This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)
I spoke to Charlemagne Palestine by telephone, he in Belgium, in New York in the summer of 2001, after his return from a trip to Iceland. Palestine, as he himself says, met Pandit Pran Nath outside of the circle of musicians and composers associated with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, although his work is animated by a similar interest in minimalist strategies for composition and improvisation, and a concern with the transcendental qualities of sound. If you don’t know Palestine’s work, his interview with Brian Duguid should set you straight. For myself, I’ve never witnessed any of Palestine’s legendary live performances, but I love the CDs of Strumming Music, Schlingen Blangen and Karenina, each of which overflows with euphoric intensity. In conversation, Palestine’s voice has an extraordinary musical quality, full of spaces, half finished phrases that convey his meaning musically and poetically, always feeling their way beyond the words.
MB: How did you first meet Pran Nath?
CP: It was at the end of the sixties … I was living on the upper west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood that was known for jazz musicians. A neighbor of mine told me that he’d just heard this incredible singer, and he invited me to go hear him. I’d already sung Jewish sacred music as a child, and was already excited by all kinds of music. So I went, and I heard Pran Nath sing, and he was great. He was looking for students, as where he was staying was only 7 or 8 blocks from where I was living on the upper west side, he was living on 95th Street with two disciples of Baba Ram Dass. So I started to work with him. Immediately it went very easy, since I came from a background of Jewish sacred music, especially his kind of chanting, my voice adapted very well. Within a few weeks, people sometimes mistook me for him. I was a young kid. I mean I was imitating the timbre of his voice, not that I was a great Indian singer. At the beginning, when you learned with him in those days, he tried to help you find the sa. Like the om, the do in Western music. He would do amazing variations on this [sings sa in very PPN way], and then you’d learn the scales. I’d already learnt that in music school … I’d been searching for a sacred sound in Jewish music so it came very easily to me. I was about 20 years old …
I studied with him for a few months, and he taught me how to use the tambura, and we’d sing sa and the different notes. He asked me if I wouldn’t be his disciple, which meant spending much much time with him. And at my age, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. So at a certain moment I stopped working with him. But for all the following years, because sometimes I had political musical problems with the other generation, Pran Nath always included me in every situation where I was there. He always waved to me – though I never sang to him, and it was clear why, because the idea of giving a commitment and finally the amazing commitment that La Monte, Marian and Terry gave was something I could never imagine giving another person. But this link came because of the sounds themselves and my tradition, I started as a singer, not a keyboard player or composer. I started in music as a singer. And my relationship with synagogue singing. And this put us on a level of very powerful musical communication, which was great. I know he was disappointed, and somewhere, so was I, but even now … some people say my music is very meditative or centering … but all the guruisms and gurujiisms … that kind of giving your life to another culture like India … though I had many dear friends who were great musicians, and we can even say holy men from India, from Africa … I loved all that stuff … But as my culture had disintegrated as a tribal culture, a Jewish New Yorker in the late sixties is not in a Hasidic community, I was already too worldly, too restless to want to return to a foreign culture. But he never excluded me. When there were problems and because I could be a very disruptive person when I felt cornered, he always took my side by including me in the family even though I was the prodigal son who never finally did spend those kinds of years which his technique and his position and Indian music and dance demand. It demands daily commitment. It’s not something you can do just like that.
MB: What do you think you learnt from him?
CP: I’d put it more sociologically. There was a great division in my childhood between Oriental or I should say Jewish Oriental sacred music, classical music, jazz, rock … everything was separated. What he brought by coming to America and by inspiring a bunch of people like Jon Hassell and so on … all of a sudden you have a whole bunch of guys, I mean La Monte is a Mormon, Terry Riley’s an Irish west coaster, I’m a Jewish New Yorker … at that time we were very conscious of being a very un-tribal culture, meaning that we were all searching for a kind of identity … all was possible but all our family and tribal units our own born tribal units had disintegrated into an American pablum, and so it was hard to say who you were if you were American. What his being there helped me to feel was that I was continuing the chant of the synagogue, and along with his chant …we were all part of some larger force that was coming of age, that would then create a kind of world … even now the audience of young people who listen to my music and get it astounds me … in those days there were so few people who got it. And people were so fragmented … you were either in this kind of world or that kind of world … so his being there and attracting so many people and his coming from such an ancient culture … was a very powerful social force, bringing this ancient tribal tradition, which musicians like us had lost touch with, certainly white musicians.
MB: What about this tradition was important that it should manifest in the west?
