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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
The Bewitched – A Dance Satire (1956)
1. Prologue- The Lost Musicians Mix Magic [18:21]
2. Scene 1- Three Undergrads Become Transfigured in a Hong Kong Music Hall [5:36]
3. Scene 2 - Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint Are Tried in a Court of Ancient Ritual [5:09]
4. Scene 3 - The Romancing of a Pathological Liar Comes to an Inspired End [5:40]
5. Scene 4 - A Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music Finds a Humanizing Alchemy [5:44]
6. Scene 5 - Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room [4:23]
7. Scene 6 - Euphoria Descends a Sausalito Stairway [4:19]
8. Scene 7 - Two Detectives on the Trail of a Tricky Culprit Turn in Their Badges [5:36]
9. Scene 8 - A Court in its Own Contempt Rises to a Motherly Apotheosis [5:30]
10. Scene 9 - A Lost Political Soul Finds Himself Among the Voteless Women of Paradise [6:01]
11. Scene 10 - The Cognoscenti Are Plunged into a Demonic Descent While at Cocktails [7:17]
12. Epilogue [2:07]
Freda Schell (the Witch)/The University of Illinois Musical Ensemble/John Garvey
rec. 1957, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Campus
Reissue of material originally released on Gate 5 and subsequently on CRI CD 754
The Harry Partch Collection – Volume 4
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80624-2 [75:43]


 

 

Comparative recording: Partch Ensemble, Innova 405 "Enclosure 5" – see review

To keep what is another fairly long discourse within even remotely reasonable bounds, I’ve omitted any background on this New World Records series in general, and The Bewitched in particular. Should you feel the need, then for the former refer to my review of Volume 2, and for the latter have a look about half-way down my review of Innova’s Enclosure 5. I appreciate that not everyone will have the time or inclination to read the lot, so I’ve inserted section headings as an aid to skimming, though be warned that there are a couple of discursive threads running through the sections. If all you want is "The Bottom Line", well, that’s exactly where you’ll find it!

The Booklet

I’ve a confession to make. I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I’m not at all clear in my own mind exactly what is supposed to be going on in The Bewitched. This is a bit tricky, so let’s not make the mistake of emulating the proverbial bull, whether at a gate or in a china shop, but first have a "butcher’s" at the booklet.

Like that of Volume 2, this is a splendid production – 24 pages, all in English, with eight annotated photographs. The bulk of the booklet is taken up by Danlee Mitchell’s five-page essay, the composer’s own 10-page "Notes and Synopsis", and a one-page statement he made 16 years after the première. Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that with all that to chew on, I’d have gathered at least some idea about The Bewitched – particularly as it’s all from the mouths of the horse himself and his most loyal cohort?

Well, yes, of course I have, but the problem is that it’s not clear, firstly because Partch has published at least two versions of his scenario – this one and the one in Enclosure 5’s booklet – which aren’t entirely consistent, and secondly because there’s an awful lot of it. So, as much for my own benefit as yours, I’d better try to shake it down.

Partch’s Dramatic Premise

The "Bewitched" are us – that’s the easy bit! Each and every one of us is conditioned, not just genetically, but by upbringing, religion (or lack of it), social environment, tradition, education system – you name it – and the deeper your personal rut, the more conditioned you are. What makes this sorry state even sorrier is that each and every one of us is convinced that he or she is exempt. This is largely because one man’s conditioning is another man’s universal, self-evident truth. The tricky bit comes in distinguishing real from conditioned "truth".

Partch’s premise is that this bewitchment is a form of "blindness", suppressing our primitive sense of wonder, our perception of the magical in the world around us. This sense can be liberated by "unwitching", a process that is wholly mysterious and therefore itself a source of wonder. But, because we are bewitched, we don’t believe in any such nonsense. However, the ability to perceive the magical is considered to be the fount of high endeavour and artistic imaginativeness. Those who somehow are, or manage to become, utterly unwitched are, at least potentially, the great visionaries: the Beethovens, the Einsteins, the Michaelangelos – you name them. As for the rest of us, well, even a minor dose of unwitching is guaranteed at least to improve our "eyesight".

Of course, Partch had a particular axe to grind – his life was one long battle against the bewitchment of the denizens of the West by the dastardly Spirit of Equal Temperament and the trappings of the modern musical mystique (for more on this, try my Article "A Just Cause" and Enclosure 2 review). Hence, in and amongst the innocent fun he wields The Bewitched as an axe – duly ground – with which to smite his enemy, landing some singularly savage blows, particularly in Scenes 2, 4 and 10.

Scenario

The plot is roughly – very roughly – as follows. A wandering bunch of "displaced musicians" stumbles across a stationary bunch of strange instruments. Intrigued, they begin to improvise. Their increasingly excited playing generates a primitive power that, ultimately and unwittingly, invokes an ancient, long-dormant, perceptive Witch. Unsullied by the modern world and saddened by what she sees, she commandeers the musicians as the "instruments" of her will. Together, they seek out nine varied instances of bewitchment, which they unwitch, more or less successfully.

