On July 23 and 24, Ensemble Musikfabrik (a contemporary music group from Cologne) performed Harry Partch’s final large-scale theater work, Delusion of the Fury as part of the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival. Since the work’s premiere in 1969 there have been only a handful of performances. This one is important to note because it’s the first performance in the United States featuring the near-complete replica set of Partch Instruments built by Thomas Meixner in 2012. The New York City performances were based upon the 2013 performance directed by Heiner Goebbels and produced by Ruhrtriennale, and although some aspects of the staging and costumes seemed arbitrary and distracting, the performance was executed with amazing musicality, impeccable precision, and the ensemble allowed Delusion to exert itself as a great work of art. Most importantly, the performance raises interesting questions about the legacy of Harry Partch now that more than one unique set of his instruments exists.
Composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) was born in California and is one of several mid 20th century American experimental composers. Unlike contemporaries such as John Cage, Harry did not compose pieces determined by chance elements or create graphic scores. Instead, Harry explored a system of just intonation—where individual notes are tuned according to the natural harmonic series—and pursued a concept that he called “corporeality” in music. Corporeal (literally, of the body) music is music that is meant to be heard, felt, and even seen. For Harry, corporeal music was in opposition to “abstract” music, which is intended for contemplation and exists more as an idea than a physical thing. Because of this, Harry’s instruments are built to be seen as much as they are heard, and the performers and instruments are integrated into the drama and action of all his pieces.
Since the 1930s, Harry pursued this mission primarily through the construction of new instruments capable of producing pitches in just intonation and composing music based upon the natural patterns of human speech. At first his works were composed for voice and one or two instruments, but as he built more and more, his works became larger and of greater scope; they also took on more rhythmic drive and impetus as he incorporated longer narrative forms. By the end of his career, Harry had composed over 30 pieces for small and medium sized ensembles and several large-scale theater works that are intended to fully incorporate the performers and instruments. In addition to his many works of music and his instruments, Harry also authored the book Genesis of a Music, which details his theories and aesthetic, explains his instrument design and notation systems, and provides the background behind many of his pieces.
Delusion of the Fury is the largest of Harry’s theater works; it was completed in 1966 and then premiered at UCLA in 1969. Delusion is a two-act theater work with no intermission that presents two different folk tales: a Japanese ghost story of reconciliation, and a comic Ethiopian story of a deaf vagrant and a woman looking for her lost goat. As Harry’s final large-scale theater work, Delusion can be seen as the culmination of his career and life. It blends many elements of performance (singing, acting, dancing, etc.), it includes almost all of his instruments, and it embodies his concepts of corporeality in music.
How one actually executes corporeality in performance is at the same time more confusing and easier to understand than the concept itself. As Harry saw it, corporeality was achieved by incorporating the visual aspects of a performance, namely the way the instruments looked and how the performers interacted with the instruments, and how they moved through the performance space. In my own experience as a performer of Harry’s music, this involved having my actions acknowledge the other performers, and to interact with them and the audience in a way that demonstrates that we’re all sharing the same space. It also involves a consistent commitment to one’s actions while performing—basically, don’t break character.
Overall, Musikfabrik successfully interpreted the work and delivered a stunning performance, but some visual choices undermined the piece. The accuracy and musicality of their playing was breathtaking. As someone who has known Delusion only through the video and audio recordings from the 1960s, Musikfabrik brought out numerous sections that I had never noticed before. Most often these were stunning duets, trios, and other small ensemble moments that are dispersed throughout the entire work. More than anything, the ensemble’s skill was demonstrated in the opening overture, “Exordium,” during a long and dramatic crescendo.
