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Harry PARTCH (1901 - 1974)
"Enclosure 4" - Two Films

Delusion of the Fury: A Ritual of Dream and Delusion (1971) [75']
The Music of Harry Partch (1968) [28']
VHS tape, NTSC format*, monaural sound
INNOVA 404 [103']

* Copies in PAL format are available from (a) ReR Megacorp, 79 Beulah Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey, or (b) British Harry Partch Society, 45 Newman Road, Erdington, Birmingham (payment by UK cheque only). Alternatively, order via for payment by credit card.
BHPS provide additional documentation (while stocks last) with PAL format tapes.

I could launch into (yet) another soliloquy about what makes Harry Partch one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the entire history of Music, simply because each new encounter with Partch makes me more gob-smacked than ever at the sheer breadth and depth of his astounding achievement. I could, but I won’t, because I’ve soliloquised a-plenty already. So, because some sort of preludial soliloquy is really needed, before reading on - assuming that you want to read on, that is - please have a quick look at, say, the review of Innova’s Enclosure 1.

Without any doubt, in my humble opinion at least, Delusion of the Fury is Partch’s supreme masterpiece. To all intents and purposes it is the culmination of his entire life’s work. Effectively, it marks the end of the long and lonely path on which he set foot half a century earlier, when he kicked the entire Western European musical tradition into touch and set off to "do his own thing" in the most ambitious way imaginable. Indeed, if Delusion of the Fury had been his ultimate target from the word "go", it would have furnished a fairy-tale finale. Boring old History, however, suggests otherwise, reporting that he was expressly preparing for this work only for about a decade.

Unlike those of most composers, though, Partch’s preparations necessarily included much more than mere architectural planning and compositional sketches. Partch also faced the formidable tasks of dreaming up, designing and developing the very instruments on which the music of Delusion of the Fury would be played, and of inventing viable musical notations appropriate to each instrument. (See link at foot of article) On top of that, his scenario was no penny-plain operatic or balletic "plot", but the fullest flowering of his corporeal philosophy, which involved him in still further considerations of staging, lighting, costume, performance style - in fact the caboodle, complete and co-ordinated, right down to the last jot and tittle. Heck, even Wagner had less of a job on!

With all this on his plate, it would have been nice to think that he had security, a haven in which to concentrate wholly on his work. Sadly, this was too often not the case. Generally he lived with the almost constant worry of being made homeless, forever in search of the next place to house both himself and his growing orchestra of fragile and large - some of them imposingly large - instruments. Oh, and then there was the perennial problem of money, reputedly so essential for maintaining the integrity of body and soul.

I must apologise if parts of this review sound a bit on the vague side: I’m having to work from my less-than-wholly-reliable memory because, as I write, I’m separated from my copy of Bob Gilmore’s thorough, and thoroughly gripping, biography of Harry Partch by a small matter of 12,000 miles! Nevertheless, without plumbing the depths of detail, I do recall marvelling at the minor miracle that brought Delusion of the Fury before the public. Somehow, the quite large number of talented people, possessed of or acquiring the requisite and often rarefied skills, all came together and melded. Considering that Partch was an oft-times lonely figure, and difficult to get on with, this is truly remarkable. So, I suppose, you could say that there is something of the fairy-tale in the tail of the tale!

The minor miracle was compounded by the timely presence of Madeline Tourtelot, the corporeally-minded cinematographer extraordinaire who had already, on several occasions, collaborated with Partch (see Enclosure 1 in this series). Thus, not only did Delusion of the Fury manage to meet its public, but also the staged performance was preserved on film for posterity. In passing, the icing on the cake has to be John McClure’s outstanding CBS sound recording of the music (available as Enclosure 6), which is by some margin the best recorded example of a Partch "original", and as far as I can ascertain the only recording of Partch’s music made during his lifetime by any major record company.

However, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s first take a quick look at the layout of Partch’s "ritualistic web". Acts I and II tell two stories. The first, on a "Japanese theme", is tragic and the second, on an "African theme", is comic. Taken together, they reflect the Janus image of the "thespian mask" ideogram. Although drastically different, the two tales nevertheless share a basic thesis which, stripped of its sundry and manifold philosophical overtones, boils down to: "Mankind has an enduring and indefatigable talent for making Ghastly Mistakes".

