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Last updated: September 2, 2013 5:38 pm
A mountainous structure of inflated black plastic grows around a bizarre arsenal of instruments in the gloom. Clad in workers’ clothes and strange hats, performers leap around constructions of glass, string, wood and metal, producing sounds that cannot be defined in terms of western classical music.
Forget everything you thought you knew about harmony. When hearing the music of Harry Partch it is necessary at least to attempt this act of selective amnesia.
This year’s Ruhrtriennale bills Partch as “the most original American composer”. Whether or not such a superlative is applicable, he was certainly one of the most eccentric. Why divide an octave into 12 semitones? Partch divided it into 43. Why stick with conventional instruments? Partch built his own. Why participate in the system? Partch (1901-1974) spent the Depression years drifting through the US as a hobo.
Frank Zappa encouraged him, Betty Freeman supported him, and by the end of his life he had become something of a cult figure. In Europe his music remains largely unknown, not least because it can only be performed on his instruments, which are stuck in New Jersey.
Finally, four decades after his death, Partch’s last piece of music theatre has made it across the Atlantic. In order to open this year’s Ruhrtriennale with Delusion of the Fury it was necessary to reconstruct the 32 outlandish instruments for which Partch wrote the piece and to learn to play them – an enormous task only possible, ironically, with the full support of state subsidies, foundations and prominent festivals.
It is the vision of Heiner Goebbels, composer, intendant of the Ruhrtriennale and stage director of this production, that made it possible to tip the continental establishment into supporting Partch’s maverick work. Thomas Meixner and his colleagues spent more than a year building the instruments, and the musicians of the excellent Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik learned to play them – a feat that required a combination of percussive ability, theatrical flair and sincerity. The result of all this effort is a slender 90-minute performance given in a back room of Bochum’s industrial Jahrhunderthalle.
Delusion of the Fury tells a Japanese ghost story and an African comedy though sound collages and snatches of American idiom in a performance of two parts linked by a Sanctus. A murderer confronts the ghost of his victim and is forgiven; a deaf tramp meets an old goat-herd and a conflict of misunderstandings envelops the entire village, ending in hilarity. Goebbels’ staging – much aided by Klaus Grünberg’s evocative lighting and an abstract set in which the instruments themselves are the central element – retains the atmosphere of endearing naivety that characterises surviving film footage of Partch’s performances. It is psychedelic, sweet and slightly hokey, like a reconstruction of a 1960s happening without the drugs, which is, in a sense, exactly what this is.
Partch wanted to overturn the entire musical establishment. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry”, and he made some exquisite objects, beautiful to look at and intriguing to hear. In embracing such an oddity, the Ruhrtriennale, unlike its more glamorous fellow festivals, is taking its artistic mandate seriously.
The production goes on to the Holland Festival and the Lincoln Festival in New York, and the legacy is a reconstructed set of Partch instruments that could bring the maverick music-man’s multi-tonal message to the masses, or at least provide a different view of tonality. And some moments of pure, childish delight.
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