(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)
Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4). The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument. So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it. The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting. Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other. The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later. I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust. As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive. It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.
In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year. The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra. Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced. Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.
I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away. There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing. The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner. It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing). As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc. True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.
While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them. Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version. These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.