However, the Cognoscenti – whom I take to be the arty-farty chattering classes and (dare I say?) critics – are by definition a much tougher nut to crack. The musicians, although firing on all six cylinders, end up having no option but to propel them into limbo with a far from cogently argued, but physically irresistible "Bah!" According to Partch’s scenario, this was "Not a bad night’s work. ‘Rrrrrrr-ee—eh!’ says the Witch and, as everyone knows, this may be rendered, ‘I really don’t give a raspberry about all this nonsense. Furthermore, it’s time you children were in bed." The Witch vanishes, leaving the musicians to wind down, drifting off into the darkness, rather like the players at the end of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.

The titles alone give every impression that this affair is as highly literate as Partch’s previous work, King Oedipus. In this, they are completely misleading. The Bewitched consists entirely of mime and music. Voices are heard, but whilst there are syllables flying around all over the place, they never socialise sufficiently to form any actual linguistic constructs. So, maybe my "problem" is simply that I’ve got hung up on the literary intricacy of the scenario.

Believe me, it’s all too easy to get sucked into Partch’s copious and complicated scenario, a 1958 draft of which occupies some eleven A4 pages of Enclosure 3 – that makes it at least three versions, but who’s counting? Having digested that lot, I couldn’t help but see it as in need of an "operatic" treatment, and ended up flummoxed because instead it’s essentially "balletic". Hence, in the absence of any meaningful words, to stand any chance at all of apprehending – however vaguely – the message of The Bewitched, I’d have thought that you really do need at least to see what’s going on!

Production Problems

More’s the pity, then, that there is no filmed record of any performance – although, even if there had been, it might not have been much use. In his "16 years" note, Partch makes it quite clear that, as far as he was concerned, his collaborators in the staging were self-centred autocrats, who regarded composers as the flunkeys who supplied musical "yardage goods" – aural backdrops to their foreground creations.

In some respects I can sympathise with him. Renaming the scenes so that, for example, "Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room" becomes "Puppet Show" is not only unhelpful but symptomatic of a fairly drastic reworking. Equally, relegating the Witch – the principal character! – to an off-stage rôle, or concealing the instruments behind a white scrim amounted to "basic mutilations of ancient concept" that run counter to Partch’s entire corporeal philosophy.

Yet, although this isn’t brought out in the booklet notes, there is another side to the argument. In his biography of Partch, Bob Gilmore reports Ben Johnston’s sober reflection: "He was so possessive of his artistic creations that, notwithstanding the impossibility that any one person could be [sufficiently talented] in all areas of a complex multi-media art work, Partch was unwilling, even unable, to collaborate. He either dictated to his collaborators in their own area[s] or he fought with them . . . to an estrangement."

It turns out that the "drastic reworking" was necessary, because Partch’s vision over-stretched the extant elastic of practicability, and in this respect the said collaborators were simply doing the best that they could with the tools that they had. Sadly, this is just one more example of that "itchy finger hovering over the self-destruct button" I talked about in my review of Enclosure 3.

Meanwhile, I still needed a way of shaking off my literary hang-up. Whilst packing LPs for mail-order customers, Partch himself had wryly observed that an audio-only recording of a corporeal drama "lacks half the take". Ah, but this implies that there’s also a half of the take that it doesn’t lack. In other words, why don’t I shove the literary stuff, barring at most the general idea, onto the back burner and – as Malcolm Arnold once advised me – "just listen to the bloody music"? It sounds obvious, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, in general. However, in this case, there’s an extremely close co-ordination between the music and the complex dramatic line. Inevitably, this rules out the sorts of structures and extended melodies that make your typical ballet score easily digestible – just about the only "tune" in The Bewitched, admittedly a saucy little number, is scarcely a bar in length. Clearly – and rather ironically – I was bewitched, and needed to be unwitched.

How? Well, what better than the technique of "distraction", as used a couple of times by Partch’s fabulous Witch herself? Suitable distraction? "Comparative reviewing" mode, I reckon. Guess what? Before very long I was indeed thinking of The Bewitched as music, pure and simple, more or less. Although with hindsight this also seems obvious, it was starting to feel like a Baroque "Suite", one whose "Ouverture" serves a dual purpose. As well as its dramatic function of invoking the Witch, it performs the rather more traditional one of introducing the thematic materials. Should that have surprised me?

The Alternative Recording

The Illinois University production was the première of The Bewitched. There is but one alternative recording, a singularly ear-watering one of the audio "half the take" of Kenneth Gaburo’s ground-breaking 1980 Cologne production. Available on Innova’s Enclosure 5, this is formidable competition indeed. Its only problem, if problem it be, is that it’s part of a 3-CD set. The NWR CD’s striking cover photograph, featuring the Cologne production’s Isabella Tercero as the Witch, was taken at the San Diego State University performance. As this also took place in 1980, it is almost certainly the identical production. It’s not often that CD covers advertise the competition, is it?

