Ensemble musikFabrik - Delusion of the Fury.
Photo Wonge Bergmann
Delusion of the Fury is a large-scale music-theatre work inspired by Japanese Noh theatre works and Ethiopian myth, integrating lighting, movement and song in a sound world full of lightness and humour.
Delusion 2.0; Harry Partch and the Philosopher’s Tone
by Philip Blackburn
Delusion of the Fury
Japan Society, December 7, 2007
Everyone takes away from a Partch encounter a different sense, based on the circumstances of the discovery and what resonates with their own latent interests. Ben Johnston, for instance, who knew him in the 1950s, became a sophisticated composer (and teacher) of microtonal concert music. James Tenney, David Dunn, Johnny Reinhard, and Phil Arnautoff likewise had their musical worlds expanded. Others more distant from the source (including Paul Dresher, Skip LaPlante, and me) became sound-sculptors. Few swallowed Partch whole. Dean Drummond developed as a composer, leader of Newband, and ultimately guardian of the Partch instruments through an arrangement with Partch’s heir Danlee Mitchell to borrow them in 1989. (Note I didn’t use the word “Instrumentarium,” a now-common neologism that Partch never used and might have thought designated the tools of his trade as peculiar specimens in glass jars.)
Theater is considered to be a collaborative art form; playwrights, actors, set designers, and directors all work together to mount a production as a collective effort. Partch, however, went farther than most modern authors by not only composing the music but also specifying in detailed and imaginative terms the costumes, characters, movements, and motivations of all the performers. In this regard he is similar to ancient Greek poets who likewise took on the whole range of production tasks—providing music, costumes and choreographic gestures (chieronimia) in addition to the dramatic narrative.
During his life, while he needed people to realize these visions in his productions, Partch (like his near-contemporary, Samuel Beckett) left little leeway for personal interpretation or competing viewpoints. His singular vision and aesthetic led to notorious spats with the likes of Alwin Nikolais (The Bewitched, 1957), Joyce Trisler (The Bewitched, 1959), and Kenneth Anger (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome misappropriated Partch’s Plectra and Percussion Dances in 1954), who abandoned Partch’s instructions and suffered the consequences. Who knows what revenge Partch may have concocted had he seen the recent version of his Castor & Pollux, revamped as Calculus & Politics and choreographed by Molissa Fenley first at Mills then at the Joyce Theater in New York the week following the Delusion production? It would not have been a pretty sight.
Given that Partch’s instructions and vision for his works are well documented and easily available, is it possible to stage an authentic production that differs significantly from his concrete instructions? How far can one take the letter of his score and retain the spirit? Does the producer always trump the playwright, or only if he’s dead? Could a deliberately “inauthentic” production illuminate hidden aspects of the work, even one we’ve never seen? When does honoring a work’s integrity by realizing and stretching its intrinsic qualities become an irresponsible smash and grab?
The musicians must of course be in costume, and I have a singularly clear idea as to what the costumes should be like as to detail and what they should convey: a sense of magic, of an olden time, but never of a precise olden time. They should certainly not suggest anything that is either Japanese or Ethiopian.
The basic garment of the musicians should be a huge pair of pantaloons, wrapping around the waist in East-Indian fashion. In Act I they should also wear a poncho-like garment—a single, full piece of cloth with a neckhole. It must be completely unadorned, without collages or beads or anything that tinkles in the light. The poncho is discarded at the end of Act I. During Act II the musicians are naked from the waist up.
To compensate for this very simple costume each musician will wear a fantastic headpiece. Each will be different, or frequently different.
In contrast, the three principals would wear more imaginative costumes, and imaginative make-up. Wigs certainly, but no headpieces.
—Harry Partch, Scenario for Cry From Another Darkness (aka Delusion of the Fury), December 30, 1964
How then did the Japan Society performance of Delusion of the Fury match up to Partch’s original vision?
“A” for effort, to be sure. The production was professional and clearly the result of hard work, a generous budget, and highly skilled participants. Delusion is one of the largest of Partch’s ensemble works and certainly the most musically demanding. It was written after a period at the University of Illinois when he had effectively simplified his writing to accommodate ever larger casts of thousands. Away from the pressures of student productions and settled in a Petaluma chick hatchery, Partch could resume his experiments with more sophisticated writing for virtuoso musicians (though he had none at his disposal at the time).
