When Bad Things Happen To Obscure Music

Another day, another FIRST WORD REVIEW, that is, a review that comes out when a review should come out: the next morning. No two-day delay. This is getting scary.

Music Review: Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury at Japan Society

(Photos by Chris Woltmann)

partchmini.jpgTuesday night was like, music nerd central at the Japan Society. An obscure music-dance theater work by eccentric twentieth century composer Harry Partch, Delusion of the Fury, was brought out of the vault, dusted off, and given its first performance since 1969. The work comes from the primitivist strain modernism, and is scored for Partch’s wild musical instruments that he built himself to accommodate his 43-tone scale and his penchant for percussive, physical musical performance. The participants in last night’s landmark event–including 80′s theater maverick, John Jesurun, former student of Partch and director of the New Band, Dean Drummond, and theater artist Dawn Akemi working here as choreographer–all seemed to have good intentions for delivering a performance that was both authentic to Partch’s authoritative score and expressive of contemporary needs of performance, but the new elements (the “acting”, the “dancing”, and the “stage direction”) consistently stymied the vanguard, world-class, and fiercely rigorous performances of the musicians, who were the real rock stars of the night.

To be fair, Partch is partly at fault for what happened last night. The work itself can be seen as a naive evocation of the primitive (using Noh theater and Ethiopian texts as stylistic and narrative models), and it seems to call for all kinds of quirky events, like the instrumentalists singing in gibberish “Oh-Ee-Oh” and “Badu, Badu”, or characters named “Old Goat Woman” and “Hobo.” This can easily fall toward silliness, and, unfortunately, that’s the line that Jesurun and Akemi took in inventing their mugging, rowdy, and amateurish staging.

The music is phenomenal, in the sense of impressive and in the sense of its physical reality. When you walked into the theater at the Japan Society, the small-ish stage is bursting to the edges with Partch’s paradoxical instruments; bulky yet elegant; made from natural materials like wood, glass, and bamboo yet creating otherworldly sounds; sometimes fashioned out of old jars or discarded tins yet constructed as if by a master craftsman.

partchinstruments_2.jpg

The lead instrument here, the Harmonic Canon (Drummond conducted the New Band from behind one of three)–think of it as a tricked out dulcimer–establishes both harmonic and melodic foundations for the work. The first plays what sounds roughly like a G or F as a base note, with a palendromic melody that plays with micro-tonal variations of the third degree. This figure comes back over and over through the piece; is sounds roughly like a guitar riff from The Doors: part psychedelic, part rock-n-roll; it is beautiful.

The rhythmic structures were surprisingly stable, generally three and four-beat meters used to generate “primitivist” polyrhythms. There wasn’t a lot of Noh-style music. It was driven more by dance styles that could be connected to African drumming, but were also part of the classical, jazz and popular music already thriving around much of the music world at the time this piece was written.

woltmann_partch1.jpgThat aside, the music is inventive, to say the least, and a jewel of modernist thinking. The New Band musicians, all twenty-three of them, executed the pulsing rhythms and muted harmonies with determination and aplomb. One in particular, Stacey A. Mack (I believe) on the Surrogate Kithara (a horizontal, plucked stringed instrument), was constantly satisfying to watch, as, in fact, was the entire musical side of this production.

The extended musical introduction (“Exordium”) and interlude (“Sanctus”) brought us into Partch’s perplexing world. Your eyes scanned the room, jumping through layers of wood columns and glass bowls, hopping around from instrument to musician as they hopped around from instrument to instrument (as most of them played more than one during the evening). Joe Fee donned a pair of industrial gloves to swat away at the enormous side, like elephant ears, of the Marimba Eroica. Next to him, Jonathan Shapiro got so excited at playing that the head flew off one of his mallets. David Broome sat facing upstage at a prepared organ called a Chromolodeon, assisted by Christi D’Amico. What looked like a rack of gleaming jellyfish, the ethereally named Cloud Chamber Bowl, was tended to with pointed care by Brad Carbone. And Dennis Sullivan worked mercurially back and forth between the Mazda Marimba, Crychord, Bamboo Claves, Mama Cry Horn, Bass Drum, and still have time to assist on the Spoils of War! I could go on.

