Charlemagne Palestine – The Lower Depths (2017)
Note: This is slightly modified and expanded review, originally published by SoundOhm
There was a time, just outside of recent memory, when one of musical Minimalism’s great voices had disappeared, leaving only two remarkable, but largely unobtainable, albums behind – hints of what had been. When Charlemagne Palestine reentered the world of music during the 1990’s, following roughly two decades of silence, he was possessed by a remarkable fire – performing and recording widely, seeming to make up for lost time. Across the ensuing years, his body of work has grown with startling breadth and cohesiveness, drawing new audiences into its midst. In all probability, Palestine has more loyal fans now than he ever has, but for many, his earlier, formative efforts have remained out of reach. Over the last year or so, there have been remarkable strides in rectifying this. First came the vinyl reissue of his seminal Strumming Music, originally issued by Shandar in 1974, and then, only a short while after, came Alga Marghen’s astounding issue of archival recordings from the same year – Arpeggiated Bösendorfer + Falsetto Voice, which shortly predate and illuminate his groundbreaking album, Four Manifestations On Six Elements. Now the imprint has returned with further archival recordings, stretching across a X3 CD box set – a sprawling work called Lower Depths, which Palestine began work on in 1977.
Lower Depths is among the most important historical works to emerge within Palestine’s recorded canon, in part because its singularity and length, but equally because it took form during a crucial period in his creative generation, one grossly underrepresented within his body of recordings. While the composer wrote and performed extensively across the 1970’s, his only two albums, proceeding his return in 1997, were both released in 1974. Capturing an understanding of his activities between those dates has always been difficult. Lower Depths opens a window onto a startling truth. He was at the height of his powers, only shortly before moving to Europe and leaving music behind. Lower Depths extends from Palestine’s practice of exploring the profound potential of constraint, his technique of strumming the piano – repeating a succession of notes to generate overtone harmonics. That said, in many ways it stands apart. Much of the composers work focuses on the middle and higher end of the keyboard – the generation of shimmering ambiences and clear rhythm. Lower Depths is an all together different extreme. During the late 70’s Palestine was in possession of a Bösendorfer which stretched octaves below any other piano’s range. It from here that the work grows and largely dwells. A deep, thunderous, rumbling world – as immersive and rippling as anything in the composer’s body of work, but entirely different in mood and tone.
While a twenty minute version of the work emerged on Godbear in 1998, stretched to its full length and power, heard as it was intended to be, this realization of Lower Depths is a missing piece of the puzzle. While its musical brilliance is unmistakable, as an artifact it doubles as an encounter with one of the century’s most important composers at the height of his powers, moments before he disappeared from view. It’s incredible on every count. A lost, and profoundly important work within the history of musical Minimalism, stretching and expanding what we understand and expect of an already singular voice. It’s Palestine as few have heard him, and as everyone should. Yet another incredible effort by Alga Marghen. An essential box of stunning meaning and importance. You can check out a sample below, and grab it from SoundOhm or from a record store near you.