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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
Enclosure 6
Delusion of the Fury: A Ritual of Dream and Delusion (1966)
Ensemble of Unique Instruments/Danlee Mitchell; supervised by the composer.
Rec. UCLA Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, January 1969
Recording originally issued on Columbia Masterworks LP
INNOVA 406 [72'08]

 

 

 

It “lacks half the take” was Harry Partch’s less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic opinion of a sound recording of his music. This was because his corporeal philosophy put music firmly in its place, and that place was not in the exclusive limelight of sound recordings. However, this didn’t seem to stop him from emulating the proverbial pig in muck when it came to making sound recordings of his music. For this seemingly paradoxical state of affairs there is, of course, a perfectly rational explanation.

Put as simply as I can manage, Partch was convinced that, unless he did something about it, his entire life’s work would die with him. Hence, with commendable consideration for any of posterity that might happen to be interested, he made documentation an important part of that life’s work. In particular, recognising film as the medium that would preserve the closest approximation to his living, corporeal art, he collaborated with, amongst others, the similarly visionary film-maker Madeline Tourtelot.

However, having spent half a lifetime designing and building his very own musical universe ‑ a justly-intoned scale, instruments and notations, and music to be played thereon and thereby ‑ he wasn’t about to pass on sound recording. After all, “half the take” is infinitely better than none! If anything, this proved to be a greater challenge than the film. Because no extant recording company had the slightest interest in him, on top of everything else he had to become his own record producer and distributor.

If you find all this seeming a bit short on whys and wherefores, then you probably need to arm yourself with a bit of background. For this, please look up my previous reviews in this series of “Enclosures”, along with my Musicweb article on Partch (Enclosure 1 review, Enclosure 4 review, Article “A Just Cause”). These should be enough to get you into the swing of things.

Now, when you strip Partch’s corporeality down to his “half the take”, as in this present issue, something happens that’s at once very strange and very obvious. Without the visual, dramatic trappings of the filmed performance of Delusion of the Fury (see Enclosure 4), you become much more keenly aware of the extraordinary musical substance. In both harmony and sonority it is unlike anything else on the face of this Earth. Let’s consider these two curiosities: Partch is often described as a “microtonal composer”, which as far as most folk are concerned lumps him in with the motley crew of quarter-tone composers. To my mind, this does him a serious injustice: the 24-tone scale of common or garden microtonality is really nothing more than a compounding of the felony of equal temperament ‑ whereas Partch’s “microtonality” is merely an accidental by-product of his researches into just intonation and the tonality of speech-inflections (which I hope to cover in more detail when I review Enclosure 1). Partch is, first and foremost, a just-intonational ‑ and therefore wholly tonal ‑ composer. 

Partch had worked out that speech inflections effectively resolve onto a scale comprising upwards of 40 degrees, which is rather more than the 12 of the common diatonic scale, or even the 24 of the microtonalists. Moreover, the human ear/brain/voice system, bound as it is by the laws of Nature, naturally latches onto justly-intoned intervals. Nevertheless, to use such a finely-resolved, just-intonational scale in music is asking a lot of the average pair of ears. Yet, ask it Partch did, and it turns out that he was entirely right to do so. Once the veneer of unfamiliarity has worn off, your ears, which ‑ don’t forget! ‑ are bound by the laws of Nature, take to it like ducks to water. I should add that this is true even if you don’t like the music itself. 

In order to be able to play his creations, Partch could have redesigned the instruments of the conventional orchestra. He could have, except that he was more than a little keen to distance himself from the Western European tradition. Instead, following his corporeal instinct, which demanded instruments that were both fair and striking to look on, he designed and built many weird, wonderful, and sometimes apparently wacky instruments. Hence, the orchestra that plays Delusion of the Fury is utterly unique.

The familiar categories of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion go right out of the window. Adopting a terminology of convenience, for which I will take most of the blame, we can say that Partch’s orchestra comprises Wood, Glass, Metal, Reeds and Strings, plus sundry odds and sods borrowed from various folk cultures (for example Jew’s Harps, Japanese Pancake Drums, and Bolivian Double Flute). In Delusion of the Fury, Partch’s strings are all plucked. Some instruments straddle families ‑ the Spoils of War, for example, incorporate elements of both metal and glass ‑ but on a sound-only recording that is unlikely to worry you. 

