How New York art and music pioneer Charlemagne Palestine found his way to Brussels

American artist Charlemagne Palestine was part of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the counterculture in the 1960s. A synthesiser pioneer, an accomplished bell ringer and a teddy bear collector, he has made Brussels his home for almost three decades.

How New York art and music pioneer Charlemagne Palestine found his way to Brussels

The enormous hangar in Evere is stacked with thousands of stuffed animals and plushies, some piled so high that they disappear into the gloom of the ceiling.

There’s a piano covered in toy animals as well as various musical instruments and pieces of electronic music equipment and a very eclectic array of objects collected over the years.

Welcome to the personal, quirky universe of 78-year-old American multimedia artist Charlemagne Palestine, and his so-called Charleworld studio, where he keeps “all my objects and divinities and instruments.”

Born in New York as Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine to a Jewish family, his long career includes being part of the contemporary music scene in the city in the late 1950s, apprenticing in the counterculture Beat Generation, playing the carillon professionally, writing music, creating kinetic light sculptures, sound and movement pieces, records, videos, sculptures and abstract expressionistic visual scores, helping to develop the synthesisers that made electronic music possible, teaching at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) and performing on the piano with his stuffed animals.

However, since the mid-1990s he has lived in Brussels with his Belgian wife Aude Stoclet (who is part of the family that owns the UNESCO-recognised Stoclet Palace on Avenue de Tervuren).

How is it that after New York, California, France and the Netherlands he eventually made Brussels his home?

Palestine first came to the city in 1974, when he was invited by Tintin creator Hergé and by Karel Geirlandt, the director of the Palace of Fine Arts (now Bozar) who had been wowed by a performance of his in New York. But once in Europe, he found more outlets and more willing audiences for experimental works than on the other side of the Atlantic.

Palestine found Belgium especially open to art from different sources, most notably New York. By the late 1980s, he was working in France, between Lyon and St-Etienne, while also doing projects in Utrecht and Rotterdam. Journeying between these cities, he would stop in Brussels to visit friends. “And in one of those times I met my wife, Aude,” he says. “Now we’re together for close to 25 years – so that’s how I came to live in Brussels. And now I’m Belgian.”

He grew up in Brooklyn, which was, he says, “the cultural armpit of the world where nothing was happening.” But from age 11, he would ride the subway to Greenwich Village, where he found a beatnik world of experimental musicians, poets and filmmakers performing in coffee houses.

The hangar in Evere

That was how his artistic career began. “Since they were coffee houses and not bars, I could be there. I had bought some bongo drums and I was carrying them around with me, wearing sunglasses and a beret, and a whole lot of what turned out to be legendary artists, poets and just personages, liked me. I became sort of the mascot of a whole generation of crazies. I was their bongo man, or we could say better bongo boy. I bongoed for people like Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Anger and Tiny Tim.”

For whom the bells toll

It was while he was at the High School of Music and Art in upper Manhattan that found himself offered the position of carillonneur, or bell ringer, at the Episcopal church of Saint Thomas in midtown, a job he held for seven years.

“I was selling marijuana outside the High School,” he says. “My girlfriend at the time got very worried that I would get caught and be put in prison and she tried to find me another job. Her father happened to know this guy who played the bells at Saint Thomas and he was looking for someone who could take over for him, so she organised a meeting. I immediately took to the instrument but in a crazy way – I was so radical already in five minutes that he hired me.”

A carillon looks like an organ but instead of pushing air through pipes, the operator pushes oak levers with their fists and feet, which pull strings that ring bells which are tuned in chromatic order. “There are counterweights but some bells are very, very hard to play,” Palestine says. “Also, there’s a delay and so you’d have to listen and imagine how it would sound to other people.”

Though it didn’t pay much, it earned him fans in MOMA, where his creative ringing could be heard from the sculpture garden. One was Moondog, an influential blind musician who lived on the street at Sixth Avenue. Another was the president of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) whose offices were across the street.

“The church began seeing my music as too experimental and they were going to fire me, but it turned out that the president of CBS adored my playing. I remained the Quasimodo of Fifth Avenue until in the early 1970s when I left for California,” he says. “I even recorded an audio identity for CBS documentaries in the 1960s: my bell music was their trademark opening for all these films.”

