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ÉRIC LÉTOURNEAU MEETS CHARLEMAGNE PALESTINE (October 1998)
Translated from French to English by Carole Legault, Sophie Laurent and Eric Letourneau
Eric Létourneau (EL) : Charlemagne Palestine performed yesterday at " L'autre caserne " in Québec City during a conference about performance organised by Le Lieu, centre en art actuel. Charlemagne, we spoke earlier about this performance, about the hostility and the electricity… People seemed to want to provoke you. There were no direct attacks against you, but the public had an ambiguous behaviour and was seeking a reaction on your part.
Charlemagne Palestine (CP) : Since I come from New York, from Brooklyn, and that I am of Jewish origin, this kind of hostility is not rare. I don't know many performers who can " play " with that. And last night, I had thought of doing things a certain way. And then, I realised I was like in a " corrida ", and I was the bull. So I changed the style of presentation. And the piece became : " me " against the public, in a certain way, with this other theme that was " The 1970's ", my work, the rituals I did, etc. And after a moment, this last blessing in a song…
EL : And this confrontation was not planned?
CP : But how can you plan such a confrontation? Except if you work in a context where there is usually this type of confrontation! In fact… it was weird - not even weird in fact - because we are all in the world of performance. Everyone, since three or four days was speaking about performance, the preceeding evening was " Fluxus " and, without saying it was superficial, I want to underline that their approach was not really " from person to person ". Everyone did a short piece between 10 and 30 seconds. It was done in a " presinium ". It was very conservative in a way. For my side, I reversed the situation, I change the time, as I always do, I asked to turn off all the lights, I closed the bar and asked that no one buy alcohol. I tried to establish a kind of communication, non-religious, but that might ressemble that of a group that arrives at a kind of ceremony or ritual. And, in the beginning, people were really against it. Because they had drank a lot and eaten a lot. After six hours of conference with many people I know, even people from Québec City… It was a good mix of people… very… " abusive "!
EL : What had you planned to do in the beginning? The musical piece at the end?
CP : In fact, I almost managed to do everything I had planned but in a very different atmosphere. Less serious, with the attack… The work was not necessarily less good because of this attack. In fact, I might have even liked it because I had found that the preceeding evening, Fluxus, was too " light ". Although I like Fluxus. But now it's accepted by everyone. Before, it was something " avant-garde ". I like the useless rituals. But it is done in very formal contexts. Larry Miller was dressed in smoking with a bow tie. He looked a lot like a parody of " concert hall ". And since a long time, I believe that it is not a very important preoccupation anymore. The world has changed now. There is techno, disco, and all that, and there are many other places to listen to music. My intention for the 1960's was also to demonstrate that other people and I wanted to mix the idea of composition with a sort of " persona ", because I make music, I always dressed in a certain way, I always have my plush, I always have my cognac, I always have my scarfs, and all that. I am composer, performer, story-teller, and a character, all at once. That is the difference between the 1960's and the 1970's. And we also come to this idea : when we go to a rock concert for example, there is amplification and you can " blitz on the spot " the public! And, therefore, you don't have any contact with the hostility of the public because you have totally " destroyed " their ears. But what was interesting yesterday, and I talked about that, is that I could speak from one human being to another.
EL : The public could send you messages…
CP : …And they did! It was " one " against " many ", because I was alone and there were many people in the audience. I like this image of the individual against society. And because of this work, I realise that even if I am older than 50, I can still… how do you say for animals? …
EL : "...domestiqué"?
CP : Yes! "J'ai domestiqué!"… "J'ai domestiqué 200 personnes hier soir!" I … I was… I am thrilled! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
EL : You mentionned, regarding Fluxus, " useless rituals ". According to you, what are useful rituals?
CP : No! No! I like… Robert Filliou who spoke of the useless artist. An I like that idea. For example, everything I did does not come from a religion, I don't belong to a cult, I do rituals as in a tribe, but which tribe? I chant as if I were chanting for ghosts, but which ghosts? I have done serious speeches about all sorts of things, I even got upset about a kind of ideological position, but I have no ideological position! Except this idea : "human being to human being "! The aspect of " uselessness ", it goes on. Because I'm not doing political art, I don't really do any sarcastic remarks or social critique. The only thing I have criticised is us, yesterday, between 10 and 11h30. That's all. Because I am not a social critique. Yes, I have many problems with my society. Sometimes, for me, almost every day, it's the same feeling. Me, individual, I am confronted to a society infinitely larger than me that wants to " lock me up ". And I feel that all the time. I also felt it yesterday.
EL : And you also mentionned yesterday, during your performance, that the music we called " minimalist " in the 1980's, used to be called " trance " music. You are one of the pioneers of this genre. Could you tell us about that?
