Charlemagne Palestine… not king or country

For my current work, I’m sorting through a pile of papers from the Syntonic Research, Inc. record label most famous for their Environments series of the 1970s. These albums are notable as the first publicly available noise masking recordings; they would go on to inspire plenty of copy cats, and helped fuel the nascent New Age music craze. In my research, I came across a letter from Charlemagne Palestine, in 1970 working at NYU’s Intermedia Program, asking for information on the label’s current research. Palestine is one of my favorite composers but I’d forgotten about him… oops. His ecstatic “strumming” compositions should sit side-by-side any greatest hits by Reich or Glass. I don’t know if Syntonic followed up on this request but it certainly cements my belief that Syntonic mastermind Irv Teibel indeed straddled the musical avant-garde, scientific fringe, and political rabble-rousers. But more on this later.

Thinking again of Palestine, I’m reminded of Bon Iver’s “Babys.” I believe I heard Justin Vernon’s music before Palestine’s and didn’t connect these two works until recently. I’m betting the influence comes via Bon Iver’s longtime percussionist Sean Carey whose own music is deliciously minimal. You would be hard pressed to name anyone who has changed the idea of pop music on a large scale more than Vernon in recent years. Yes, he sings almost exclusively in falsetto even though his voice is quite low, but so did the Bee Gees :). Perhaps more striking are his cryptic lyrics and asymmetrical song forms. Yet, despite his renunciation of traditional songwriting, it works for me and plenty of other people, including Kanye. Compare Palestine’s Strumming Music from 1974 (starting around the two minute mark) to Bon Iver’s “Babys” below. Pretty cool.

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