CP: Ooof. It even happened with Merce Cunningham or John Cage …. at a certain moment, we were given all the freedom to do what we want. I went to conservatory, and there were people I met, and even now there are people who spend their lives from the time they’re 7, 12 hours a day developing a musical tradition – piano, voice … it’s a paternal or maternalistic system … ballerinas for instance … so it’s not like you wake up in the morning and you’re the king of your own world and you invent your own music. It’s something that came out of the western [classical?] idea … but at a certain moment you wake up in the morning and you say: well what the hell do I want to do?? That system that came from an ancient place where there’s already this hierarchy where you don’t have to think about what to do for years and years, maybe for 30 years you won’t have to think about what to do because there’s someone above you who will show you, who will mold you, who will inspire and guide you. And that aspect of guruisms that I used to criticize I understand because there were many very interesting and intelligent people who felt that need. That was one of the things that drugs tried to … that’s why someone like Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass … he too was looking for another force bigger than himself to show him some great magic in the world that he could no longer do by himself. That’s maybe what psychedelia was about. That you took some kind of another force, whether it was a human being or a drug which … you were no longer the top of your heap … you were more like a leaf in the wind where somebody else took care of the power structure. And that I think was somehow very important in those times. Especially … for a lot of white people … although I’m Jewish I lived in a white society … but because I was born in a culture that’s not exactly white through and through, so I had this ancient link … maybe you have this still in Ireland … but in America we’ve lost that. Maybe in the UK you still go to a place and ancientness is still there. In Iceland, they arrived in 900 AD, but when I watch them and see what they do … 900 is not such a long time ago. That comes out of the simplicity of a tribal culture. Iceland is a modern culture, but it’s a very tribal culture.
MB: And it’s to do with discipline … discipline produces a kind of authentic experience?
CP: … And it lets you know that carrying on a tradition is OK. That you don’t have to be an iconoclast every day, you don’t have to destroy what was there yesterday. I was brought up with that notion of genius: that you do something that nobody else did and you try not even to do what you did after awhile otherwise you’re already finished. Which is the contrary of the oriental tradition where you make more and more perfect the tradition which goes from generation to generation … and certainly he was the incarnation in this time of a very ancient tradition. So he was him, but he was also an entire culture.
MB: Are there particular works of yours, where you do see the resonance of your studies with Pran Nath?
CP: Well, Karenina is an easy one. That came out just after his death. Schlingen-Blangen is a kind of sa piece. It’s not sung, it’s sung by an enormous instrument, but it’s a way of humming in space … but in a funny way my teacher Sebastian Engelberg, Austrian Jew in the opera tradition, died quite a few years before, that’s why he became my teacher … he was looking for the golden sound. The whole concept for me of the golden sound was the sa of Pandit Pran Nath.
MB: The sound that contains all the possibilities of sound?
CP: Yeah – and the search for this perfect sound. And the pure voice without anything else is the most intimate and expressive sound that a being can make. If its an animal, their screech … the bark of a dog … for me there’s nothing more intimate, and the essence of the animal or the being is the voice. Even though I did many things that were not the voice. But I started with the voice. And he was the voice.
MB: But even your non-vocal drone pieces …
CP: Yeah I see them as taking that ideal and putting it in another context. In my sense I don’t know what that perfection is. Finally I do it in a very sort of Jewish way … searching, neurotic, schizophrenic, frenetic, sometimes calm sometimes chaotic, searching for this perfection … a way that’s kind of Kabballic … something unattainable … it’s not like a beautiful smiling Buddha on a mountaintop somewhere. Meaning, for somebody for me.
MB: It’s more of a struggle …
CP: Exactly. And he was a struggling man. He loved his whisky …
MB: I heard he had a taste for Chivas Regal …
CP: As did my father. As do I! (laughs) Sometimes to very cataclysmic extremes. On that level I also touched with him. Though we didn’t discuss it.
MB: Did you have a sense of what the struggle was about?
CP: A sense of what the struggle was about … well … life is a struggle! Certainly when you’re in a tradition like that, with a continuity, with that as a center, a pole to secure yourself from the winds that can throw you from side to side … and the creative process … someone like him was not just a good virtuoso singer … because also in India you find people like the Dagar Brothers who are fantastic virtuosos. And maybe also because he also was out of his culture too he rarely went home, he preferred to be in the west. As we were tormented by being a lost culture looking for our roots, he was tormented, being from a culture with enormous roots that he could no longer socially live in as a normal member of. He had a lot of ghosts and angst that in traditional Indian society were not looked well upon. But he wasn’t the only one … I met others … and you see it with jazz musicians too … they gave all their lives to their music, and their personal lives were less ecstatic than the sounds they made and they suffered from all these questions and problems dealing with that, as many artists do.