So, in the blue corner, we have the stereophonic Cologne recording, of arguably the most successful realisation of Partchian corporeality to date, a production that emerged from six months of careful co-ordination, intensive preparation and painstaking refinement. In the red corner we have the monaural recording of the première, a production that was as long on acrimonious wrangling as it was short on rehearsal time, and which was – in Partch’s opinion – something of an unmitigated disaster.

If you’re about to put your money on a first round knockout, leaving the red corner slumped over the ropes, I’d suggest you hold your metaphorically-mixed horses. What Partch saw as "problems" were concerned solely with the staging – the "half the take" that you emphatically don’t get on an audio recording. It doesn’t take an expert in Boolean logic to figure out what you do get.

General Assessment

As luck would have it, the contrasting circumstances of the productions give us two complementary alternatives. Whether the luck is good or bad depends on your point of view. It’s good because we get two different views, but bad because the virtues are polarised, and I can’t confidently declare an outright winner for the convenience of prospective purchasers. All I can do is identify and exemplify the relative merits.

The Partch Ensemble had seemingly unlimited time, which they used it to polish their playing, in terms of both "togetherness" and intonation, to an all but unprecedented degree. Rarely have Partch’s instruments sounded so seductively lustrous, particularly in the more reposeful passages where the players elicit breathtaking beauty of tone and intonation – the equivalent, albeit in a wholly different musical universe, of the hey-day of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan.

Sadly, Partch himself never enjoyed any such luxuries – the University of Illinois Musical Ensemble was typical of the rough and ready groups he was able to cobble together. Somehow, though, his was still something of an "age of miracles" because, whatever might have been "wrong" with the theatrical production and in spite of the apparently opportunistic nature of the recording, the musicians were – as ever – inflamed with a sense of missionary zeal that seemed to be part and parcel of any Partch première.

Inevitably, by comparison, the Illinois group lack refinement. This was arguably a matter of priorities, because they pack an impressive punch that is, somewhere in the region of the "bottom line", more important to the corporeal drama than any amount of pretty sound. To carry my analogy a bit further, the Illinois group are equivalent to Barbirolli and the dog-eared Hallé, by pure coincidence recorded contemporaneously, tearing into Elgar’s First Symphony as if their very lives depended on it.

Specific Assessment

Let’s look at a few examples – and weigh up the two Witches. Partch’s score is riddled with rough-and-tumble, both funny and ferocious, but not to the exclusion of some finer feelings. In gentler passages, such as the start of Scene 3, the Partch Ensemble show just how drop-dead gorgeous a sound Partch’s instruments can make, given the chance. The "chance", it seems, depends on time – it can take days to tune Partch’s orchestra – and temperature – because they react to environmental changes faster than "green" activists. Of course, this speaks volumes for their relatively luxurious circumstances. Nevertheless, it detracts not one jot from the immense sensitivity and dedication of their playing, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the spine-tingling vocal accuracy and textural blending of Tercero’s Witch.

The Partch Ensemble are equally eloquent when it comes to elegance, bringing a true 18th. Century grace to the classical canons woven into Scene 2. Incidentally, these canons go some way towards proving Partch’s point about the sound of his music: in arguing that this had nothing to do with either his instruments or his intonational system, he declared, "I am the guilty party, not 43 tones".

Where they fall – although, admittedly, not very far – from grace is in the rough-and-tumble, probably because they were reluctant to compromise their hard-won refinement. This is understandable. It’s also unfortunate – for you, that is, if you hear the University of Illinois Musical Ensemble, roughing and tumbling like there’s no tomorrow. They come up trumps in two main respects.

Firstly, there’s the matter of what in polite circles are called "musical dynamics" – accentuations, pacing, crescendos and the like. For instance, in the Prologue they generate a real feeling of progressive abandonment, of the music wresting control from its players, and when the Witch appears they react with shocking sforzati. Fast forward to Scene 5, and the cross-rhythms of their "bacchanalian frenzy" are much more incisively marked. Onwards to Scene 10, and their assault on the extended crescendo seethes with determination to consign the odious "cognoscenti" to oblivion. The one disappointment is their closing decrescendo, which hardly registers as such – instead of gently "fading to black" as it surely should, it stops with a bit of a bump.

Secondly, there’s the textural angle, what’s commonly referred to as "colour". In this respect, you might expect the more practised and painstaking Partch Ensemble to completely eclipse the Illinois group but, truth to tell, if anything it’s the other way round. Most notably in Scenes 3, 5, 8, and 9, their timbres have sharper edges, sounding more crystalline and refractive, whilst they make the orientalism of Scene 1 sound far more pungent and their interjections in Scene 2 more acrid.

