Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2011, June 11, 9pm, Melbourne Town Hall
Durations: Charlemagne Palestine organ, piano, voice eletronics; Tony Conrad violin, electronics
It began at 9pm, but I did not make it there until about 11.30pm. From outside, the town hall appeared quiet. But as I climbed the stairs, I became aware of a sustained sound emanating from the main hall. It was the sound of the grand organ — the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. As I was ushered into the darkened auditorium, the volume swelled.
I became aware of other people — some seated, some standing and others on the floor, comfortable on cushions and in sleeping bags. The pipes of the grand organ were lit in bluish purple. The only other source of light came from the organ console.
The organ’s drone continued as I wandered among the assembled listeners, picking my path carefully to avoid treading on any prone figures. At the keyboards of this magnificent instrument, which was festooned with small stuffed animals, Charlemagne Palestine sat motionless.
I watched. I listened. I waited. Palestine remained motionless. The drone of the organ chord continued. This was long-form improvisation, I thought, minimalism at its most minimal. There was no need for movement, no need for action, no need for change. Perhaps the meditative mood was maximised by the absence of movement, by the absence of action, by the persistence of permutation.
In the middle of the dimly lit space was a chair. On it appeared to sit a sloth of small teddy bears. They may have been meditating.
After about 20 minutes, something caught my attention. Was it a movement? The organ’s drone continued. There had been no variation in volume, no discernible chord changes. But there it was again. Palestine had moved, but not into the occupied territories. He had begun to take objects from the keyboards and place objects into the keyboards. The organ volume remained static. Presumably there was a slight change in the chord being played. But I had not detected anything, being perhaps already in a meditative state.
Ten minutes or so later, the figure sitting still and silent in a chair not far from the organ console stood, catching the attention of a ray of purple light. As he slowly became active, I detected a change from the organ. Not new notes, not a change in tempo, but — yes — a hint of diminished volume. I waited. The finely wrought wane continued. The grand organ’s wail was dying away. The sense of expectation was palpable. What would happen next? But I recognised this thought and let it pass like a leaf in the stream. In a meditative, minimalist state, one worries not about what will be, only what is.
Time does pass, however, and so did Palestine’s long lament. The organ drone ceased. I flicked aside the thought that another musician — Thomas Heywood perhaps — may have done a little more with the town hall’s magnificent instrument.
The hatted figure, Tony Conrad, slowly bent to retrieve his electrified violin from the floor, lifted it into position, took a bow and began to play. Oh, how he played. The note — note that it was one note — poured forth from his instrument as pure and unadulterated as the organ’s chordal wail had been. The note went on. And on. And on. The meditative state returned. The prone figures may not have registered a change of instrument. They lay back, meditated and lost themselves.
As if in a trance, I moved towards the door. Outside in the foyer, where time had not stood still, it was after midnight. One of the festival staff, returning from a break, remarked to another that there had been no change. Wrong, was the reply. It’s a different instrument now.