most devilish mechanisms: the tritone or diabolus in musica. Palestine splinters and multiplies this dissonant interval on the “Doppio Borgato,” which has a normal piano keyboard for the hands and a second, foot-operated keyboard on the floor. He sometimes moonlights as a carilloneur, playing a tower of massive church bells and a peculiar piano that enables him to explore a similar gamut of overlapping harmonics. Unlike bells, however, a piano can be de-tuned, and Palestine’s willful abuse of the sustain pedal ensures that notes are smudged flat and sharp over the course of each piece, further complicating the layered tonalities.

The “Etudes” of the first disc each cleave incessantly to their titular tritone intervals. These pieces seem to test the pianist’s threshold for pain as much as his virtuosity, as he is obligated to hammer away at that infernal interval measure after measure, page after page. The cataclysms of the second disc rain down with greater variety, generating tension and shifting veils of color through the accumulation of stormy arpeggios and dramatic shifts of register. It’s sumptuous, moody, and enveloping stuff. Together, the études and cataclysms make for a didactic pairing that yields lovely results: the first disc is Palestine’s arid lecture on harmony and dissonance; the second is his bravura demonstration of those principles at work.

For devotees of minimalism, From Etudes to Cataclysms is definitely worth a shot, as it showcases a more aggressive approach to the aesthetic. However, those unfamiliar with minimalism may be better served by tackling some Steve Reich or Terry Riley before attempting the unrelenting challenges in store here. Either way, this album of double piano is a pretty unique work of art.

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