In the work’s full title the key word is "ritual", which Partch regarded as the main basis and generator of his brand of corporealism. Partch weaves "ritual" into every strand of his web. Perhaps the main distinguishing feature of any ritual involving music is that the musicians are an integral part of the proceedings. Partch hauls his orchestra out of the "pit", and plonks it right on the stage, where it becomes not merely part of the stage setting, but actually is the set. Correspondingly, the instrumental players are performers in the fullest sense, wearing costume and stage make-up just like the actors, singers and dancers who move before and between them. Partch regarded costume, and especially "uniform" costume, as the sine qua non of ritual.

The drama is enacted principally through the ancient art of mime, which traditionally involves the use of strictly stylised movements. Such movements generally embody a set of expressive codes, such as are nowadays most often encountered in classical ballet. Both stylisation and codes are also elements of ritual. For the most part the vocal contributions are wordless, the voices being used as highly expressive musical instruments. "Singing" quite often takes the form of chanting which, again, is a powerful component of many religious rituals. Explicit words, on the other hand, are reserved exclusively for dramatic "punch-lines".

Act I is preceded by an instrumental overture, an extended Exordium intended to draw the audience into the "web of dream and delusion", whilst the two acts are separated by a substantial Sanctus, a bridge which does double-duty as postlude to Act I and prelude to Act 2. Rather more mundanely it provides - as do bog-standard entr’actes - a bit of elbow-room for the cast to change their costumes and even, in some cases, their make-up. Even the very terms, Exordium and Sanctus, breathe the very air of ritual.

OK, fair enough - but what’s the Big Deal about this "ritual" business? I think the answer is simple enough: down through the ages, ritual has always been a fully communal thing, in which not only are all the components that make up the performance closely integrated, but also the audience is necessarily and intimately involved. Partch, although stopping short of requiring the audience to be in costume and make-up and issued with "walk-on" parts, nevertheless provides all the trappings of ritual: he aims to arouse, if not his audience’s base instincts, then at least its deep-seated racial memories.

It’s one thing for a live enactment of such a ritual to draw a live audience into its delusory web. It’s another entirely for a filmed enactment to do the same to individuals like you and me, as we sit in the safety of our front rooms, cluttered with unsympathetic artefacts and, in all probability, utterly inappropriately illuminated. Tourtelot’s job, if we can call it just that, is surely therefore more than simply to record the event, but to try to preserve as much as possible of the ritualistic atmosphere and, indeed, the entire dramatic experience.

As with films like Rotate the Body in All Its Planes and Windsong (see Enclosure 1), Tourtelot’s film technique is gently creative, by which I mean that while she doesn’t just point cameras at the action and hope for the best, neither does she distract you from the narrative with over-egged fancy effects. Her directorial hand moves with immense subtlety. Consider, for example, the Exordium. Interspersed with the titles we see photographs of the musical instruments, and shots of the shadowy stage, on which the instrumental performers are assembling. What we see, though, is obscured by the gloom, and only occasionally relates to what is prominent aurally. Little by little, however, the proportion of shots featuring an instrument being played increases. Tourtelot is tantalising us! By revealing so little that makes any immediate sense, she is spinning a web of her own. Moreover, these "exordial" shots seem to be deliberately reflecting the eyes and ears of a representative member of the "live" audience, as he tries to figure out what the heck is going on.

I must admit, at first I found myself asking the obvious questions, like, "What’s going on? Surely the sights should be matched to the sounds? Shouldn’t the shots be framed to give a clearer view?" Indeed they should, and this is a substantial failing - but it is, in fact, my failing! Of course, the "failing" evaporated as it dawned on me that this is not a documentary film, and Tourtelot’s cunning purpose slotted into place.

I must also admit that, once the action had got going, I occasionally felt a twinge of that same mild frustration that I get in films of opera or ballet. I’m sure you all know the sort of thing, for instance those occasions when, during a large ensemble scene, the camera concentrates on one individual (or even a part of an individual), for no reason that is apparent, either immediately or even after repeated study. Either that, or when one character is doing something really important, you find yourself looking at some other character, standing to one side, and doing nothing more dramatically significant than studying the ceiling.

