New York

Harry Partch

Harry Partch’s musical drama Delusion of the Fury premiered at the UCLA Playhouse in 1969, but despite the show’s rapturous critical reception, the California composer was disappointed. Though he had made copious notes for the work’s staging, choreography, and set design, the limited rehearsal schedule obliged Partch to concentrate exclusively on the music. Two months later, weary and having spent a great deal of his own money on the transportation and repair of his instruments, Partch vowed, “I won’t do this again.” A recent restaging of Delusion (the show’s first revival) at the Japan Society redressed that unsatisfying debut.

An influential avant-garde composer, Partch (1901–1974) is prob- ably best known for the scale he developed using “pure” or “just” intonation. Partch deemed this the most “natural” tuning system because it allowed for musical styles typically excluded from the classic twelve-tone tuning of Western music. He felt that just intonation’s microtones—the pitches lying between those of an eight-note octave—were closest to the musicality of speech, which enhanced his “corporeal” (and academic-averse) approach to music.

The new Delusion’s set was minimal, with only two key elements. Director and designer John Jesurun incorporated videos of abstract patterns, swaying trees, and wafting smoke (images indicated in Partch’s notes), projecting them onto the ceiling to suffuse the audience with a moody glow. The primary ornamentation, however, was Partch’s stunning handmade instruments. Experimental group Newband performed on twenty-four of these, from early adapted guitars to later, more percussion-oriented assemblages such as the Quadrangularis Reversum, a set of inverted marimbas. Among the most striking was Partch’s 1964 Gourd Tree, a eucalyptus bough of Chinese bells attached to gourd resonators with two aluminum cones made from old gas tanks, along with the sonorous Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Faithful to Partch’s original score, Jesurun’s Delusion opened with the “Exordium,” which introduced a plaintive motif unifying the show’s two disparate acts. A dirgelike instrumental began Act I, layered with a low-voiced chorus, the strumming of Partch’s dulcimer-style Harmonic Canon, and a few airy flute punctuations. A synthesis of two Noh plays, the first act is a solemn tale of an encounter between a ghost of a noble warrior and his remorseful killer. Restrained, side-winder movements in the fight-dance between the ghost and the slayer, along with a near-synchronized mime between the apparition and his son, ably mirrored the “invisible” technique of Noh—a marked rejoinder to the 1969 production’s choreography, which Partch found “gauche.” Dancers wove languidly while the musicians sang in extended monosyllables. When the clash between specter and killer results in a draw, the act closes with a meditation on forgiveness.

Antipodal to the somber first act, act 2 is a mirthful fable of misunderstanding between a deaf hobo and an old village woman. The satire, drawn from an Ethiopian folktale, is a salute to Partch’s time living as a hobo during the Depression. The ludicrous conflict (the woman is looking for her goat and the vagrant cannot understand anything she is saying) lands the two in court. “Justice”—sporting Coke-bottle glasses and wielding a hearing trumpet—simply advises the hobo to “take your beautiful young wife, and your charming child”—the goat, presumably—“and go home!” A droll celebration of life to complement the previous act’s reconciliation with death.

In a draft of the second edition of his polemic Genesis of a Music (1949), Partch wrote, “Just as one instinctively clings to life, he clings to a possible extension of [it] through those who follow.” However, he doubted his work would live on after his death. Judging by the passionate engagement of Jesurun, musical director Dean Drummond, and choreographer Dawn Akemi Saito, as well as the enthusiasm of Delusion’s audience, this production should be only the beginning of a revived interest in Partch’s unique cosmology.

Nicole Lanctot