Thus, purely in terms of listening, the uninitiated must contend with the shock of the “new” on a further front: this entirely unfamiliar musical machinery. Listeners aged, say, less than forty, and who have grown up in a world in which the sources of “musical” sounds have become increasingly diversified and disembodied, should take this in their stride. Those whose lives have “begun”, and whose brains insist on adhering to the conventional correspondence between instruments and sonorities, may find the sound of Partch’s orchestra a bit confusing. Of course, this problem largely evaporates when you can see the instruments playing, and for this reason alone I would recommend that you supplement your purchase of this Enclosure 6 with either Enclosure 4 or, at a pinch, Enclosure 1. Do so, and you will also get the immense bonus of snuggling up a fair bit closer to “the whole take”. 

But, what does it sound like, this orchestra of other-worldly instruments tuned to 43-tone just intonation? It’s easy to describe ‑ about as easy, that is, as describing what a symphony orchestra sounds like to someone who’s never seen or heard one! It is possible ‑ just ‑ for me to give some idea of the sounds of individual instruments (see Article “A Just Cause”). Then again, if you fancy seeing, hearing, and even “playing” some of the instruments yourself, try this musicmavericks page. However, for the sound of the ensemble, in all its largely ineffable glory, you really must hear a recording ‑ particularly as Newband concerts are hard to come by. Nevertheless, I will comment to some small extent on the qualities of the musical sounds, although I will of necessity concentrate rather more on the quality of the music itself in the context of the performance and recording. 

This recording of Delusion of the Fury is actually the second recording of Partch made by Columbia. The first, under the title “The World of Harry Partch” and comprising Barstow, Castor and Pollux, and Daphne of the Dunes, appeared in May 1969. Delusion of the Fury surfaced in September 1970, fully 20 months after it had been taped. Part of the reason for the delay was Columbia’s decision to record a third, “bonus” LP ‑ effectively a demonstration of all the instruments, narrated by Partch himself. A good decision, if you ask me. It’s exactly what we were talking about in the previous paragraph ‑ and just what the doctor ordered if you’re feeling mildly disoriented by the main programme!

Hmm. Well, you can imagine my delight when, back in the 1980s, I discovered that the doughty Harold Moore’s Records had imported a batch of these LP sets to the UK. You can also imagine my mortification when, having bought one, I found that this invaluable bonus LP was conspicuous by its absence. Oh, the box proclaimed its inclusion all right, and the handsomely-produced booklet, stuffed with full-colour photographs, was expressly intended to go with it. Harold Moore’s, bless ’em, sympathised, but could do sod all about it! You see, mine was not a special case ‑ the bonus LPs were missing from all the imported copies. So, if anyone knows where I can get my hands on a copy of this LP . . .

All too soon, Columbia had expunged both recordings from their catalogues. Delusion of the Fury has resurfaced only through the good offices of Innova and Philip Blackburn, who have gathered and released numerous Partch recordings, films and documents under the “Enclosures” umbrella. This is confirmed on the CD booklet and u-card: “Reissue of Columbia Masterworks M2 30576 (1971) by Innova Recordings”. So, quite why that should be in microscopic red print on a dark background, whilst the words “Sony Music Special Products” are in much larger, white print on the same background, escaped me. Aware that you will be mad keen to know the reasons ‑ heck, I needed to know! ‑ I contacted Philip Blackburn. What I discovered fair made my blood boil.

Sony may have provided the master tape and other resources, but it was Philip Blackburn and Innova who provided the will, and shouldered the entire financial risk. It took them ten long years of persistent negotiation, of being put off, of being passed from pillar to post, of climbing out of black holes into which they had been dumped, to finally wring from Sony their permission to use the Delusion tape master. Sony’s consent carried conditions, one of which was that Sony’s brand should be “equal” to Innova’s. Of course, it just so happened that Sony’s logo style and colour made it stand out, which answers our question. On moral grounds, though, there are those who wonder why it should be there at all.

Yet, it didn’t stop there. Philip Blackburn had wanted to issue a double-CD, restoring to the package the “bonus” recording missing from those UK imports, and filling it up using Barstow and Castor and Pollux from the other Columbia issue. Sony turned him down flat: another condition was that Innova could only re-release the licensed material “as is”. They even tried to veto the simple correction of an editing fault in the master tape, but luckily Innova’s unwavering insistence forced them to relent.