When the film is produced by a major company with vast resources at its beck and call, these less-than-magical moments can only be due to some irritating artistic contrariness (or sheer blasted ignorance) on the part of the director. Well, as is apparent from Enclosure 1, Tourtelot hardly constitutes a "major company" and, with the best will in the world, her array of only four cameras is nowhere near enough to catch all the broad pictures and the many details of Partch’s theatrical ritual, and "on the hoof" at that. Then again, in a few places - for example, at the end of Emergence of the Spirit in Act I, or at the end of the Sanctus - there are some rough edges in the editing.

It quickly becomes clear that this film suffers from the same technical limitations as those in Enclosure 1. The picture has that same fuzzy, grainy, "16 mm." feel, with a rather anaemic colour response. Fortunately, in this last respect, cranking up the "colour/saturation" control on your TV works restorative wonders! The sound, although a bit better than that of the Enclosure 1 films, still has a very restricted dynamic range. My review tape is a VHS copy from Innova’s published NTSC original, so there will be some loss of quality, but I don’t think the NTSC will be drastically better. If you decide to get the PAL version, please note that mine came minus the last couple of seconds of the score.

Again, all of this points to budgetary constraints and, as the film progresses, I gathered the same impression, of artistic imagination transcending technical limitations, as I got in the films of Enclosure 1. So, maybe the odd occasion when the "can" simply didn’t contain a good enough shot is something to be tolerated gladly!

The central Sanctus is the other point at which, other than the instrumentalists playing, there is no stage action, and thus for which Tourtelot has to invent some visual interest. At the start, she elects to mix with images of the instrumentalists some shots of greenery. In passing, it just so happened that one such shot showed what looked like gum trees swaying in the wind which, by a curious coincidence, was exactly what I could see if I looked out of the window next to the television! As the music of the Sanctus shifts from "Act I postlude" to "Act II prelude", so she shifts the imagery, to shots of waves on a beach, and thence to a sequence of stills, a sort of "trailer" pre-echoing the action of Act 2. Whilst not quite so innovative as the Exordium, this nevertheless provides an exceptionally imaginative visual bridge which deposits us, neat as a new pin, into the Act 2 action proper.

Both Acts effectively take place in forest clearings. The physical deployment of Partch’s orchestra thus represents the forest, through which the performers make their entrances and exits. Tourtelot extends these by the interpolation of shots of the actors moving through real forest - though I suspect that the "real" forest is actually somewhere in the shrubbery of the gardens of UCLA, where the performances were produced. Maybe the mundane reason for this was to cover times when the stage was static but nevertheless, with commendable economy of means, it quietly opens out the edges of the confined clearing.

I am less sure about Tourtelot’s treatment of the beginning of Act 2's Time of Fun Together. Like the Infernal Dance in The Firebird, this is the choreographic climax of the work. On-stage "it’s all happening" or at least it’s all starting to happen, so doesn’t it seem perverse to cut, almost immediately, to a beach whereupon the leader of the Time of Fun performs utterly alone? Perverse, yes, an instance of that cause of "mild frustration" I mentioned above. However, it’s also out of character for Tourtelot, and this inclines me to wonder whether there was some temporary calamity on the stage, for which this brief visual interpolation provided the "elastoplast"? If so, it is neatly tied back to the beach shot during the Sanctus, and one way or another ends up feeding us another philosophical bone on which to gnaw!

Let’s turn now to the performers and the performance. Partch sets the scene with a musical master-stroke, a creeping, crawling, flesh-tingling motive on Harmonic Canon. This, which might usefully be called the "Web Motive", recurs at crucial turning-points during the drama, and is also the dreamless night into which all ultimately dissolves. Within this web of dream and delusion, the drama is enacted by three principals, John Blount, Susan Marshall, and Glendon Hornbrook. Each takes two rôles, one in each act (would you believe?!).

In the solemn first Act, their miming has formal elegance and balletic grace, their movements clearly modelled on the exaggerated and deliberate bodily movements characteristic of the Japanese Noh plays from which Partch drew his theme. Hornbrook’s "Spirit of the Slain" looks so imposing and fearsome that I did, for a moment, wonder how Blount’s relatively slight and innocuous-looking "Pilgrim" ever managed to slay him in the first place. Hornbrook it is who has the unenviable task of exiting between the instruments, walking backwards. Although the action symbolises the Spirit fading away, it could so easily have ended rather differently.

