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
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!
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.
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
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"
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 . . .
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
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
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
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