Saturday, June 24, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Going/Gone Crazy" (on Partch: Windsong")

going/gone crazy
by Douglas Messerli

The Harry Partch Ensemble Partch: Windsong / performed at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall / June 23-24, 2017 / the concert I attended with Pablo Capra was on June 23, 2017

I last reviewed the music of Harry Partch, also at a concert at Redcat, on May 29, 2009, when the Partch Group performed “Dark Brother,” “God Lonely Man,” Yankee Doodle Fantasy,” “Isobel” and “Annah the Allmaziful” (the last two based on James Joyce and Lewis Carroll),  and his important Sprechstimme-like work Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions. I promised at the end of  that review, which appeared in My Year 2009, that I would be soon attending other concerts of this eccentric American composer’s work.

      In the 8 years since, that group has performed in Los Angeles several times—including at Redcat—and has garnered several Grammy nominations and awards, adding to the number of their performers as well as recreating several new Partch-invented instruments, while adding works by other contemporary composers to their repertoire. I can’t exactly explain why it has taken me so long to return to Partch’s music, but I was pleased to attend a performance the other evening of the newest event, “Partch: Windsong” with my editorial assistant Pablo Capra, and, by accident, my dear friend Deborah Meadows.

       Actually, after hearing last night’s sell-out concert I did perceive why I had not immediately decided to return to the works of Partch. Despite the sort of Americana energy Partch’s work conveys, there is, as I described to Pablo, also a sort of corny, kitsch aspect to his work, particularly in the first act of this new concert which featured his 12 Intrusions from 1950. Some of these fascinating “songs” are based on classical dramas and others on Chinese poems, but many of them, such as “The Letter” come from an American heartland sensibility that might remind one of a sort of cynical version of Frank Capra, wherein the American everyday man is heartily, if somewhat negatively, celebrated.
     In “The Letter” the narrator relates an epistle that recounts his unhappy marriage “by the shot-gun,” and his following incarceration, after which, upon his release from jail, he wishes for his wife’s death.
     Other pieces call up visions of “a rose,” “a waterfall,” and “a crane,” all with Partch’s standard employment of fretted strings and heavy percussion, including his remarkable BooBams played by Nick Terry, and Bass Marimba, performed by T J Troy. If it’s all extremely entertaining, particularly, as performers, including the great experimental pianist Vicki Ray (playing, in this case, chromelodeon and canons), rush from instrument to instrument, there is, nonetheless, something slightly embarrassing here about Partch’s “downhome” aesthetic, the same kind of “aw-shucks” kind of sensibility of his memorable Hitchhiker Inscriptions. Charles Ives’ love of the circus and American parades immediately spring to mind; but here the California on-the-road sensibilities replace the more effete New England traditions of the older American composer.
      The wonderful exception in this first “act” was Partch’s memorable Ulysses at the Edge of the World of 1962, performed with baritone saxophone by Ulrich Krieger and trumpet by Dan Rosenboom.  That work alone would be worth the ticket to the concert.
       But then, the “second act” was even more amazing, particularly given the encyclopedic orchestration of Windsong, the score of Madeline Tourtelot’s 1958 art-house film of the same name—performed in its Los Angeles premiere—that encompasses all the startlingly beautiful instruments displayed on the Redcat stage (in a brief speech, John Schneider called for financial support for the group’s recreation of the final few instruments that Partch had created so that they might perform other such restorative works).
     Windsong, as the program notes suggest, is “a collage of sounds,” but it is also a bravura performance of the players, as they rush from instrument to instrument, from chamber bowls to chromelodeon, from canons to kithara and spoils of war, while the diamond marimba and bass marimba pound out the impressive rhythms of the piece. The Redcat audience couldn’t resist the work.
      What followed, a stunningly beautiful piece by Partch’s close friend, gay composer Lou Harrison, Suite for Cello & Harp (1948), was like a dessert that salved the ears after the rambunctious Windsong. I almost cried with the weeping laments of Caleb Yang’s cello and the strangely percussive accompaniment of the harp. This short piece, as far as I was concerned, might have gone on forever, and audience members could not resist the standard silences between movements.
      The final work in the concert, Partch’s Sonata Dementia represented the pure  mania of the composer’s sensibility once more, as he studied the very notions of psychological problems, including schizophrenia, paranoia, and numerous other diagnosed mental problems with Bass Marimba and the Hypobass, while, in the last passages, performer T J Tro chants "Mumbo jumbo, hocus pocus, hoity toity, etc.” and every other possible set of words one might apply to madness, using its professional terms along with the common mockings of the conditions it brings to light.
      Here, we see the kind of Partch “madness” that led many contemporary pop-artists such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges to his music, and helped them to take Partch’s art (whom Iggy Pop openly acknowledges influenced his compositions) into their later punk rock works. My friend, Pablo sent me just three links to Iggy Pop’s works, but they are absolutely revealing. You need just listen to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and his “I’m Bored” to immediately comprehend the remarkable transition of Partch’s down-and-out American colloquialisms into the entire punk movement. The writer of Partch’s “The Letter” is only a step away from crying out “I Wanna Be Your Dog” who might almost be screaming out the dissociative lines from the composer’s “Dementia Sonata.” Ultimately, the entire culture, without always knowing it, took up Partch’s strange isolate compositions to express the new generation’s anguish.

Los Angeles, June 24, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2017).

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