Soon into the music, a lovely projection appeared above our heads against the ceiling of the room; a star pattern in dark blue and dusky pink designed by Jesurun. It was effective and attractive, as the projections would remain throughout the night, morphing into the nightscape of bared branches and a full moon, or waving blades of emerald grass, or geometric slants of bamboo. All of this was wonderfully evocative.

But before we had even really settled into our fascination–the instrumentalists had just started singing and whistling for the first time and the projection changed into a watery pattern of black and white symbols–eight actor/dancer/singers came creeping down the side aisles in costumes that looked as if they had been made from scraps of green material found at the bottom of the textile barrel, and it was down hill from there.

partch_swrods.jpgMy problem with the theatrical/choreographic elements is that they seemed bent on playing up the silliness of Partch’s conceits, whether knowingly or not. The ritualistic sword fight between a father/ghost (played exaggeratedly by Whitney V. Hunter) and the pilgrim/slayer who kills him (played underwhelmingly by Steven Reker) felt forced and far too long. And all the choreography had a rag-tag feel about it, looking more like a college dance project and less like serious physical composition. My guess is that this has something to do with Ms. Akemi being more of a theater artist than a choreographer. (I thought for a minute during the beginning what this piece could become in the hands of Ohad Naharin. Or even Brooklyn-based Moving Theater Company, who have been creating dance theater works to scores by Cage and Ligeti, might have done a better job with far fewer resources.) But the score calls for dancing, so, I guess somebody had to do it.

partchlandlady.jpgThe stage acting/singing was equally juvenile in direction and execution. Paige Collette, appearing as the “Soprano Soloist,” came out looking like a drunken landlady and skwawking like a crow caught in a bear trap. In fact, all of the singing was not only “not” classical, but not professional.

But this brings up the question of the score. Are the vocal parts indicated to be sung classically or falsely “primitive”? The score is said to be written with meticulous directions and indications of both musical, theatrical, and even choreographic and costume elements. Partch has a big hand in what happens on stage, and some of the elements seem to ring true for his thematic interests. For instance, his own history as a transient can be drawn to the quirky presence of the Hobo and Goatwoman characters, and his interest in Noh theater can be credited for the spare word content and slow enunciation of the performers. But it can be hard to tell how much of the badness is the fault of the composer himself, and how much belongs to last night’s interpreters. Because there just seemed to be so much liberty taken in the theaterical styling, the costumes, and even some of the props. As my companion for the evening said afterward, “The score had better call specifically for the use of a goat puppet.”

Reportedly, there may have been frictions between the musical and theatrical/choreographic factions. It didn’t help that the original costume designer (Ruth Pngstaphon) was replaced at the last minute by Tara Webb; it showed.

All in all, I would have been happy just seeing a concert version of this mythic work. I’m not calling for it to be a museum piece, but today, the rarity of seeing and hearing these instruments live—and performed by musicians of such uncanny integrity—would outshine most attempts to render the work as directed (or misdirected) by the score. Today’s tastes are just too at odds with the kind of modernist naivety from which Partch drew his sensibility.

The New Band should tour more often. There is obviously a thirst to experience Partch’s unique musical world (all four shows have sold out). Although next time, they would do well to choose collaborators more carefully; perhaps artists that will let the music take its just place on stage, without being obscured by fussy, mediocre theater.

UPDATE:

Judging from the YouTube footage, it looks like some of the original singing was classical, some wasn’t. The instrumentalists were in costume (and in varying states of undress!). AND, would you believe it…there is…in fact…a goat puppet.

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1 Comment

  1. “…the new elements (the “acting”, the “dancing”, and the “stage direction”) consistently stymied the vanguard, world-class, and fiercely rigorous performances of the musicians, who were the real rock stars of the night.”

    Bravo! That’s exactly it. I felt both privileged and robbed last night: privileged to be seeing and hearing this work, and robbed of its full, wondrous effect by that god-awful dance. Shame on Partch for insisting on the inclusion of elements in a manner that seems at once too vague and too exacting. But I’m sure the poor man never could have imagined it would lead to this …


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