I feel that there may be more to this than pokes us in the eyes. It’s just as well that I decided to keep that general idea on the front burner, because it contains the key. The Witch is "ancient", basically a symbol of the elemental power of magic and mystery which, Partch believed, the collective psyche of Modern Man has suppressed. Somehow, it seems only right and proper that this should be represented by "primitive", unrefined sounds, reflecting the Witch’s often wildly expressive vocalisations.

The Illinois players exude this primitivism, whilst we could say, not without a touch of irony, that the Cologne forces’ insistence on beauty of sound is itself a form of "bewitchment". However, there’s a biggish "but" – the Cologne recording, which is superior in every other respect, doesn’t exactly favour Partch’s plectra. Since these are the real "knives" of Partch’s cutlery drawer, I may be doing the Cologne group an injustice. However, at rock bottom, it doesn’t matter one whit one way or the other – that’s what it sounds like, so that’s how it is.

The Illinois recording has its own particular balance problem, because it doesn’t exactly favour its Witch. This is a wee bit naughty, as the Witch is clearly meant to be the dominant presence, though again this may be an unjust upshot of microphone placement. Nevertheless, on the recording what we hear is Freda Schell occasionally being swamped by the instrumental sound.

Otherwise, rougher-hewn and therefore sounding more "primitive" than Tercero, she fits the tenor of the performance like a glove does a hand. Tercero’s rendition is beautifully wrought, so it says much of Schell that she is the more characterful – in Scene 4, for example, her sardonic delivery outdoes Tercero by some margin, and her sudden "screech" at the end of Scene 8 is guaranteed to put the kiddies off their gingerbread.

Sound Quality

You may consider recorded sound quality a factor. However, unless you are actually allergic to monaural sound, then it’s less of a factor than it might seem, for reasons given on pp. 21-22 of the booklet. Apart from a single, irretrievably damaged one-minute section, the entire recording was lifted from the original master tapes. I won’t say which minute that was because, in all honesty, I can’t actually detect any difference that betrays its position!

The restoration engineers, Mark Hoffman and Bill Blue (is that his real name? Gosh), spurned off-the-shelf, wholesale noise reduction. This was because their main aim was to preserve as much as possible of the original ambient sound, and leaving in a bit more tape noise was considered a lesser evil. They have done a cracking job. Residual tape hiss is well within the bounds of most folks’ tolerance and the sound is as clean and bright as a new pin – when it first emerged from my loudspeakers, my ears fair sat up and begged. Ah, if only it had been in stereo . . .

"The Bottom Line"

In summary, it’s literally six of one and half a dozen of the other – if you want the full dozen, you’ll have to get them both. And why not? The Bewitched is a substantial, complex work and hence, as with a Mahler symphony, your shelf should happily accommodate more than one interpretation. Otherwise, because these are both very fine performances, your choice depends on your priorities. If you insist on the more accomplished playing and the best available sound, go for the more expensive Innova set, which contains lots more juicy meat besides. If, however, you desire the riper realisation of Partch’s dramatic design and don’t mind monaural sound, then choose this disc from NWR – whom I must congratulate for their excellent job of restoration, both of the recorded sound and of the recording to the catalogue.

I’m lucky, because I have them both, and from the purely personal viewpoint I wouldn’t want to live without either of them. However, if you held a gun to my head and said, "Choose one, if you want to live," I’d have to make the NWR disc my "Building a Library Choice". Much as I admire the Partch Ensemble’s recording, for me the pioneering fervour of the Illinois performance weaves a more entrancing spell of that essential, primitive magic. That is, after all, what The Bewitched is all about – and you know what? I’m beginning to think that my unwitching’s worked.

Paul Serotsky


Performer details (not given on CD, obtained from NWR website):

Freda Schell, The Witch;
The University of Illinois Musical Ensemble, John Garvey, conductor
The Chorus of Lost Musicians (in order of appearance):
William Olson, Chorus Leader (male solo voice), Marimba Eroica;
Warren Smith, Bass Marimba;
Thomas Gauger, Boo (Bamboo Marimba);
Michael Donzella, Spoils of War;
George Andrix, Cloud-Chamber Bowls;
Danlee Mitchell, Diamond Marimba;
Jack McKenzie, Surrogate Kithara and Gongs;
Georgi Mayer, Harmonic Canon (Castor);
Barbara Grammar, Harmonic Canon (Pollux);
Sanford Berry, Kithara (right side); Jan Bach, Kithara (left side);
Warren Birkett, clarinet;
Joseph Firrantello, bass clarinet;
Charles Delaney, piccolo;
Carol Zuckerberg, koto;
Peter Farrell, cello;
Herbert Bielawa, Chromelodeon

 


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