Total Theater of Harry Partch: Thoughts after a Revival of Delusion of the Furyby Sergei Tcherepnin
“Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing. The concept of this work inheres in the presence of the instruments onstage, the movements of musicians and chorus, the sounds they produce, the actuality of actors, of singers, of mimes, of lights; in fine, the actuality of truly integrated theater.”
—Harry Partch, Preface to Delusion of the Fury
Imagine a stage inhabited by over thirty different musical instruments you have never before imagined. The sight of these luminous instruments, arranged in striking formations across the stage, dimly yet warmly lit, is spectacular. Among the instrument jungle are diamond-shaped marimbas, metal cylinders suspended in mid-air, multiple organs, psaltery-like string instruments, and wooden bars as large as fifty feet long. These are some of the instruments that make up a set of the unique music-theater creations of American composer, writer, and inventor Harry Partch, and I was lucky enough to see and hear them as they were brought together last December at the Japan Society for the first staging of Partch’s Delusion of the Fury since its premiere in 1969.
More than just being part of the set, the instruments act as characters in his theater, each with its own name and story: There are the “Spoils of War,” consisting of seven types of sounds, made from brass artillery cases, a long block of violin-bow wood, glass bells, tuned bamboo, a wood block, a guiro, and three “whang guns.” There is the “Blow Boy,” made from bellows and an auto-exhaust horn with three small organ pipes attached, which, when stepped on, produces the sound of steam-engine whistles. Then there are the mysteriously resonant “Cloud Chamber Bowls,” a set of tuned glass bells made from the tops and bottoms of twelve-gallon Pyrex containers, found in the glass shop of a radiation lab in Berkeley. Over the course of his life, Partch continued to design and build new instruments, often to fill some specific role in a particular composition. They are the foundation for his music and ideas; Partch used their physical presence and uncanny sounds to build a utopian alternative to “the House of Western Music.”
Born in a small Arizona town on the Mexican border in 1901, Partch was exposed to art and music from China and Japan as a child by his parents, who had spent time in China as missionaries. He wrote music and studied piano from an early age, but did not find his true musical calling until age twenty-one, when he discovered On the Sensations of Tone, by German physicist Hermann Helmholtz. Reading this modern-day classic about the physics and physiology of music opened Partch’s mind to the untapped potential of sound, and spurred him to investigate the nature of sound itself, rather than continue to study the torpid history of western classical music. On the Sensations of Tone served as Partch’s textbook in music theory, teaching him the natural laws of harmony. He became disillusioned, even outraged, at what he viewed as the deceit of western music, stating later in life: “The truth of Just Intonation has been hidden, one could almost say maliciously. Because truth always threatens the ruling hierarchy, or they think so.” By age twenty-six, Partch was well on his way to developing his own “pure” tuning systems based on principals of just intonation. (He would eventually publish a book, The Genesis of a Music, describing his tuning ideas and instrument designs.) At age twenty-nine, Partch made a swift and decisive action showing his commitment to this new-found musical path: he gathered every one of his fifty-some compositions from the last fourteen years, and threw them into the flames of a potbellied stove.
Partch’s ideas naturally expanded outward from this desire to investigate the “true” nature of sound, as he explored different methods of presenting his music in ways that resisted the generally accepted Western concert music tradition. He stood in stark opposition to the House of Western Music, due in part to his belief that “the profession is indeed carried on by people…who have forgotten the human ear.” As with his exploration of sound, Partch’s theater is about the possibility of magic in the physical world. Through an “at-oneness” with the instruments, the musicians themselves become transported to a different time and space: “Touch the total experience,” Partch said, “which does have an underlying total affinity, and the conditioned attitude evaporates.” The actors in Partch’s productions are in a sense asked to strip themselves naked before the audience, so that they may be open to the discovery of their own inner beings. This idea is perhaps best illustrated in The Bewitched, a story of a chorus of Lost Musicians (or “Children of Magic”) who are given the power of perception by a witch, told through a series of satirical scenarios: “These are stories of release—through salutary and whimsical witchery—from prejudice; from individual limitation; even from the accident of physical form; of sex that creates mental obstacles to vision; and the release is the climax. In its characteristic way, each one is a theatrical unfolding of nakedness, a psychological striptease, or a diametric reversal, with the effect of underlining the complimentary character and the strange affinity of seeming opposites.”
Another important aspect of Partch’s music-theater is the unique manner in which he uses text. Even in his earliest just-intonation compositions he thought about language as inherently musical, as is apparent in his work for voice and adapted viola, 17 Lyrics of Li Po (1930–1933), in which he does not sing, but speaks with great attention to accents and stresses as he accompanies himself on viola. Partch even carried this attitude into his everyday life—he reportedly spoke in a singsong voice inflected with great feeling and emotion. In interviews and even in rehearsals with musicians, Partch spoke in this dramatic and self-conscious way, showing that this attitude about language was integrated into his being.
Partch was later inspired by his meeting with Irish poet W. B. Yeats, whose stage version of Sophocles’ King Oedipus inspired Partch to create his own music-theater version. Partch traveled to Dublin in 1934 to work with Yeats on interpreting the Sophocles play for the stage. It is with Yeats that he crystallized certain attitudes towards the role of text in theater, identifying with Yeats’s statement that “I hear with older ears than the musician,” noting that despite Yeats’s apparent non-musical reputation among his colleagues, “inability to carry a tune is more like hypersensitivity to tone.”
Partch later developed theories about language that, concurrent with his ideas about sound and performance, treated the voice as a vehicle for “extraverbal magic,” stating in his notes to The Bewitched: “Communication, if it functions at all, comes in many disguises: in plain words, or in artfully inflected words, or perhaps no words at all; perhaps telepathically or, according to some, as the result of trans-migratory souls recognizing each other from former lives. In any case, there is such a thing as extraverbal magic. And extraverbal magic is something I now wish to invoke.”
Realizing a production by Harry Partch without his guiding presence seems to be a near-impossible task. The Japan Society’s effort to revive Delusion of the Fury this past December in collaboration with director/set designer John Jesurun, musical director Dean Drummond, and choreographer Dawn Akemi Saito, along with the entire cast of musicians, mimes, and dancers, produced a stunning performance. The mimes and dancers appeared to emphasize the satirical nature of the play, creating an odd and uncomfortable sense of drama. Their exaggerated movements also emphasized the aspects of Noh theater that influenced the work. The musicians absolutely captivated the audience, with a keen sense of drama and mastery of the music, which was, needless to say, mesmerizing.
It is interesting to compare this production with the tape of the original performance, overseen by Partch himself, which I found to be more wild and rough around the edges, in keeping with Partch’s philosophy expressed in his essay “Show Horses in the Concert Ring”: “The house is a showcase—everything polished, everything perfect, everything correctly interpreted and reinterpreted ad infinitum, everything accepted in the terms of the will—a will that is taken as a corpus juris which sets forth all our ancestors’ house rules and stipulates their furniture.” One place where the difference between the original and the recent production is apparent is in the costumes of the musicians. Whereas in the Japan Society production the musicians were dressed neatly in black, in the original performance the musicians were wearing ponchos, which they stripped off after Act I, performing half-naked for Act II. Although the recent staging replaced the natural wildness of the original with a more polished sophistication, the mesmerizing music felt very much in the spirit of the first production.
Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.