Freud’s distinction between the manifest and latent content of dreams — the difference between how we’d tell a dream to a friend and what that dream tells us about our unconscious drives — translates into the classical realm more easily than into other genres. Similar to what happened to art after Marcel Duchamp, and classical music after John Cage (or perhaps after Erik Satie’s proto-minimal "Vexations"), opened up to discussions not just of what was there, but what was deliberately left out or glossed over. The situation is a tricky one, and criticism follows suit, assuming by turns that either all the content is on the surface (as Warhol insisted) or must be drawn out through a careful analysis of the work’s gaps.
More than any other composer associated with minimalism, Charlemagne Palestine poses a stark challenge to traditional notions of what music should be made of. From Etudes to Cataclysms is his first release on Sub Rosa, and it’s austere in the way his attention-testing compositions tend to be. The pieces that make up the release are all build and no release. This is why it’s much easier to talk about the context of the pieces than how they actually sound — the only emotion they seem to communicate are anticipation and ambivalence.
Palestine focuses on certain intervals of piano notes for incredibly long, anti-musical periods of time, applying himself to octaves with a mixture of unflagging attention and precisely measured violence. Despite its initial thorniness, From Etudes to Cataclysms has a sustained beauty, one that seeps out between the bruised notes and stoic poses.
Still, talking about Charlemagne Palestine is deceptively difficult. One thing we can say is that he’s a minimalist composer and performer. Yet he ranks among the most iconoclastic artists to be associated with the movement, which is better known today for producing exceedingly pleasant music than for breaking radically with the values of the classical-music establishment, such as they were in the ’60s.
Palestine’s music is an extreme example of some of minimalism’s tactics. Like most of the big guys, he jettisons traditional notions of virtuosity in favor of repetition. He also tends to play in equal temperament — using the twelve notes that make up the Western scale — rather than in just intonation. But where a piece like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians creates layers of loops and textures with musical fragments, Palestine’s focus on single, sustained notes or intervals almost renders discussions of tuning and scales superfluous. His music’s ritual qualities are the source of their peculiar appeal, equal parts banal and sublime.
It’s worth noting that this album was composed and performed on a special instrument — the Doppio Borgato, essentially two pianos set up like an organ, allowing the musician to play bass notes with the feet while playing the full keyboard with his hands. Although the Doppio Borgato clearly shaped the division of this album in two — Etudes show Palestine getting comfortable with the setup and overtones, and the longer Cataclismos bubble over with an assured, manic energy — only the playing in the latter sounds like more than one piano.
It’s a good indication of the restraint of the album as a whole, which seems intent on creating songs as mildly worrying as they are gently transporting. The currents emanating from this thicket of piano strings carry the listener into a wonderful, almost incredulous blankness. From Etudes to Cataclysms doesn’t soothe or relieve, agitate or excite; it does what it does (apparently) by referring exclusively to the sonorous world. At first it seems hostile to the listener, the way that modernist architecture now seems hostile to the individual. All of which indicates that there’s much more at stake here — about who we perceive ourselves to be when listening to music, about how music communicates emotion — than meets the eye.