During the period of negotiation Sony (poor souls) had to fend off a stream of more or less irate letters from people wanting to know why they hadn’t released Delusion on CD. In a stroke of supreme irony, since releasing the CD of Delusion Innova has had to endure a similar parade of pungent mail from folk demanding to know why they hadn’t re-issued the “bonus” recording along with Delusion! To top that, if it is possible to top “supreme”, whilst fielding these letters, Philip Blackburn was working on the content of the Musicmavericks web page which I mentioned above, and which is based on the content of that self-same “bonus” disc.

Even after all this explanation, one question still nags at me. Clearly, Sony never had any plans, or even intention, to rescue this valuable document from their vaults. As far as Sony were concerned, it was clearly destined for the same fate as the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the Indiana Jones film. Then, along came Innova, cheque-book in hand, in effect offering them money for old rope. Right, so why, why, WHY all the hassle, prevarication, and straight-arm tackles?

Of course, if the CD issue turned out to be a success Sony, having in effect “got their name up in lights” at no cost or risk to themselves, would be likely to pick up some easy brownie points. Guess what? That’s exactly what has happened. I await, with bated breath, Sony’s explanation of their part in this saga. Ah, but is Philip Blackburn’s account true? My gut instincts yell that it is, and he assures me that he has a thick file to back it all up. This then makes Innova’s dedication to the cause of Partch even more praiseworthy than I had initially imagined. The Delusion CD might not make Innova’s fortune but, if I may put it this way, it sure as hell will earn them a seat of high honour in the Hereafter.

Right, back to the matter in hand! The CD booklet reproduces the substance of the front cover of original LP release, notably a superb, moody colour photograph of the set of the staged performance. True, the 12 cm. square CD booklet image is hardly as imposing as the 12 inch square LP sleeve, but it’s a super picture, and I’m glad that they’ve kept it. The remainder of the CD’s graphic design is the work of Philip Blackburn. Included are recording details, lists of performers and instrumentation, an essay by Danlee Mitchell, a full list of acknowledgements (credits), an explanation by Philip Blackburn of “Enclosures”, a number of clippings from Partch’s frequently irate letters, and a biographical assessment of Partch by Eugene Paul ‑ are you ready for this? ‑ the “Producer, Columbia Masterworks Bonus Album” (yes, my italics!).

There are also detailed notes by the composer on the philosophy, synopsis, set, principals and chorus. In addition, a transcript is provided of the prologue and epilogue from ‑ again, would you believe? ‑ that by now seemingly legendary bonus album. This last isn’t in the booklet, but comes as a little surprise when you lift the CD from its transparent tray: it is printed on the inside of the u-card. Very neat. Most unusually, though, the textual content of the CD documentation actually exceeds that in the original LP issue! Full marks to Innova for that, methinks.

This is all very useful, highly informative, and often inspiring. However, endlessly fascinating as it is, quite a lot of this relates directly to the staging of Partch’s ritual, of which a CD listener pure and simple will be pretty well ignorant. Somewhat illogically, the booklet of Enclosure 4, whose viewer will be acutely aware of the staging, does not incorporate this information ‑ and, to be brutally honest, it damned well ought to.

The graphic design itself is based on photographs, mainly from the stage production, blended with elements taken from the cover of Partch’s own musical score. If, like me, you have less than 20-20 vision, then you will, like me, find the predominantly small print difficult to make out against the busy background. That said, however, visually the booklet is nothing short of superb, to the extent that you’ll be tempted to frame it and hang it on the wall for all to admire.

Turning to the technical quality of the CD, I’m happy to report a big thumbs-up. The original LP was an absolute cracker, as we’ve come to expect from recordings produced by John McClure. There is some evidence of the infamous Columbia/CBS microphonic “spotlighting”, whereby instruments seem to take a step forward when contributions are deemed “important”. Fortunately, though, it is done with tact and in moderation, helped to some extent by the chamber ensemble scale of Partch’s “orchestra” which, all told, comprises fewer than two dozen musicians. So, what we hear is a reasonably spacious acoustic, both deep and wide, pricked by the generally more immediate sounds of the instruments. Given that most ears will find the entire experience so strange and exotic, maximum clarity is a reasonable target at which to aim, and it’s fair to say that McClure was therefore spot-on in his judgement.