MB: Right. You see it in a lot of the spiritual teachers who came from wherever they came to the west in the sixties and seventies too. Moving to the west and taking on that sort of rootlessness was something very painful.
CP: It makes me think … the difference between drinking in a culture and drinking like that is that you’re alone. In Greece, even in French families, there are thirty of you and you’re drinking for a festale, a marriage. You’re all together – it’s not lonely. But then you come to another culture, and it becomes a lonely kind of task, and that creates another kind of alcohol.
MB: It’s said that Jewish people are less susceptible to alcoholism because they tend to be raised in families where alcohol is used in a social context, and it’s much more integrated into their lives.
CP: In my family that was the epoch when my father drank with his brothers and cousins and his Chivas Regal was a social drink. I drank with him at the table for shabas, we drank together. But when I came of age, that community no longer existed. My cousins had moved, they had become Americans and there was no longer this community. But the alcohol stayed! (laughs) It’s funny, you called me at the hour when I have my aperitif – I’m drinking my Johnny Walker. My wife knows it’s like a sacred hour of the day for me. When I start my first whisky. I used to drink sometimes at any time of day. Now, after six … so if there’s anything I need to do that needs a certain precision or objectivity … but then I try to drink pleasantly, to enjoy it … and in these years I’ve come to enjoy alcohol.
MB: Were there specific pieces of advice that he gave you?
CP: No. We never spoke like that. It was always in the sound. He always had me sing. He just looked in my eyes … for me he came from a tradition in sound that was the closest to anything that I could have imagined … I sang with some of the great singers in Jewish tradition, they’re the equivalent of Pran Nath for the Jewish faith. They’re not rabbis, though they can also be rabbis … they studied, they learned the books and became learned men, but they were the men that sang to God, and for the people in all the traditional rituals. And I studied with several of them – with them, because often a young boy would do duets with them, never a girl … and even with them our relationship was totally sound. So we did very little talking except to say, you’re out of tune duh duh duh … and it was through the sound that we communicated … and with him also that was true. I sang so easily his style. That’s why people thought I sounded like him, because I could imitate the sound. Not him of course, but the sound. The sound was easy for me.
MB: Were there works where you were formally concerned with raga like structures?
CP: No. I’ve never been good at … in western music, in eastern music, I’ve always been kind of a poetic deadhead … I’ve never been good at the mathematics. I could just sort of get it! I was in the conservatory for five years to keep out of the Vietnam war … I learned certain techniques, but I never used them. They were just something I learned because they exist. Interesting to analyze. But I always learned everything by ear. I loved the sound of those words. Like in Karenina I invent ragas and words that could mean something … I always have the dream that some day someone will listen to them and know exactly what they mean because it’s their language. Like when I was in Iceland, they have such a special language and everyone understands because they speak the language, but when you’re a foreigner, it just sounds like you’re muttering and sputtering all these strange sounds and that I love! (laughs) That’s the level I love, that mysterious sputtering and juttering in a language. That’s what it was like for me to sing with him. Like re ne na … (sings)
MB: You have that solemn quality in your voice that he has …
CP: I had it in five minutes. As soon as I met him, he looked at me with those eyes, those sad eyes and his teeth, one tooth a little bit off, when he opened his mouth it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical, it was a little bit off and I knew exactly how he felt because that’s how we sing in Hebrew singing … you cry and you do these lamentations. It just was so easy. It touched something very ancient. About the man … on the planet … blah blah blah!
MB: When you were working with different ethnic musics, did you come to feel that there were particular ways of doing it or ways to avoid or did you just go on your nerve?
CP: Sometimes I feel like I’ve been too floating … a whirlpool of wind and water … but I’ve never been able to decide those kind of questions. They seem to me something very untouchable. Some deep part of me feels they shouldn’t be touched. And then there are other people who actually do set up these systems and they work. Even for ballet, they’re magic when they work, yet they come from a lot of repression and discipline and ego battling. But I’ve never been able to … so I’ve always kept outside. And that’s what keeps me the prodigal son. Even in this story, I’m on the outside. I use what I use and I do what I do. I’m sort of an uncle, I’m not a father. I’m just my own asshole … going through my day. I try to be the best possible asshole I can be!
Photo: Palestine at the Beth David Cemetary in Long Island, NY in 1996. Photo by Irene Nordkamp.