Despite the exceptional accuracy on the part of the players, some of the visual elements of the production, and the way some ensemble members committed to their individual movements on stage did not serve to enhance the experience of the work. What stuck out most was the costume and set design for this production (which were imagined by Heiner Goebbels and the Ruhrtriennale team). The ensemble was dressed in a Brooklyn hipster meets steampunk meets industrial tramp style that was confusing. There were also large inflatable black tendrils that slowly rose over the course of the performance that eventually obscured the view of both the Quadrangularis Reversum and the Spoils of War, two of the most visually interesting of Harry’s instruments. What was most bothersome about the performance was the use of a large cutout of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders logo to portray the judge during the “Arrest, Trial, and Judgement (Joy in the Marketplace)” scene near the end of the second act. Even though this moment evoked laughter from the audience, it served no purpose beyond those immediate laughs, and rather than communicating something, it came off as a gimmick.
As distracting and arbitrary as those choices seemed, the positive aspects of the production far outshone the negative. I was surprised at how much the work itself asserted its own meaning and identity despite the poor costumes and set choices; “Delusion remained Delusion,” I told one of my friends in an email reflecting upon my experience. In that respect, the performance was a resounding success.
The weaknesses of Musikfabrik’s visual choices were not alone in missing the point of Harry’s music. The media and press leading up to the event included the usual myths, misunderstandings, misnomers, and half-truths which find their way into articles, webpages, and the like. The New York Times’ Michael Cooper wrote in a July 21 article that Harry “rejected the traditional Western scale,” and that, “Instead of using the 12-note chromatic scale, [Harry] worked with a 43-note system.” These quotes are typical of the kinda/sorta truths that have surrounded Harry’s system of music for a long long time. While it is certainly true that Harry’s Chromelodeon (a modified reed organ) has 43 notes to the octave, he did not reject the traditional Western scale. In fact, much of his music is based upon major and minor scales; what Harry rejected was the temperament of that scale, that is, how the individual notes are tuned. So rather than thinking of the 43-note system as a scale, it is more accurate to think of it as a Western chromatic scale with each note having a few different versions (for example, there are three different pitches that represent the note “F” on Harry’s Chromelodeon).
The press articles are not alone in the preponderance of small errors and statements that miss the point about Harry’s life and music. Lincoln Center Festival, who produced the performances, is guilty of the same. As part of the media for the Festival, they published a wonderful infographic that explains a great deal about Harry’s intonation system and instruments in an incredibly clear and concise way. Unfortunately the infographic contains numerous small errors about his instruments (such as dates of construction and playing style), and the pitch wheel which so creatively explains the relationship between equal temperament and Harry’s tuning system erroneously equates the “Unison,” or 1/1 of Harry’s system, with the note “C” (Harry’s “Unison” is actually based upon the note “G”). The sad part about these errors is that they are easily avoided by consulting someone who knows the history and details of the instruments, or by reading either Genesis of a Music or Bob Gilmore’s Harry Partch: a biography, the two most authoritative sources of information on Harry (neither of these books are listed as sources for the infographic).
Regardless of the perceived successes and failures of Musikfabrik’s performance and the myths propagated by media, the truth is that Delusion is difficult to mount due to its technical and artistic challenges, and difficult to understand without experiencing it directly. And beyond the fact of building an entire set of Partch instruments (which was rumored to be in the millions of dollars), capturing Harry’s aesthetic goals in a performance of Delusion requires a level of skill in several different disciplines (music, dance, acting, etc.) and the ability to play unique musical instruments. Harry himself experienced these problems in his UCLA production in 1969. As Bob Gilmore wrote in his biography of Harry: “The problem, as [Harry] saw it, was the old one of specialization: the fact that a musician is usually trained only as a musician, and becomes awkward and self-conscious when asked to act or even move on stage.” Harry himself even lamented upon some of the compromises made for the UCLA production in Genesis of a Music:
Ideally, the singers would be skilled also in the arts of acting, dancing, miming, as they are in Noh and Kabuki. But in our specialist culture, singers are generally only singers, actors only actors, and dancers only dancers. Just one solution seems possible: put the singers in the pit, while the actor-dancers on stage mouth the words, the gibberish, or whatever.