The transfer to CD, engineered by Debra Parkinson, loses nothing except the LP “mush”, uncovering a remarkably quiet background of tape hiss. It gains, not unexpectedly, a small but gratifying degree of sparkle at the upper end of the spectrum. However, comparison of the CD with my copy of the LP suggests that nothing has been added, as such. There is not even the slightest impression of “artificially” boosted treble, never mind the dreaded “digital glare” that was almost invariably the result of over-enthusiastic fiddling with faders.

I did feel that the bass might ‑ just might ‑ have lost a tiny fraction of its depth. However, when I put the LPs away, went out for a short walk, came back, and put on the CD, I couldn’t tell the difference, it’s that slight. Most crucially the awesome, pitch-black resonance of the Marimba Eroica and the full-throated bass pedals of the Chromelodions retain a presence that would, I’m fairly sure, satisfy even the most dedicated of motoring “boom-box” fanatics. Imagine: a passing car throbbing with the sounds of Harry Partch in full flight ‑ that’d make a nice change from the usual Rock or Rap!

To my mind, the recording’s only real problems are its very beginning and its very end. The start cuts in “right on the button”, where I would much prefer the ambience to be faded in a second or two before the music. Likewise, the end is severed somewhat sharpish, which is surely just plain wrong. Here, Partch has been unwinding the threads of his “web”, and it seems to me that the resonance of the crawling sounds of the Harmonic Canon should, rather like the female chorus in Holst’s Planets, drift into inaudibility. But, these are small points to set against the excellence of the intervening 70-plus minutes: in respect of sound quality, the CD is also a cracker.

One of the drawbacks of the filmed performance available in Enclosure 4 was that the playing, though fired by youthful zest, frequently seemed ragged. I had harboured a suspicion that the reason Tourtelot had interpolated some beach location-shots of the soprano soloist in Time of Fun Together was to cover some minor disaster in the staged performance. The CD documentation, belatedly for me, confirms that this was almost certainly so. Partch, feeling that it violated his principles of corporeality, did not like it at all ‑ but if there was a shambles on stage, what else could Tourtelot do? Anyway, once the performances were over, the dancers and mimes moved out, the recording team moved in, the theatre became the recording studio, and minor disasters ‑ or even workaday glitches ‑ could be re-taken and spliced at will, ironed out in the time-honoured manner.

The playing on the CD, however, does fall perceptibly short of the technical “perfection” that we’ve come to expect of studio recordings. Frankly, I’d be surprised if it had been otherwise. Why? Well, as far as I can gather, although some of the players were seasoned Partch performers, others were still being trained right up to the eleventh hour. Then, in the transient-dominated world of plectra and percussion, even minor misjudgements have a habit of sticking out like sore thumbs. Finally, there’s the mind-boggling rhythmic complexity of some of the more propulsive music. Given that little lot, it’s truly remarkable that they managed it as well as they did in the limited session time that would have been available. In one way, these residual glitches ‑ for that’s all they are, and few and far between at that ‑ strike me rather like battle scars: reminders of a supreme effort, something to be borne with pride.

As I described in my review of Enclosure 4, Partch’s dramatic scenario relates two tales, one tragic and the other comic. Act I is preceded by an instrumental Exordium, and Act II by an entr’acte entitled Sanctus, doing double-duty as a postlude to Act I. Partch was concerned primarily with the creation of a corporeal ritual, an amalgamation of dramatic arts and communal experience, in which the rôle of music is that of a servant. Yet, in no way did he let this ritual become an altar on which to sacrifice musical integrity. This was hardly likely when the major part of his life’s work was dedicated to ‑ conveniently co-opting the title of his own book ‑ “The Genesis of a Music”. In fact, we don’t need planet-sized brains to deduce that his dramatic scenario is equally a musical architecture.

To elaborate a little: The opening motive, what I’ve called the “web motive”, recurs at several key moments. Some of Act I’s musical materials are redeveloped during Act II, whilst the Exordium’s final bars are recapitulated at the ends of both the Sanctus and Act II. Also, the internal structures of the two acts are related: for example, the Bolivian double-flute sounds in Act I’s Chorus of Shadows are reflected in Act II’s The Quiet Hobo Meal, whilst both acts hinge around major kerfuffles ‑ the fight music of Cry from Another Darkness in Act I, and Time of Fun Together in Act II. Then again, the enunciation of words by the same solo voice underlines the dramatic “clinchers” of both acts.