In the comical, even farcical second Act, energy and vigour dominate, reflecting the primitive dynamism of the African native cultures from which the folk-tale enacted is drawn. The story is a joke - one with "political" overtones at that - and it is uninhibitedly played for laughs. The fractious interchanges between Blount’s uncomprehending "Deaf Hobo" and Marshall’s persistent "Old Woman" are delightfully volatile and amusing. The insert card makes references variously to a "woman who tends a goatherd [sic]", "a Goat Woman (a Lamb Here) has Lost her Kid", and "Old Woman with Lamb". I think that this adds up to her being a goat woman in the original folk-tale, but in effect a shepherdess here? Not that it matters much!

The principals are supported by a chorus, in the classical Greek sense. As a bunch of hooded "Shadows" in the first Act, they have little more to do than process solemnly and mysteriously. All that changes in Act II where, amongst other things, as a bunch of villagers they get to have a right royal knees-up in the Time of Fun Together. However, here there is a problem, which is that somehow the dancing lacks the rude and robust strenuousness of the music. Mind you, I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve had similar misgivings about balletic "knees-ups", even the ones glorying under the banner of bacchanale! Heck, it’s half a century since West Side Story showed them how it should be done, so you’d have thought that they’d have got the hang of cutting loose by now. Anyway, this chorus of dancers is no worse than any in this respect. In mitigation, it’s worth adding that they were faced with a challenge of the "utterly new", similar to that which confronted Nijinsky’s corps in The Rite of Spring.

I’m not sure of the origin of the voices of the vocal chorus. It might be the above, or it might be the instrumentalists. All I can say is, I didn’t actually spot any specific lips moving, and the booklet notes decline to provide any enlightenment. Whoever they are, though, they do a darned good job of negotiating the oral acrobatics - including whistling - demanded by Partch. Three vocal soloists are credited: John Stannard (tenor, also instrumentalist), Victoria Bond (soprano) and Paul Bergen (bass). The latter two have particularly significant parts. Leading the revelry in Time of Fun, Bond has to wrap her tonsils around some particularly demanding lines, especially when you remember that this is supposed to be a divertimento, pure and simple. High honours are due to Bergen, whose intonations of the "punch-lines" in both acts carry very considerable clout, deep, dark and doom-laden in the first, deep, dark and dopey in the second.

I imagine that it can’t be easy for musicians, finding themselves in costume, right up there in the thick of the stage action, with lighting that’s less than ideally suited to discerning non-standard notations that (I suspect) many of them had only just learned, and performing on weird and wonderful instruments that (again, I suspect) many of them had only just learnt how to play. Supporting my suspicions, I could see music stands. Music stands? Yes. In his book, Genesis of a Music, Partch stated categorically that he expected musicians, like the actors, singers and dancers, to have memorised their parts: music stands had no place on his stage. I can think of only one reason why they should be in evidence here.

Having put his musicians right in the limelight, Partch also expected them not just to play their instruments, but to perform - that is, to express their contribution to the drama through bodily movement. This does happen, but not at first, probably because of the relatively static nature of Act 1's drama. Perhaps also they needed time to gain confidence and get into the swing of things?

Playing and ensemble are often a bit on the ragged side - their subsequent CBS studio recording of the music is, not surprisingly, much slicker - but considering the highly unusual, even unique circumstances, the players do nothing short of a sterling job. Technical perfection for its own sake is, of course, something else of which Partch had a poor opinion, and I’m sure that he preferred what he got here to any amount of "virtuosic accomplishment". And what did he get here? I would say, players with an evident belief in the artistic value of what they are doing.

I realise that I’ve said very little about the music itself, mainly because I’m saving all that for the forthcoming review of Enclosure 6, the above-mentioned sound recording. For now, suffice it for me to say that the music, like the instruments on which it is played, is a unique sound-world that recalls the words intoned in one of Schoenberg’s String Quartets (I forget which one!): "I breathe the air of another planet". It is, indeed, "far out, man".

As a "filler", there is another film, The Music of Harry Partch. This is a sort of "re-make" of the Tourtelot film Music Studio featured in Enclosure 1. The basic elements are more or less the same: (a) a philosophical background, (b) demonstrations of some of Partch’s instruments, (c) performance of Daphne of the Dunes, an enlarged scoring of the music for the film Windsong. Directors Paul Sheen and Paul Marshall, however, turn in a much less accomplished piece of film-making, with no functional relationship between its two broad sections. In the first section, Partch is led around, almost by the nose, and interviewed by Will Ogdon, the then chairman of the University of California at San Diego Music Department. This "interview" is a singularly stilted, awkward and embarrassing affair, giving the distinct impression that off-screen Partch and Ogdon weren’t exactly bosom buddies. Music Studio, with its voice-over approach, was altogether smoother and more comfortable in this respect.

