by Robert Leeper
Maverick American composer Harry Partch is revered in modern musical circles, but due to the difficulty of presenting his mammoth works on the unique instruments he created, his music is rarely experienced. In 2010, German instrument builder Thomas Meixner decided to spend three years replicating the sole remaining set of Partch's original instruments for the Cologne-based Ensemble Musikfabrik, of which he is a member.
Last week, Ensemble Musikfabrik brought their Partch instrumentarium to New York City Center, where the Lincoln Center Festival presented Partch's 1964 theater work Delusion of the Fury. It is impossible to separate the unique sound of Partch's music from the beautiful instruments on which it's made. They seem to be performers in their own right, keyed to a 43-tone scale of Partch's own creation. Most visibly striking were the elegant Cloud-Chamber Bowls, painted with the numerical value of their precise resonance. The most visceral sound came from the Marimba Eroica: its notes reverberated throughout the hall at such low frequencies that they were felt as much a heard.
Partch also wrote the libretto, choreographed dances, and made costumes for Delusion, but while everything had to be done his way, his music was neither overly esoteric, nor inaccessible. Indeed: Delusion is a primarily tonal work with a regular, driving rhythm.
Delusion consists of two morality tales with an overture, interlude and extended coda. The first is taken from a Japanese Noh drama, examining the nature of death and the release from suffering. A young traveler haltingly approaches a temple, hoping to do penance for a murder. The victim's ghost is there, as well as his son who has come hoping to have a vision of his slain father. The father is filled with resentment towards his son and lives through the ordeal of the battle of his death. Eventually, faced with the uselessness of his anger, he seeks reconciliation with both men ending with the invocation “Pray for Me.”
The second tale is an Ethiopian folktale, and presents a facetious view of civic life. A misunderstanding occurs between a deaf young vagabond and a woman out looking for her lost goat. After finding her goat the villagers send the two before a feckless justice of the peace who, in a not so subtle use of metaphor for governments ability to administer judgement and justice, is both deaf and blind. Following the judge's sentencing, in which he mistakenly takes them for a married couple and the goat as their “kid,” the Chorus concludes with a bitterly sung, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and, again, sing “Pray for Me.”
Ensemble Musikfabrik gave vibrant life to the constantly shifting colors, exotic harmonies and lively rhythms. Most importantly, the group gave life to Partch’s inspired musical and theatrical leanings, capturing his decade spent as a hobo through Florence von Gerkan’s costumes, which seemed straight out of depression-era train hopping. The titles of each scene were changed by hand on a crude on-stage marquee—“The Quiet Hobo Meal,” “Time of Fun Together”—evoking the hand-t0-mouth camaraderie Partch felt for his fellow man.
Harry Partch's music has never squarely fit into the western tradition of music. That the Lincoln Center Festival can sell out two nights of Delusion - if only for curiosity - marks a turning point for the acceptance of Partch's music, of which we should all be proud. More pics on the photo page.