What this adds up to is that Delusion of the Fury could be just as much a purely musical work as any “symphony by Strauss” ‑ or Brahms or Mahler, for that matter. Only “could be”, though, because what I’ve said raises an obvious question. Partch was a Jack of all trades sans pareil. Was he master of the crucial one? Well, although they may present a bizarre but beautiful sight, his orchestra is no rag-bag of instruments constructed at whim. Just as the families of instruments in the conventional orchestra contrast and ‑ more importantly ‑ complement each other, so do Partch’s families of wood, metal, glass, strings and reeds. What’s more, far from simply frolicking capriciously in his instrumental playground, like a child with a pile of new toys, he orchestrates his instruments as thoroughly as any master of the conventional art, probing their complex textural, rhythmic, harmonic and melodic potentialities. How can I justify these assertions? “Proof of the pudding”, and all that ‑ I listen to the music!

All of which brings us back, it seems inevitably, round to that question of “what does it sound like?”, now modulated into “how well crafted is it?” It must be very well crafted indeed: over the years I’ve listened to the whole work many times, and my reaction has steadily shifted “upwards” from an initial, intrigued but perplexed “what on Earth am I listening to?” to a point where I am beginning to perceive cunning counterpoints closely connecting what previously seemed like disjointed transients. This is a crucial point. I don’t know many who would entirely disagree with this, but I feel that what we might call “progressive revelation” is a reliable subjective measure of quality, or even greatness, in music. Delusion of the Fury has it in shovelfuls, particularly bearing in mind that for most folk there’s also a longer road to travel than that of any conventional, diatonic music.

Apart from in the exclusively instrumental Exordium and Sanctus, the human voice features prominently, in a flexible, highly expressive “instrumental” capacity ‑ emanating primarily from the chorus, which at any given time comprises those musicians who are otherwise stuck for something to do! I get a strong feeling that the “words” ‑ open and closed vowel-sounds and “nonsense” syllables ‑ that make up the bulk of the “text” are not arbitrary, but a practical application of his research into speech inflections. More often than not, these “words” seem to be selected specifically for their just-intonational pitch and intervallic implications, as in the chorus’s very first appearance, the Chorus of Shadows, where the “mmm”s, “eee”s and “aw”s seem to gravitate onto degrees of the 43-tone scale.

The work starts with the Harmonic Canon playing the “Web” motive, its arpeggiated harping at once flesh-crawling and spine-tingling. As he introduces other instruments, like the Crychord with its startling, steely slurs, Partch creates a disjointed-feeling, impressionistic picture, but one which contains the seeds of materials to come. However, the Exordium is more than a slow introduction. Progressing through three increasingly complex and active phases ‑ broadly speaking, adagio, andante and presto ‑ it’s designed to tease your interest, seduce your senses, and ultimately suck you into a mælstrom of music. At the same time, Partch progressively introduces you to the sounds of his instruments, at first gradually and then overwhelmingly, in cascades of cross-rhythms and textural counterpoints.

It quickly becomes clear that Partch really likes his motivic counterpoint and ostinati. Through these he displays a tremendous ability to manipulate adrenalin flows ‑ so much so that, by the end of the Exordium, you might just be wondering whether Partch has any melody in his soul. Right on cue, the Chorus of Shadows gives you your answer ‑  the softer chanting later on develops a gently lyrical quality, whilst the sterner tones of the central section (“Oh-lah-too . . .”) even come jolly close to being a tune. Later on, near the ends of both acts, the melodic phrase that carries the desolated enunciation of the words “pray for me” is just one example of a harmonic expression you just can’t get in equal temperament.

However, in spite of the lack of sustaining instruments in his orchestra, Partch’s melody is not confined to the vocal lines. At either end of Emergence of the Spirit, which continues a “limping” pulse established in The Pilgrimage, the strings bring a delicious delicacy to the march-like melody whilst, towards the end, as the pulse shifts waltz-ward the notes of another melodic line are tossed around the upper woods. Moreover, in the subsequent A Son in Search of His Father’s Face, we find the percussive woods and glass intertwining in rippling patterns. Through what we might call “lyrical ostinato”, these multitudes of short notes coalesce into, if not a tune, then at least a sort of “sustained” melody. That this passage emerges after commensurate spans of motivic ostinato (Exordium: c. 11 minutes) and sustained or transient melody (Chorus of Shadows, The Pilgrimage, Emergence of the Spirit: c. 13 minutes) surely isn’t entirely accidental, is it?