As ever, though, the real and abiding fascination is the invaluable opportunity afforded to see and hear Partch’s incredible instruments in action, and it’s a timely opportunity for those still a bit bemused by the film of Delusion of the Fury. There is the added bonus of two of the duets from On the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, a series of studies written expressly as part of the preparation for Delusion. Of these duets, which are played by the composer and Danlee Mitchell, Delusion’s musical director, the second is particularly striking, being both breathtakingly delicate and extraordinarily beautiful.

It’s a pity that Partch used the Chromelodeon to demonstrate the difference between a justly-intoned major third and the same interval in twelve-tone equal temperament. The rich cloud of overtones of the instrument - a substantially-modified harmonium - conspires with the soundtrack’s lack of clarity to ensure that most mortals will be hard-pressed to spot any difference, particularly with the perfunctory, almost impatient demonstration that Partch gives!

The second section, comprising the bulk of the film, is given over to a complete performance of Daphne of the Dunes, ostensibly on the lawn in front of the UCSD Art Gallery. Certainly, what you see is "just like it says on the tin". However, what you hear does not sound like it at all. The acoustic is all "wrong", sounding dry and enclosed and, although you can see other things going on around and about, there are discernible none of the background noises that you would expect to hear in an open-air setting.

During the final couple of minutes, the sound on my PAL-format copy went off-beam, big-time. A growing stream of rapid-fire dropouts all but obliterated the music. I raised this with Philip Blackburn, the producer of the Enclosure series, who assured me that the NTSC version is entirely free of this distortion. Hopefully, by the time that crowds of customers are clamouring for PAL-format copies, the problem will have been winkled out of the copying chain!

For obvious reasons, as far as Partch’s music is concerned there’ll never be much in the way of competing performances and recordings to compare. Daphne of the Dunes, however, is an exception: as a sound recording, Partch’s own Gate 5 version (distributed by CRI) is wholly superior. The playing far more assured, and the recording boasts far better sound, and impressively lively stereophonic sound, at that. Yet, you get something from this film that you never will from the sound-only recording: the wonderful, uplifting sight of the young players, brimming with dedication, concentration and enthusiasm. OK, one of them is not so young, but then he is the composer!

In a rather nice touch, the box and insert card design, by Philip Blackburn and John Goodman, uses elements taken from Partch’s original score for his "Mime-Drama". However, although fairly full credits are given, the insert card says very little about the contents, other than a brief synopsis of the dramatic action. If you buy this tape, I strongly recommend that you supplement it with the Enclosure 6 CD, not only for its excellent sound and playing but also for its more detailed booklet! If you go for the PAL-format tape, the additional documentation provided by BHPS (N.B. "while stocks last"!) is well worth having, including as it does photographs of Partch’s main instruments and scenes from the drama, a sample of the manuscript score illustrating Partch’s adaptation of conventional notation to his justly-intoned scale, and a reproduction of the poster advertising the performances.

So, what do we have here? It is nothing short of a record of a unique and uniquely fascinating artistic event that will, in all probability, never be repeated - unless someone is seriously into the logistics of moving mountains. Nowadays so much utter dross is routinely and robustly preserved, in pictures and sound of unprecedentedly pristine quality, that it is hard to get your head around one simple fact: these priceless pieces of history have scraped through to posterity by the skin of their teeth. I sincerely hope that Innova are actively pursuing the transfer of these films, and those of Enclosure 1, onto DVD. Although the transfer process can do something to reduce the technical imperfections of the film medium, its main value will be in securing the record in that robust format.

Whatever the medium, those who are prepared to peer through the murk can at least gain an appreciation of, and I hope enjoy, this truly extraordinary and pioneering combination of arts - Tourtelot’s visionary cinematography, and Partch’s corporeal world of justly-intoned "microtonality". Believe me, it’s like nothing else on this Earth. I cannot praise Innova too highly for preserving and publishing these treasures.

Paul Serotsky

see also 'A Just Cause' by Paul Serotsky

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