Do you still identify yourself as an American composer? Charlemagne Palestine



Photo by Petkov

I think of myself as a New York composer. Not especially American. Since I was born in Brooklyn of parents born in Russia I had a very strong connection with Europe already. Many people I met during my childhood came from Europe. My grandfather spoke nearly ten broken languages in our home and in our neighborhood people spoke Russian, Polish, Hebrew, German, and other European languages mixed in with English. I feel an identification with other artists from Brooklyn like Gershwin, Copland, Man Ray, Henry Miller, and Morty Feldman. When I finally moved to Manhattan on the Upper West Side as a teenager going to Music and Art high school, then Juilliard, then Mannes and NYU in that neighborhood too I met lots of musicians, writers, and intellectuals who either came from Europe for war related reasons or their parents had come from Europe sometime earlier. That was normal in NYC after the war. When my career started in NYC as an electronic music composer, then composer-performer, then artist/composer/performer, my sonic principles were aided by the experiments of the German physicist Hermann Helmholtz, my piano of preference the Bosendorfer of Vienna, my favorite early loves in classical and avant-garde music were Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, and then Varèse, Messiaen, and Xenakis. I even got to meet Stravinsky and Varèse with Lukas Foss in NYC as a student, so I already had Europe in daily doses in my blood and as people used to say, NYC, in those days, was a lot like a European city.

When I moved for several years to L.A. to work and teach at Cal Arts, Californians distinguished between West coasters and East coasters. I found southern California very American, another country than NYC. I liked it a lot though Californians seemed very foreign to me and the values and mentality of people who were third, fourth, or fifth generation Americans or more, and I think they saw me also as foreign, perhaps more European already even though we had a very nice cross fertilizing period together and many people say they can hear that in my California period music. By the early ’70s I had moved back to NYC into the newly created SoHo and began to commute regularly between NYC and Europe, sometimes already living for short periods of time in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Amsterdam, Cologne but always coming back to my studios in NY. As the years went on and my career spanned several different mediums I found a constantly receptive audience in Europe though diverse and ever changing. Even now my works and history are known differently from country to country and city to city. Europe is a very diverse place and it’s not just the languages that change every few hundred miles but artistic taste and philosophy also. Europe has had an inspiring effect on my career, my survival, and my personal attitude as a human being on this planet. Imagine my being Russian Polish Persian Jew born with the name Palestine in Brooklyn living between different countries and peoples. Not a very unilateral life story.

America took in my parents and grandparents during terrible times before the Russian Revolution and I had a magnificent storybook childhood meeting important eccentric artists in NYC as a kid from Pollock, Rothko, Dali, Kerouac, Johns, Stravinsky, Varèse, Cage, Warhol, and on and on and on. But when you asked me this question the first person to pop into my head was Arnold Schoenberg. I have a book about his life and works with many pictures of him in it. He never smiles in any those pictures all taken in Europe, another Europe than today’s Europe. Then at the end of the book there is a series of pictures taken of him when he was living in Los Angeles playing tennis and smiling and joking. Those pictures delight me. I had had several dark smile-less periods in my life, too. But things can change even in ones later years. Now I am in Bruxelles and I smile and I joke too. I’m happy here. I am appreciated and respected and life even in our difficult times seems worth living. I still love my hometown though I miss lox and bagels and the great bars where I got to know many legendary artists and first blahblahed my own chaotic and personal views on the nature of the cosmos. I also love Europe, the Europe of great music, literature, philosophy from the old days and the new European community just breaking out of its eggshell. I was born a hop, skip, and a jump from the Atlantic Ocean in Brooklyn and I’m always ready to hop, skip, and jump to either side of the Atlantic when there’s something delicious for me to do there. Maybe soon again you’ll see me in a new bar somewhere in NY blahblahing in the great tradition of artist in bar blahblahing.