It’s a very similar story in Act II, except that in moving from the tragic to the comic, the overall tenor of the music understandably shifts. Solemn melodies are supplanted by earthy “ditties”, and percussive vigour comes to the fore. This much is plain right from the outset: in The Quiet Hobo Meal the Bolivian double flute’s theme from Chorus of Shadows now finds itself in the company of spectacular turns from drums, Boo and Mazda Marimba, and Jew’s Harps ‑ yes, it does say “quiet meal”, but this is anything but quiet! While we’re on the subject of “noise”, I should mention the moment in the final A STRANGE FEAR! where the storm-clouds break. Here, the nerve-jangling screeching of the orchestra was also Partch’s answer to those who imagined that the world of monophony, populated only with pure whole-number ratios, is nothing but sweetness and light. Q.E.D., I reckoned, as I slowly unclenched my aching fists.

Although the Time of Fun Together corresponds to the “fight scene” in Act I’s Cry From Another Darkness, in essence it is a divertimento, just like you can get in opera ‑ and it’s even cast in good, old-fashioned extended ternary-form. However, that’s as close to ordinary as it gets, for it is here that we find the most fluid melody of the entire act. The chorus and a soprano soloist launch great, curving melodic phrases, which sail blithely over the choppy waters of instrumental pandemonium. Only as each phrase ends do the voices merge rhythmically with the orchestra (“Mumana-mumana-mumana-moo”).

Yet, as much as I love and enjoy Partch’s unique approach to the human voice ‑ there is really nothing quite like it, even from such as Schoenberg or Ligeti ‑ it’s his “Ensemble of Unique Instruments” that really grabs me by the throat. On CD, Delusion of the Fury is a 72-minute sequence of sonic sensations, and slap-bang in the centre of it all stands the magnificent Sanctus, the jewel in Delusion’s crown. In a little over six minutes, Partch indulges himself in a compositional orgy, throwing into the fray, it seems, all bar the proverbial kitchen sink. Its beginning sweeps away one web of delusion, whilst its end, slipping seamlessly into a reprise of the sounds that concluded the Exordium, spins a second snare. Yet, it is such an extraordinary effusion that I am forced to wonder if it has another purpose, not directly related to the drama:

It is written that one of the main reasons for the emergence, during the Seventeenth Century, of equal temperament was that just intonation couldn’t accommodate modulation. This was one of Partch’s big bug-bears: he was constantly being told that, in his justly-intoned monophony, modulation from one key to another was impossible. As Partch reported in Chapter 11 of Genesis of a Music, he had been put down by A. H. Fox-Strangeways, who had written, “. . . the unfortunate thing is that we don’t want just intonation: it would stop off the simplest modulation,” and had cited a musical example in three bars of equal temperament notation. Partch’s response was to put it to the test. Translating the example into just intonation, he obtained three alternatives. He played these to the innocent ears of many listeners. No-one could deny that any of the three achieved the required sense of modulation.

Yet I think that this, coming from a man of some musical eminence, had particularly stung Partch. He was incensed anyway at all the supposedly intelligent people who kept on telling him that just-intonational modulation was impossible, in spite of his repeated presentations of practical, aural evidence to the contrary. Consequently, and this would be entirely in keeping with his character, at the centre of his supreme masterpiece he placed the work’s pinnacle, and at the pinnacle’s centre he placed ‑ guess what? Right! There emerges an unstable chord, pulsing insistently. Expanding in intensity, it reaches breaking-point, sunders, and erupts in richly sonorous splendour ‑ and, being justly-intoned, the consonances of the new “key” have an almost incandescent resonance. It is a breathtaking, heart-stopping moment, and if it is not Partch’s most prominent and public declaration of practical modulation at work within the monophonic fabric, then I’m off out to buy myself a chocolate hat!

Considering that this is the only CD recording of this work we are ever likely to have, discussion of the performance seems almost supererogatory, or even a sheer waste of time. After all, other than looking at the score ‑ which few professional musicians, never mind a mere music-lover such as I, could even read ‑ there is nothing with which to compare it. Nevertheless, you are entitled to some sort of assessment. OK, so here goes.