CP : The term " minimalist " was never applied to describe music before 1974-75. It was the musical critic of the Village Voice, Tom Johnson, who is also a composer, who used this word which only applied to sculpture : Sol Le Witt, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, Frank Stella… Only for visual artworks. And, as musicians, we were friends of these people. But now we are all minimalists! But then, we had made a distinction : when talking about visual arts, that was minimal, and when it was about music, that was trance. Particularly, for example, the music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich or Philip Glass, in those days. It was always amplified music, very very loud. Immediately, the public was " burried " in some kind of " blitz ", a trance. We could see 5000 people at a concert given by Phil Glass in those days, with all the amplifiers to the limit and in two seconds everyone was beat, in some sort of coma… It was repetitive… But we didn't use the word minimalist… And now it's minimalist, and in a sense, why not, it was minimalist… We can see now how this word can include many things. EL : Do you believe that it was a good idea that Tom Johnson apply this term to this music? CP : If it wasn't going to be him, it's obvious that someday, someone else would have made this distinction. Because we were all from the same generation too. But, I don't think I make minimalist music. I make maximal music with a minimum of elements! I think I make " Maximin Music ". Because many things happen… for example, instead of hearing a little tone... no, that's not me! There is always, like last night for example, there was fifteen minutes of some kind of music, but… after a … fight! So, finally, I find that sometimes this word is a prison. But, that's ok.
EL : Your approach, of the piano in particular, is tinted with the idea of performance art. Do you believe that you would have come to produce this type of work if you hadn't come from the sphere of art performance? Because these are works where interpretation demands a physical endurance, much closer to performance than to written and traditional musical performance techniques.
CP : Voilà! Exactly! That is the reason why my notation is strange. It's more physical than traditional " notational ". This music is custom-made. Each work is conceived for specific situations. Because there is also this type of vitality that, sometimes, you can't perceive in other music. Although some elements in other music ressemble elements of my music, it was written and presented in a traditional context. Now, many musical critics of the alternative press, in The Wire for example, write that I am legendary in this type of music. They say I do things never heard before. It's because I have this approach. It wasn't that unique : the difference is that I have overcome this barrier between " me " and the physics of sound. I am " physicial ", the sound is " physical " : I don't need paper between me and it.
EL : Between you and the sound…
CP : Right! And I don't need a " presinium " that would come from another century. I have nothing against other centuries, but they usually have nothing to do with the presentation of my music! Very early, I did as they do in techno. And it was typical of my generation. We found industrial zones, totally neutral buildings, that used to serve industries, factories, storage, and we decided that they would become concert halls. And it was simply a " cube ". And I liked the resonance of these " cubes ", I found that they had qualities of a cathedral, but stranger, because their resonance is not classical, and, well… I started to make music for each " cube ".
EL : Each space, according to its resonance.
CP : Each space and its resonance, right!
EL : You mentioned yesterday that you had stopped performing for fourteen years : quite a long period. It's something that I knew through Richard Martel. But Roland Sperkle, from the Impackt Festival, also told me you had stopped all musical activity during this period.
CP : Not only did I stop public performances, but I stopped doing anything related to performance, in my private life as well : everywhere!
EL : Including piano music?
CP : Everywhere, I stopped everything! Even now, I don't have a piano anymore. I have no personal piano since 1980. In 1979 or 80, I sold my Bösendorfer that the company had given me in 1974. I sold it to one of my students at the time. And I haven't had another piano since.
EL : But you have played in concert in 1987 on another Bösendorfer! There is an album of that (Godbear)! Have you played in concert occasionally?
CP : I did it twice in fourteen years. Because it was for collectors. I was a sculptor during this period. On two occasions, one of my collectors had asked me to do something for a private party and he payed me an enormous amount of money. So, I played.
EL : But wasn't it difficult? Because, physically, these pieces are very trying to play! Since you didn't play often, wasn't it difficult to get back to it ?
CP : Normally, everyone thinks that, and me too. It's logical. But because it's music I have played, for me, the only possible comparison I can make is that with making love. If you don't make love for years, the first time, it's a bit difficult. Sometimes, it hurts. But, you " know " how to do it! Poump, poump, poump, it comes, ah! The sound, the odour comes and there, you are " re-able " to make love! Even after a long period of abstinence! It's like that for me, I just started again… Well… I didn't go to the piano, without touching it for 14 years! I took a week before the concert, I played five times for an hour. And, I was ready! Voilà! That's how it was. Because my music was made for my body. And with my memory, even if I hadn't played, it was still in my body.
EL : Are you planning on going back to playing in concert on a regular basis?
CP : Not regularly, but this year, I played five or six times, in London, the Netherlands, in Germany, in Los Angeles. I am now available if it is in a context I find interesting.