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Sampo HAAPAMÄKI (b. 1979)
Heritage (2016) [16:04]
Martin SMOLKA (b. 1959)
Wooden Clouds (2017/18) [19:08]
Carola BAUCKHOLT (b. 1959)
Voices for Harry Partch (2014/15) [23:37]
Ensemble Musikfabrik/Sian Edwards, Clement Power
rec. 2015/18, Klaus-von Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus am Wallrafplatz, Cologne, Germany
Texts for Bauckholt’s work included
Edition Musikfabrik 17 - New Works for Harry Partch Instruments
WERGO WER6870-2 [59:03]

Back in January I reviewed another Wergo disc, one devoted to German provocateur Enno Poppe’s analog synth homage Rundfunk, a noble experiment in music technology which didn’t work out for me, at least. Here’s another attempt, involving the exquisite collection of instruments manufactured by the one and only Harry Partch. Before instruments there were period instruments. After instruments there were Harry Partch’s instruments. That’s one approach to identifying the chronology of modern (Western) musical sound. Amplification, analogue and digital might constitute the sequel.

One could, I’m sure discuss the coloristic greyscale and timbral limitations of the modern symphony orchestra ad infinitum but the names of those individuals who have created completely novel instruments, tuning systems or notational methods from scratch are few and far between. The most famous example is Harry Partch, the some-time hobo who cheerfully rejected received musical wisdom and tradition and basically did his own thing. As the note accompanying this disc makes clear, Partch was very much with the ancients in as much as he considered the way a sound looked was every bit as important as the way a sound sounded (see article); accordingly he took quite as much care in naming them as he had done in constructing them, conjuring exquisite nouns such as ‘Cloud-Chamber Bowls’, ‘Blue Rainbow’, ‘Chromelodeon’ or possibly best of all ‘Spoils of War’. Each of these (and many more) feature on the present disc.

I’m sure Partch would be aghast at (and moved by) the esteem and reverence in which his name is held by young composers and performers nowadays. Listening to this disc is a salutary lesson in becoming aware of timbral gaps you never knew existed. Indeed the biggest challenge in reviewing it has been a linguistic one; music writers have an established vocabulary for describing conventional instruments (rustic horns, metallic pianos, grainy violas and the like) but some of Harry Partch’s creations truly defy description; indeed it puts me in mind of an anecdote shared by an old friend who was a philosophy student during the 1960s (at Bristol University). He confided that one of his final year exams included a version of the following question: “How would a human being explain to a Martian what a cup of coffee tastes like?”

The three pieces on the new disc each require Partch instruments, Sampo Haapamäki’s Heritage (which lends its name to the title of the disc) exclusively so; all were composed in the last five years. It makes an apt contribution to Wergo’s Edition Musikfabrik since the Cologne-based contemporary group are unique in having a full set of Partch’s stringed and percussion instruments. These were lovingly recreated during the 2012-13 season by a team led by Ensemble Musikfabrik’s original percussionist and renowned instrument builder Thomas Meixner. The musicians then had to learn to play them, and subsequent seasons have featured a number of newly commissioned works incorporating their use; among these are the three substantial examples on this disc.

The assertive bell stroke which launches Haapamäki’s Heritage represents a call to arms for the musicians. Variegated strummings, chimings and tappings ensue in a kind of primitive microtonal mass communication. Given that one of this Finnish composer’s main preoccupations is microtonality the challenge of writing for such an unconventional ensemble must have been a blessing, and the collisions of the tactile sounds of these sixteen instruments with their strange flutterings, drones (presumably the melodica-like chromelodeon) and pipings produce an invigorating sonic collage. Primal grunts, vocalisations and war-chants prick these unfamiliar strains. One’s preconceptions about tuning are swiftly obliterated. The pungent crashes that occur throughout Heritage act as waypoints. Some of the sounds get close to those produced by melodica, zither or Jew’s harp. In the last three minutes, pared down fibres all too briefly reveal themselves before another din builds to a huge communal chant.

Haapamäki’s is arguably the most abrasive of these works; I wonder if this somehow reflects the fact that he is twenty years younger than both Martin Smolka and Carola Bauckholt who in relative terms are veterans of the contemporary scene. Smolka’s Wooden Clouds comprises five short movements. The stately, angular melody presented by the winds at its outset is modulated and adorned, but in each of its initial manifestations it subsides on a strange descending glissando. The melody recurs at various points elsewhere in the piece, shorn of this gesture. In the first panel it alternates with hypnotic strikes of what sound like temple bowls, which fade into meditative, significant silences. The wind and brass chords which clash at the start of the next section are dramatic and project the tang and austerity of Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum. Smolka presents more gamelan-like strikes and in this way melds atmosphere with astringency. The third section involves fragile string figures which dissolve into each other in haunting compounds which are challenged by sustained brass notes and in due course by cimbalom agitation. The subsequent movement is very brief and based upon a variant of the initial stately theme which is now pared down to a single string. The more substantial conclusion builds inevitably toward a final encounter with the original theme, whose chords by now have been weathered into something which hints at sadness or resignation. In Wooden Clouds Smolka makes a little go a long way and pulls off the neat trick of producing a work which is surprisingly melodic and elegant given the potentially unwieldy combination of traditional and Partch instruments at his disposal.

In Carola Bauckholt’s fascinating Voices for Harry Partch the vocal elements at its core are most unexpected, even in this unusual context. As the booklet note confirms, a boy reads out a text “…in a Rhineland dialect about carp bones and fishing in the Fühlinger See” (the system of lakes close to Cologne). The other ‘voice’ is that of Harry Partch himself, abstracted from an old recorded interview in which he riffs about the ‘blue haired ladies’ who tended to populate concert audiences throughout the twentieth century at the expense of younger enthusiasts. Around these two elements Bauckholt weaves a beguiling musical tapestry in which the singular colours of the Partch instruments come into their own and blend naturally with their traditional instrumental counterparts. Sawing and bowing textures yield to the plangent tones of what sounds like an adapted flute. The boy’s voice fits neatly into quirky little interlocking motifs. There are further cimbalom sounds and mandolin flavours. The sounds of low brass that emerge at 7:12 intertwine with Harry Partch’s own voice- the spirit hovering between the grooves of this disc emerges tentatively and syllabically. Bauckholt’s ornate writing for individual instruments is skilful and particular. One of the cornerstones of her music is a fascination for getting instruments to mimic natural sounds (It is a feature of her superb violin piece Doppelbelichtung which I reviewed in February) and here single brass instruments effect remarkable impersonations of Partch’s gnarled speech. Later in the work melodic sequences in conventional instruments are shadowed playfully by the Partch counterparts and vice-versa, while a low flute mimics the boy’s deadpan voice. Voices for Harry Partch is limpid, mysterious and substantial. Bauckholt impresses and delights one’s ears with each new piece, and much as I liked both couplings on this disc Voices is the standout.

Ensemble Musikfabrik represent a byword for commitment. It seems that all of these players here have taken on completely new roles involving completely different instruments in the context of a professional live concert. Their versatility emerges in these performances as both joyful and fulfilling. The recording is sufficiently detailed to render the most jaded ears alert and attentive. Those who have fallen for the unique sound world of Harry Partch will want to hear his extraordinary instruments in these strange new contexts.

Richard Hanlon

see also Harry Partch A Just Cause by Paul Serotsky - a three part article
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