Partch had intended that vocal solos would come from members of the chorus. He resisted requests to permit specialist singers, and relented only because none of the instrumentalists could cope with the demands of the two major rôles. In The Pilgrimage there is a tenor solo. Being relatively undemanding, this is sung by one of the instrumentalists, John Stannard, who projects his lines with a finely balanced sense of suppressed intensity. The bass solos in the final scenes of each act ‑ Pray for Me and Arrest, Trial and Judgement ‑ are taken by Paul Bergen. As I said in my review of the film, “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.” Well, on the CD, although he doesn’t quite hit that mark in Act I, if anything he exceeds it in the second. In Time of Fun Together the soprano, Victoria Bond, is every bit as effective here as she was in the film, negotiating her sometimes very demanding lines with aplomb, and exuding girlish bravura. If, apparently, she occasionally gets by more through good luck than good management, that’s fine by me ‑ I like the sense of “danger” that it brings!

The chorus, of temporarily and variously spare instrumentalists, do brilliantly at realising Partch’s demands for open and closed vowel sounds, “nonsense” words, plus sundry yelps, cries, whistles and sforzando hisses. They even get to intone a few real words, like “Why doesn’t she just go away” and “Oh how did we ever get by without Justice”. Occasionally, and ‑ given the variability of their complement ‑ forgivably, they are not always entirely together, but they throw themselves into the alarmingly wide range of expressive devices with real feeling.

It’s said that one of Partch’s few miscalculations concerned his idea that, following his corporeal principles, the orchestra should not be tucked away out of sight in the pit, but up on the stage, in costume, and expected to contribute to the acting and mime as well as play (and sing!). Alright, in the film of U.S. Highball (Enclosure 1) the players were clearly enjoying themselves, bouncing their intoned lines off one another and playing their parts with evident relish. However, that was filmed in a relaxed, private context, whereas Delusion was performed in the full glare of a public arena.

It didn’t work all that well because, even when they’ve been trained to perform the music, musicians are still specialists ‑ people with the wide-ranging multiple talents that Partch required were, and pretty much still are, very thin on the ground. Partch was simply asking too much, even of the evidently eager and enthusiastic youngsters. To some extent you can see the inhibiting effect of this in the film, and it’s probably for this precise reason that the playing on the CD is so much more assured: by simply allowing the musicians to get on with doing their own thing, they could give of what turned out to be their very considerable best.

Thus Danlee Mitchell, with a little help from the Man Himself, had no trouble at all coaxing some intensely thrilling playing from them. Relatively speaking, the one “purple patch” comes in Time of Fun Together: in spite of the lusty vocals and immensely gutsy playing, this somehow doesn’t quite take flight as I imagine it should. If pressed, I’d point to the tempo, or more precisely microscopic slackenings of the tempo, robbing the music of its accumulating momentum. The 66 minutes which make up the balance of the work are filled with the unalloyed pleasure of hearing the players revelling in the heady perfumes of Partch’s exotic musical garden.

In respect of this recording, “fortunate” becomes a byword. We are fortunate indeed that Columbia and John McClure seized their one chance to capture the sounds of this astounding work. However, once the recording had been deleted from the catalogue, the master tapes consigned to the vaults, and the extant supplies of the LPs snapped up, it seemed that the good fortune had run out. Hence, we are also fortunate that Philip Blackburn and Innova came along. Without their dedication, dogged persistence and sheer hard slog over far too many “dry” years, this recording might have sunk without trace. That would have been a supreme tragedy. Lovers and admirers of Partch’s music, both living and as yet unborn, will forever be in their debt.

The plain fact is that this recording is an historical document of immense, immeasurable value, and, as such, we would be fortunate even if it was a tatty and dog-eared affair. Doubly fortunate we are, then, that by anyone’s standards it is altogether superb. It encapsulates a vindication of Partch’s entire life’s work, a testament to his radical imagination, and proof beyond all reasonable doubt that even if his chosen path was a blind alley, then it was also a tunnel terminating in a great and enchanting light. Moreover, the greatest fortune of all is that it’s a damned good listen, a musical world every bit as involving as any of Mahler’s. Need I say more?

Paul Serotsky

 

 

 



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