NEW YORK - The name Harry Partch inspires wonder and romance among those who know the world of serious American music well: Having lived as a hobo in the 1930s, Partch emerged in the 1960s as the ultimate in uncompromising American originals - building his own musical instruments, devising his own tunings, and, in short, reinventing music.
That reinvention, including a 43-note scale, and instruments that resemble monster-size marimbas, sounds more subtly than radically different from that which already existed (especially in Japan), but his works are performed very rarely. In fact, his biggest theater piece,
Delusion of the Fury
, is only now being revived for the first time since its 1969 premiere, thanks to the Japan Society here, where it plays through Saturday.
The Tuesday opening was theatrically sketchy but musically mesmerizing:
Delusion of the Fury
is knitted together from haunting emblematic motifs amid weather fronts of sound. Housed at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair (N.J.) State University (there's only one set), Partch's orchestra is a series of parallel-universe hybrids. They have names like "Cry Chord" and "Eucal Blossom." Some resemble large bowls that emit glistening sounds. The monster marimba has tones so low you feel them in your guts. My favorite is something called "Castor and Pollux": It sounds like a plucked Japanese instrument but looks vaguely Hungarian. Though mostly percussion instruments, they're played with padded sticks and rarely sound like something being beaten. Though complicated, the music is agreeable and transporting, rich with well-judged simultaneous events.
Dialogue is there in bits, but the piece is really dance theater, with spirited choreography that's more plot-bound than the Asian-influenced Erick Hawkins, and with a mythological bent. The loose-limbed scenario concerns a man confronted by the spirit of someone he has murdered. The slightly silly Act II is based on a comic Ethiopian tale about a hobo and a goat herder - more a demonstration of alternative storytelling than something with a vital message.
In the years since Partch's 1976 death, choreographer/composer Meredith Monk has gone infinitely further with music based on voice but not words to tell highly specific, emotionally charged stories. Philip Glass trumped Partch's counter-verbal qualities in
Einstein on the Beach
, whose libretto often consists of people counting. George Crumb has spent a lifetime exploring percussive effects with ever more specific atmospheric eloquence.
That's not to downgrade Partch. Unlike Moses, he made it to the promised land, if just barely, and may be forever discussed more than heard because his performing apparatus is so unwieldy. Dean Drummond, who worked with the composer and heads the Partch institute, says producing
Delusion of the Fury
cost around $300,000 (high, though not off the charts for an experimental work) due to maintenance and transportation of instruments, plus long rehearsals. Though the instruments are learnable by any excellent percussionist, somebody like Drummond needs to be on hand partly because of Partch's alternative notation. Some of these musicians have been working since September.
Yet such performances need to happen periodically,
because the long assemblage dictates an experience not often available elsewhere. Two of the 20th century's more acknowledged masterpieces - Steve Reich's 1976
Music for 18 Musicians
and Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1968
for six unaccompanied voices - have similar virtues and impracticalities. Reich's piece was so specific to his own ensemble that it was written down only in recent years. Even then, there's a long journey from the repetitive, mechanized score notation to the stated purpose of Reich's music, which is to induce ecstasy. The latest recording (and one of the best) comes from a university setting (an outpost of nonindustrialized music-making), the Grand Valley (Mich.) State University New Music Ensemble.
by Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices is the piece's fourth recording, in a work whose interpretation varies so widely that its performers talk about making their own versions. Shackled to the key of C major, this trance-inducing work entrusts choices about sound and duration of events to ensemble members, whose vocal production veers between humming and buzzing.
In both cases, it's music-making based less on what the performers do and more on who they are. The experience isn't "out there," but
there - similar in practice to Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral at the dawn of Western music in the 12th century, where various forms of chant and polyphony were by oral transmission rather than from dots on a page. It's music beyond what can be written. Symphonic performances get there - often with Leonard Bernstein and on good nights with Christoph Eschenbach. But those are exceptions.
The difference is felt more than quantified. But forced to quantify, I'd say that the new Reich recording has a softer, more blended sound. Glass' rippling music has been credited with framing a river; here, Reich enshrines a cloud. For
, I played the first and latest recordings simultaneously in separate rooms of my apartment. The music's events had the same character but arriving by different routes there. The first recording ends with profound exhales; the latest has singers buzzing into the ether.
Though these pieces may represent ideas whose time has gone, I say their time is coming again. The overthrow of modernism in the 1980s promised new music with greater connective abilities with audiences. That's happened - some. What audiences really want isn't necessarily something prettier, but frisson by whatever means with the people onstage. That can happen with Debussy, but is more likely with Reich.