Mesmerizing Drone from the Masters.
In October 2005, on the day that musique concrete pioneer Luc Ferrari was to be cremated in Paris, avant-garde composers and improvisers Charlemagne Palestine and Tony Conrad performed a concert at the Mercelis Theatre in Brussels. It was part of a series of events for the two, once close collaborators who had drifted apart for decades. In the late 1960s in New York, Palestine and Conrad had experimented with the drones and long tones that would become musical minimalism, though the term itself didn’t come into use until many years later. They moved apart—Palestine to Europe, Conrad to teach at the University of Buffalo—but were reintroduced by a mutual friend in the early ‘00s. Letters were exchanged, concerts proposed, and, finally, Conrad arrived at Palestine’s home.
“More that 30 years had passed since our last experimental duet,” writes Palestine. “We casually started to play together one afternoon. Aude, my wife, remarks about that special moment that in five minutes if not less she heard a natural musical chemistry of beauty and power that greatly impressed her yet. Tony and I hadn’t played, discussed, or conversed about sound or anything in over 30 years. None the less the results were totally surprising, dazzling, and deeply satisfying.” Soon, a series of performances were scheduled, and this extended piece, An Aural Symbiotic Mystery, was improvised and recorded at one such concert. It is a majestic piece of work, alternatingly harsh and beautiful, melancholic and triumphant—hard to believe that it was conceived and executed on the spot by two men that had hardly seen each other for half a lifetime.
The work begins with a barely perceptible hum, a high oscillating tone that runs like a filament through the whole composition. It builds very slowly. You are, perhaps, 20 seconds in before you’re really sure that the whole thing is underway at all. Then a wild cat’s howl of violin, the subtle grounding of piano… the conversation has started, an exercise in both making sound and listening to it that winds through forests and oceans of aural sensation. Conrad’s violin and Palestine’s piano talk to one another, sometimes settling on the same series of notes, sometimes wildly contradicting one another. The violin turns abrasive and harsh at intervals, bow bouncing wildly over the strings and carving double toned arcs. Then abruptly it will settle, evoking long pulsating tones that ebb and wane like the thickness of a line drawing. The piano, even when it hovers over the same notes, is a whole different being, liquid, assured, conscious of its own musical beauty. The violin whispers, trembles, sidles up to its melodies, bursting into violence, then subsiding.
The piece climaxes just before the halfway point, somewhere in the low 20s, as piano notes come in thicker flurries and the violin turns brutal and primitive and loud. The singing emerges out of this denser fabric, a background that is both terrifying and vulnerable. It is a wordless, mysterious sort of chant, tones landed on hard then allowed to gradually dissipate, not difficult at all to imagine as part of some sort of Gnostic rite. The piece crests over the next five minutes, reaching its loudest volume, its highest degree of complication, and its most arresting emotional pitch by the 28 minute mark. There are aftershocks—the composition goes on for another 23 minutes from here—but the most harrowing portion is over. The singing will not return again until very close to the end, sounding this time clearer and more resonant against a subtler drone. The piece closes sweepingly, in long drones, shimmery piano runs, and wildly squealing string sounds. There is a long silence and the audience erupts, whooping and hollering as if they were at a rock show, not a classical concert… and perhaps they were.