Charles Corey, the director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium at the University of Washington, was part of Dean Drummond’s Delusion production in 2007 and said that the problem of specialization was an issue for them as well. So no matter the ensemble, the individual players, or the people involved, Delusion of the Fury will always remain an exceptionally difficult piece to render.
Harry’s Legacy and The Future of His Instruments
Despite what I or others may perceive as the successes or failures of Musikfabrik’s performance and their production of Delusion, the bigger issues raised by their performance is wound up with the continuing legacy of Harry Partch. Since his death in 1974, Harry’s music was limited in reach because it can only be performed on his instruments. For many years these only existed in the care of Danlee Mitchell in San Diego, California, then Dean Drummond in Montclair, New Jersey, and now Charles Corey at the University of Washington. Musikfabrik’s near-complete set of new instruments in Europe is also in addition to the ongoing construction of another set in Southern California under the direction of guitarist John Schneider. (This group goes by the name “Partch” and has been slowly growing their repertoire as they add more instruments.)
The building of new instruments expands the possibilities of Harry’s legacy, not only on the simple level of his music and art being able to exist in more than one place at any given time, but also that it allows his influence to reach beyond his own works, and also beyond the control of a single individual or small group of people. While one only one set existed, the person who cared for the set had the responsibility to decide which works of Harry’s would be performed. Their decisions determined which works deserved time, and which works didn’t. Of course there are many non-artistic concerns which drive those choices (who’s in the ensemble at any given time, budget, support of outside institutions, and which instruments are in good repair); but now, the sole responsibility doesn’t fall on one person or ensemble.
The possibilities for the instruments to find new voices as parts of new works is also expanded as more instruments are constructed. When I was spending time with the original instruments in Montclair, I got to hear a few new works composed by members of the Harry Partch Ensemble. The Southern California set was also recently utilized in a show called LSD: The Opera by Anne LeBaron, Gert Stern, and Ed Rosenfeld. These works have allowed the instruments to contribute to ideas beyond Harry’s and his immediate successors’. And of course, Musikfabrik’s set will allow even more composers and musicians to make use of these sounds in new ways as well.
As someone who loves the music of Harry Partch, and as someone who strongly identifies with his ideas of corporeality in music, it is my opinion that more exposure to Harry’s music is a good thing. Harry’s music tells compelling stories, often reflects on the lives of American society’s outcasts, and is an important part of America’s musical legacy. Harry’s music is American in the same way that jazz, barbershop, and the Broadway musical is American. It was born of our culture and experiences, and it has the power to tell us something deep and meaningful about ourselves. Now that almost three sets are in existence, the thought that three different audiences, separated by thousands of miles, have more access to a performance of Bless this Home or US Highball makes me glad.
What this really demonstrates is how Harry’s legacy is attached to the instruments themselves. In this respect corporeality is powerfully asserted. These instruments don’t exist as ideas, they exist as physical things to be seen, touched, and heard. And if you want to know Harry, you need to know these instruments (either originals or reproductions). This paints Harry’s legacy as something starkly different than the legacy of Bach, Mozart, or Schoenberg. When we think of these composers we think of how their music and ideas influenced their contemporaries and succeeding generations. When we think of Harry, we think of these beautiful, physical works of art. We think of things we can touch and hear in a real sense, and in that respect, Harry’s call for corporeality is more real today for more people than it has been for a long time.
I’ve been wanting to write an article about Harry’s music and his instruments for sometime, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of several individuals who deserve mention (in no particular order): Nomi Tichman, Danlee Mitchell, Charles Corey, Steven Severinghaus, the Barstow Band (Liam, Mike, Devon, and Jon), Anthony Serrao, Siobahn Sung, Derek Jeppsen, and Eric Smigel.
Correction, 28 July: I’ve added text to reflect that fact that the costumes and set design was created by Heiner Goebbels and the team from the Ruhrtriennale Festival, not the musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik.