Harry Partch from the Source

By Sedgwick Clark

There is nothing hum-drum about the annual Lincoln Center Festival. Festival Director Nigel Redden likes to take chances, scouring the globe during off-summer months for new takes on traditional works in all the performing arts, balanced by newer works for which the word “unique” was invented. One of the latter was an opera by American composer Harry Partch, Delusion of the Fury, which has been rarely mounted since its premiere at UCLA in 1969. Last week it was given its Lincoln Center outing (oddly, at City Center) by Ensemble Musikfabrik, directed by Heiner Goebbels.

Partch (1901-1974) was one of those 20th-century American mavericks like Ives, Ruggles, Nancarrow, Cage, Glass, and Reich. He built his own instruments capable of producing fractional intervals, invented a 43-tone scale, and wandered America, in the words of Nicolas Slonimsky, “collecting indigenous expressions of folkways, inscriptions on public walls, etc., for texts in his productions.” By the time he wrote Delusion, Partch had created 27 instruments, and I must admit that on my first live hearing and seeing I found its plethora of percussion and overactive staging a bit diffuse.

To my good fortune, I was accompanied on that evening by the composer and conductor Victoria Bond, who just so happens to have sung the role of the Old Goat Woman in that UCLA premiere. Speaking with her afterwards, I came to understand my reaction better and figured that you, my readers, would too. So I invited her to write about working with the composer, what that production was like, and how the new Heiner Goebbels view stacked up to it. Take it away, Victoria!

“Harry Partch originally intended the roles in his opera Delusion of the Fury to be performed by musicians who could also act, sing, and dance. However, the dancer who was to play the principal female role of the Old Goat Woman could not sing the part, so I was called in to audition for Partch. Although I was a classically trained opera singer, Partch wanted a raw, primal sound, with an almost yodeling quality. This was difficult for me to achieve at first, as it went against everything I had been trained to do with my voice. But once I had mastered the sounds he wanted, I found the technique to be expressive in a way that was new to me. Partch invited me to join the cast and spent a lot of time teaching us his unorthodox vocal techniques until we sounded like participants in an ancient tribal ritual. The arrangement was to be that I and the other principal singers were to be in the pit with the musicians, and the dancers were to be on stage, lip-syncing.

Delusion of the Fury combines two folk tales, one serious and the other a comedy. The first, taken from a Japanese Noh drama, is about a warrior searching for the ghost of a man he has killed. The second, adapted from an Ethiopian folk tale, is a farce about miscommunication. The two stories are connected by the characters who portray roles in both. My role, the Old Goat Woman, was part of the farce, and Partch wanted me to emphasize her comedic qualities in my vocalizations. After many hours of rehearsals, I felt prepared to let loose with some yelps and hollers and the primitive guttural sounds that Partch wanted. The premiere took place on January 9, 1969, at UCLA, and the audience whooped and hollered its approval at the conclusion. What a joyous moment it was for all of us, particularly as we had no idea how this radical opera was going to be received!

“Although Partch was pleased with the results of his tireless coaching of singers and instrumentalists, he was not equally pleased with the staging. Because he had lavished most of his time on us, he did not see the costumes or choreography until shortly before opening night, when it was too late to do anything about them. He feared the worst, and was relieved when the audience cheered on opening night and the glowing reviews proclaimed the work a masterpiece.

“The recent performance by Musikfabrik as part of the Lincoln Center Festival was performed on instruments copied from those originally built by Partch. The playing and singing were brilliant, and it was gratifying to hear such virtuosity from this later generation of Partch enthusiasts. Much as I enjoyed the musical realization, however, I thought the staging fussy and distracting rather than an enhancement of the performance. The grandeur and simple elegance of the Noh drama was lost in the lugubrious lighting of the first part, and although the whimsical Ethiopian story started promisingly, it deteriorated into a campy romp with a large cutout of what looked to be Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders carried onstage amidst a herd of toy goats.

“It made for a crowded picture. The principal of less-is-more might have given us the opportunity to savor each detail without the clutter of a tank of water, a herd of goats, a large cutout, a fire and other assorted bells and whistles. On the other hand, the decision to have the instruments onstage rather than in the pit was most welcome, as they are so beautiful to behold and were played with such conviction and expressivity.”

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