Partch offers a fascinating alternative universe at Lincoln Center Festival
Harry Partch is the rare artist for whom the pleasure his work produces is less important than the fascination it elicits.
Opportunities to hear him have been exceedingly rare. Partch is so far outside the boundaries of even the experimental and avant-garde movements, that seeing a performance can be its own reward, especially as the music is so unusual that it might easily be impossible to comprehend.
That is the context for Ensemble Musikfabrik’s production of Partch’s theater piece Delusion of the Fury, directed by Heiner Goebbels, which opened at City Center Thursday night as part of the Lincoln Center Festival (There is one more performance tonight). The production is so engrossing, and expresses the music in such a natural way, that it can speak to anyone with an interest in music theater.
Terms like “maverick” and “outsider” are insufficient to describe Partch. Disenchanted with society, he became a hobo during the Depression, a crushingly difficult and dangerous life. Disenchanted with equal temperament (and by implication atonality), Partch burned his early scores and set about rethinking 2,000 years of Western music history until he had remade the universe to his liking.
Or, rather, built his own universe. Through exploring harmony the way Pythagoras had—examining how the natural overtones of a pitch could be described as ratios in the way the octave relates to the tonic as 2/1—Partch created a 43-note scale, which satisfied his desire for music to follow the small inflections of human speech while remaining tonal. Since there was no instrument that could play this, Partch built his own, salvaging wood, metal and glass for percussion instruments.
Delusion of the Fury is one of Partch’s most substantial works. In two acts separated by an interlude he titled Sanctus, the piece presents two allegories, one ancient and one modern. The first is a Noh-based story of a man seeking penance for murder, confronted by the ghost of his victim. The second is about a misunderstanding and dispute between two strangers, who are sent before a judge.
Goebbels’ staging exploited simple means to the fullest via intelligence and humor. All the musicians also sing and perform in some way, and they made for a strong chorus behind the lead performers—Alban Wesley, Bruce Collings and Carl Rosman in Act I, Marco Blaauw and Christine Chapman in Act II.
Goebbels’ concept was sparse in comparison to the highly choreographed and comic production presented at the Japan Society in 2007, but actually came off as more direct. Florence von Gerkan’s costumes, with their look of a Depression-era apocalypse that only blue color workers survived, evoke Partch’s own experiences and viewpoint. The scene titles are changed by hand on an on-stage marquee, and seeing Partch’s own words—“The Quiet Hobo Meal,” “Time of Fun Together”—is essential to the mood and fabric of the piece.
Despite the unusual features of the music, included an invented language (a detail that puts any other use of gesamtkunstwerk to shame), Partch is not an abstract composer. He is a literalist, almost naïvely so, and he means to say that prayer and supplication can be redeeming, and that the structures and conventions of modern society are nonsense. The main lines in English are “Pray for me!” and the sarcastic “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” They are of a piece with Partch’s musical conception—he saw Western tuning systems as tools of intellectual and social control.
Any Partch production is immediately impressive for the array of instruments on stage—many appear as functional, abstract sculptures. In this production all the instruments are new, built by percussionist Thomas Meixner. They sound rich, mellow, resonant, and silvery—the gigantic Marimba Eroica produces a preternatural, enveloping subsonic throb.
This production also has the finest Partch playing heard across ten live performances and decades of listening to the music on record. The experience of the music has always been mediated by blocky phrases and stiff, chunky rhythms, a style so prevalent that it was fair to think that it was inherent to the compositions. Musikfabrik’s playing was fluid, with graceful phrases, swinging rhythms, and a sensitive ear for ensemble sound (enhanced by the excellent sound design by Paul Jeukendrup).
As bizarre as a 43-note scale looks on paper, the ear adapts to it quickly, especially with this level of musicianship. The ghostly beauty of sweeping scales on the Harmonic Canon—a motif that starts the work in the Exordium section, and repeats at key moments—is like uncovering a new magic inside the world of classical music. It is a provocative enticement to a production that delivers a remarkable, fully realized alternate universe.
Delusion of the Fury will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at City Center. lincolncenterfestival.org.