It is the middle of a blizzard, the afternoon of the opening of the Transmediale .10 Festival and the first in a series of evening performances co-organized between the CTM and TM, this year titled ‘Futurity NOW!’. Outside Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), where the annual festival for art and digital culture is located, the Tiergarten Carillon stands 42 metres high, clad in black granite, a freestanding tower which is also an instrument – or perhaps an instrument which is also its own architecture. About halfway up, stacked in tic-tac-toe ranks and columns, are 68 bells. A metal staircase winds up inside one of the Carillon’s columns to the bell platform, where a tiny Perspex cabin is anchored among the bells like the control centre of some grim war machine. Inside is a sort of wooden organ with pedals, played with the feet, and oak levers struck with balled fists. The carillonneur and experimental composer Charlemagne Palestine has two small suitcases: in one, two video cameras, a bottle of whiskey, two glasses and a towel; in the other, the stuffed ‘animal divinities’ that attend all his performances. The whiskey is to be consumed during the performance and Transmediale have provided a bottle of Rémy Martin, which Palestine will drink before. These are the trappings of ‘Charleworld’, the semi-sacred environment Palestine builds around each of his performances, a secular cosmogony which draws on rituals from the world cultures Palestine steeped himself in 1960s New York.
‘In a bell tower you have a strange relationship to the rest of the community,’ Palestine muses: ‘like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Not the book, but the more Frankenstein-ish films. I enjoy being the world’s one crazy avant-garde Quasimodo, in another world, but with access to the whole city, looking down on people.’ The people, around 1,500 of them, were supposed to be observing the ceremony from a terrace of the HKW, but after freak snowstorms led to avalanche fears, alternative vantage points have been arranged outside. At 7.00pm, a laser rainbow is beamed like a holodeck between two spaceships: the oyster-like flying saucer of the HKW and the antenna of the rocket-shaped TV Tower at Alexanderplatz (a work by Yvette Mattern, titled One to Many, 2010).
Then Palestine starts to play. The performance, scheduled for ten minutes, lasts exactly half an hour. Palestine begins with a slow and easy jangling of sweet high notes, introducing bass notes underneath, swelling to produce enveloping sonorities. In the snowstorm, dissonances bleed out of the carillon, splitting up the composite sounds of each note until their resonances jar, or ‘begin to dance by themselves’, as Palestine puts it. This is what he calls ‘musical alchemy’, produced by his ‘strumming style’ – a technique of alternating notes and harmonies. ‘Like something out of space,’ one listener comments. Up in the tower, not much can be heard apart from mechanical licks and cracks. Titled Tintinnabulations for Tomorrow and Tomorrow, this was an improvised performance – it could not be rehearsed because Angela Merkel’s office is too near to the bells – and inspired by the American technology conglomerate General Electric, whose advertisements used to read: ‘from tomorrow ‘til tomorrow!’
Emerging from the post-Cage generation of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, Palestine’s music didn’t gain the recognition given to his contemporaries. ‘I was the street guy of [the Minimalist] school,’ Palestine explains, ‘always doing strange body performances, banging myself against walls, drinking too much, getting into fights. Now protest is masturbation. And to be like me or Patti Smith or Vito Acconci – to be rough and tough – that’s old-fashioned!’ Now he is working with younger experimental musicians, including the electro-acoustic trio Perlonex and Berlin-based Finnish duo Pan Sonic who played the Club Transmediale on Monday. Having rejected traditional Western instruments in his teens to investigate tape techniques and composition for synthesizers, while playing the bells of New York’s Saint Thomas Church for cash, Palestine now finds himself in an odd position. The musician of an ancient instrument, summoning futurity – whatever that may be – on the behalf of a festival concerned with the technologies of the future. What is the connection? One possibility is the ceremonial aspect of the festival itself. In an age where museums have replaced cathedrals as society’s principal spiritual architectures, the art festival has adopted a role similar to that of the religious celebration, dividing up the pubic calendar. And so the bells that call the faithful to worship.
‘A synthesizer is an amazing invention,’ says Palestine, ‘but it lacks a relationship to the physical world. There are no architectures built for specific synthesizers, even the most sophisticated. It all goes through the same four big black speakers. Why isn’t anyone inventing a computer system with a certain special architecture, a new building with its own instrument inside? These old instruments, bell towers, organs – with pipes and air in a space that’s large and high and resonant – you really hear God. The instrument in which the sound and the edifice are married together. In music that’s the ultimate.’