Perhaps it was a harbinger of his future residence that the carillon was developed in Belgium in the 17th century: UNESCO recently recognised Belgian carillon culture as an intangible cultural heritage, as well as over 50 belfries in Belgium and northern France as World Heritage Sites.

When he left in the 1970s to teach at Cal Arts, it meant a bicoastal existence during which he taught, composed and experimented with kinetic light sculptures giving legendary, long concerts in his loft in Tribeca. He was part of a group of composers which included Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phil Niblock whose music came to be known as minimalism.

Palestine didn’t agree with the term minimalism. “I always hated it and I never use that term,” he says. “I use trance, I use continuums, I use drone, the actual term like you might use in India, I called them drone but the term minimal just seemed to me like nothing to do with the approach I particularly used. When dealing with sounds or anything, I’m an excessivist, but sometimes I use only certain elements to create excess. I always deal with the most with whatever I do, so how can you be minimal and the most at the same time?”

Maximalist music

Two decades ago, he started to officially call himself a maximalist. “People thought that I was joking, but recently I heard an interview on the BBC with Phil Glass and he now calls himself a maximalist. So my virus took about 20 years to infect everybody including my own colleagues. And now you can be a maximalist, which is, to take a few little things but use them to their greatest abundance. It’s not that I’m playing with words – it’s about what your approach is and the word minimalist is like a prison. I always think of a minimalist as someone who leaves a small tip in a restaurant.”

He was involved in electronic music from the beginning with the various synthesiser pioneers like Serge synthesiser creator Serge Tcherepnin, modular synthesiser inventors Bob Moog and Don Buchla, and field recordist Irv Teibel among others.

He even developed the Spectral Continuum Drone Machine with Tcherepnin. “Serge and I were trying to make the ultra-stable oscillator, a sound source that’s continuous like an organ pipe: if you put it down, it goes on forever,” he says. “So we finally developed one. The machine still exists and was recently restored here in Belgium. In those days it took us six months to develop it, but now Casio has a little organ that I use, that costs €65.”

Stuffed animals became a feature of his concerts and installations more than 50 years ago. It began in the late 1960s when he would perform long drone pieces that sometimes lasted for days.

Just some of the thousands and thousands stuffed animals and plushies

“In those days people were willing to listen for five to 10 hours at a time,” he says. “If I had some divinity animals – that’s what I call them –placed somewhere in the space, one could imagine that they were very, very concentrated and absorbing all of this sound event in a total Zen Nirvana phase. They remained in their continuum forever as they do because they are inanimate but in the world that I’ve tried to develop over the years, the last 50 years, they are animate inanimates. And so I began to use them and they were always a part of our performances.”

His current museum exhibitions involve his piano and many, many stuffed animals as well as performances. He has performed at the Villa Empain (Music Palace 2015), the temporary Kanal Pompidou (It Never Ends 2020), and the Botanique (Les Nuits 2022).

He is particularly proud of Aasschmmettrroossppecctivve which he performed at Bozar in 2018, which, true to his maximalistic propensities, was a deluge of thousands of stuffed animals in an overwhelming celebration of excess.

However, it took a while for the show to come together. “When then Bozar Director Paul Dujardin discussed my doing the show, he showed me many rooms and I didn’t like any of them, except the rotunda, the Horta rotunda,” he says. “He told me that was possible but that I’d have to wait two or three years. I said I’d wait two or three years. Which I did. And it turned out that waiting meant an even better overall space. Because of the 2016 terrorist attacks the curved staircase leading to the rotunda was closed as an entrance and it became a magnificent staircase/presentation space.”

Palestine adds that his use of stuffed animals is also linked to the original teddy bear, whose invention is credited to Jewish couple Morris and Rose Michtom, who lived in the Brooklyn neighbourhood where Palestine grew up. They were from the same part of Lithuania as his mother’s family, so Palestine sees the teddy bear as his cousin.

“It’s part of my family, textiles, which we call schmattas,” he says. “Schmatta is a kind of a chiffon, a rag, that Jews find very important because we weren’t permitted to be members of guilds in the Middle Ages and so we only could re-use things like rags and we were called rag merchants in those days and the Jewish word for that is schmatta.

All these creatures I have are schmatta divinities meaning that they’ve already been used, they are second-hand and discarded – which is also important and I like that parents are afraid to use them again because they’re not sure if they’re disinfected so they are objecta non grata.”

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