Sunday, June 17, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Hovering Over and Beneath" (on Ben Johnston and Harry Partch)

hovering over and beneath
by Douglas Messerli

The Partch group and Lyris Quartet Partch: Daphne of the Dunes (music by Ben Johnston and Harry Partch) / performed at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Los Angeles / the performance I attended was on June 15th, 2018

The other evening, I attended a concert at Redcat that presented two works performed by the Harry Partch performers—which, in this case, included Erin Barnes, Cory Beers, Alison Bjokedal, Dustin Donahuem, Vicki Ray, John Schneider, Nick Terry, T.J. Troy, and Alex Wand—playing on Partch-invited instruments such as the Gourd Tree, Canons, Chromelodeon, Boo, and others such as the Diamond Marimba, the Surrogate Kithara, and Spoils.
      This, second part of the program, presented his Daphne of the Dunes (1967), a kind of comic short opera, with choreographic flourishes by Casebolt and Smith and with video art by Joel Smith.
       Partch called this work, which he expanded at least a couple of times, as a “dance-drama,” and this production retained his verbal introductions which he hoped would serve as “a guide to the prospective choreographer.”

     To play out the encounter of Apollo, the god of music (and Zeus’ son) who fell in love with the river Naiad Daphne, the performers used comic masks, and presented the work itself in a somewhat comic manner—despite the beautiful shower of quivering music, particularly when Ray played Chromelodeon, with Barnes on the Diamond Marimba, and John Schneider on Viola—that satirized “music’s” attempt to charm the hard-hearted woman, who was protected by an arrow of lead by showing brief scenes from Hitchcock's and other films.

      I had previously seen and heard this group’s performance of Partch’s long-gestating work Barstow—created first in the 1940s and 50s, and finalized in 1968—in which, somewhat in the manner of Woody Guthrie, Partch sets to music the hitchhiker graffiti of several travelers wandering through that San Bernardino County desert town, known as a hub for various forms of transportation. As I wrote in My Year 2009:

…Upon first hearing each of these numbered pieces, 
presented in a Sprechstimme-like performance by guitarist 
John Schneider, the words are almost laughable. But Partch 
allows us after the original statement to hear the echoes of 
those words, by repeating them with emotionally-charged 
aftertones and dramatic additions (“ha-ha-ha” “dum-de-dum,” 
etc.) that transform them into haunting expressions of fear 
and joy.
      Yet, somehow, that appeared to have missing from this performance, in part, because John Schneider cut most of his commentary, and it seemed as if the whole piece had somehow been cut back. Perhaps it was just that, since this was the last piece of the evening, my mind was still filled with the sounds and sensations of the other works I describe below; but I do feel the small choreographic additions to this piece, probably inspired by the fact that the dancers had temporarily joined the company for the evening, literalized these pieces and stole some of the haunting quietude surrounding these pencil and ink musings.

    Indeed, the Partch works seemed, this time around, almost an afterthought to the great works that began the evening concert. Performed by Lyris Quartet (Sara Andon, James Sullivan, John Stehney, and Scott Worthington, Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988) and the American premier of the same composer’s Octet (1999/2000) were clearly the featured pieces of the concert.

     Johnston, now 92, was as close as one can get to having been a “student” of Partch. Yet Partch and Johnston, despite both their use of “just intonation,” in some ways couldn’t be more different.
      Whereas, Partch was a kind of American eccentric, Johnston, who describes his musical annotations as “extended just intonation,” allows the great musical traditions of the past, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and American folk music (much like Copland) to permeate his works.
      Although I have studied music, playing saxophone in high school and almost majoring in voice in my early university years (I did sing in the major University of Wisconsin choral groups and performed in a musical production there as a singer and dancer), I find it almost impossible to comprehend “extended just intonation” and its effects. Although I can certainly read music, I am afraid I could not quite interpret a musical score that transforms musical notes into numerical fractions. But the effects of this, so I believe, is that the compositions allow the musicians to work between the rigid structures of traditional scoring to create a music that sometimes hovers just below or over the pitches (what are described as “microtonal variants”) that create a very different sound overall, allowing for the natural harmonic pitches which are preferred by the human ear.
     Particularly in the very first movement of String Quartet No 9, Johnston’s work immediately alerts us to a fresh expression of quartet music, spirited and lush at the very same moment. The audience is immediately awakened from the pre-concert silence. The program notes include a long paragraph by Bob Gilmore which describes the entire piece, but I’ll quote simply his comments of that first movement, titled “Strong, calm, slow”:

 …the most extraordinary movement is surely the lst, 
 where Johnston achieves a real compositional tour de 
 force in creating a six-minute movement, the pitch world 
 of which remains entirely between middle C and the C an 
 octave above and yet retains our interest throughout. Here 
 the richness of just intonation with its luminous pure intervals 
 and their microtonal variants, lets us hear as never before one 
 of Western music’s familiar clich├ęs: the C major scale. Like 
 all of Johnston’s best music, this movement looks both 
 backward (to a musical heritage that he feels is still vital to 
 our contemporary world) and forward, to a world of new 
 sounds and untried harmonies that will continue to engage us 
 as his compositional achievement becomes better known.

     The newer piece, Octet, takes as its central tune Folk musician Jay Unger’s famed tune “Ashokan Farewell,” a piece used notably as the theme of Ken Burn’s PBS television series, The Civil War. Such a beautiful tune, as the program notes, made the film series’ audiences believe that the work was from the 19th century; but Johnston’s final variation of this piece deracinates the prettiness of the piece through his just intonation dissonant harmonies, helping us to see this work as a far less sentimental song, while revealing some of its darker elements which were at the heart of the terrible war.
       In this concert it seems as if the always inventive “father” was wonderfully outshined by his quite brilliant “student.” And I praise the Partch group for allowing their hero to share the stage, so to speak. Surely, I will now attempt to see any concert with Johnston on the program—of which I hope there will be many.

Los Angeles, June 17, 2018

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