This production also served to put the 1969 UCLA premiere (with its well-known recording and lesser known film version, both on Innova) in perspective. It is always a shock to hear a live performance of a work that you are familiar with only through one recording, and this time was no exception. The notes were the same, but listening in a live setting in an auditorium, the instrumental timbres are more fragile and crystalline than the close-mic setup. You appreciate for the first time what the original Columbia recording engineers did to rebalance the instruments to bring out particular melodic lines. Many of the instruments in their live incarnation have a narrow dynamic range, making it difficult for any conductor to bring out the parts and balance them well, even if—as Drummond was—he were not engaged in playing an instrument himself. Balancing the ensemble thus becomes an exercise in instrument placement on stage, so the quieter ones are nearer the audience and have a greater chance of being heard in tutti sections. While the wide spread of the instruments on stage helped the ear distinguish the daemon of each instrument most of the time, the Chromelodeon reed organ and kitharas could have been more prominent at times. One of the kitharas and the Mazda Marimba actually had subtle electric amplification in this production, as Partch had sanctioned during his lifetime, thus allowing instruments to be placed more for visual effect than acoustic projection.
The experience of the Marimba Eroica, however, was superior when “heard” live. The instrument’s tones are so low, you feel the vibrations and the pressure in the room rather than hear it with your ears (a “rippling in the backsides by an art form,” as he called this effect). Indeed, the instrument is different in every space, depending on which of the long wavelengths happen to correspond with the depth of the auditorium. This instrument is therefore both a site-specific sound sculpture tuned to its environment and a primal, direct manifestation of what Antonin Artaud strove for in his Theatre of Cruelty.
The fact that the ensemble knew the music well enough to perform essentially without a conductor (apart from a couple of dramatic cues) speaks well of their preparation. It was also an added bonus to the credibility of the drama; the musicians really seemed to be contributing their human presence to the ritual whereas the presence of a waving, directorial conductor would have spoiled that illusion.
The attitude of the musician on stage—what I refer to as Attitudinal Techniques in my subtitle—is another failure of music education, and one directly relevant to the age of specialization, the tendency toward even greater purity in the creative arts. At no time are the players of my instruments to be unaware that they are on stage, in the act. There can be no humdrum playing of notes, in the bored belief that because they are “good” musicians their performance is ipso facto “masterly.” When a player fails to take advantage of his role in a visual or acting sense, he is muffing his part—in my terms—as thoroughly as if he bungled every note in the score.
There is surely some special hell reserved for the player of one of the more dramatic instruments who insists on deporting himself as though he were in tie-and-tails on a symphony orchestra’s platform (such as experimental hanging by the gonads on a treble kithara string).
—Harry Partch, Manual, 1963
An important part of playing any Partch instrument is how intense and energized you look when you are playing it—the aesthetic quality of your body: “athletic,” “like skilled boxers,” “willing to rape or caress their instruments…” Like gamelan, gagaku, pansori, and Peking opera, the musicians are on stage as live, interactive parts of the action, and therefore should not deny their presence or recede like black holes. Most standard concert ensembles focus on getting the notes right first and see their visual appearance as only a secondary concern. For Partch, this human presence is equal to technical mastery (the notes, phrasing, etc.) and it takes a lengthy period of encouragement and training to teach players this kind of psycho-physical projection. In the 1980 production of The Bewitched, for instance, Kenneth Gaburo spent the first hours of every rehearsal having the performers do mental and physical awareness exercises.
In the Japan Society performance, some musicians were better than others in this regard. Seeing the Bass Marimba player’s (Jonathan Shapiro) left hand rise inexorably way up high to the ceiling before crashing down on one of the low blocks, was a thrill, timed to dramatic perfection. Gestures did not need to be exaggerated to be mesmerizing though; the Diamond Marimba player (Bill Ruyle) standing upstage played his fast passages with such casual authority and dynamic balance that you knew this instrument was in capable hands and my eyes and ears were captivated.
In general though, how did the players look? Did they achieve Partch’s corporeal ideal? This is where the production fell short. The ensemble sauntered onstage at the beginning, as they might for any concert. What happened to ritual theater, the beginning of spinning a web of intrigue, and ancient magic; the whole point of this activity? It would have been easy to ask them to move in stylized fashion or emerge from the shadows in a simple but intense choral procession (Partch intended them to be the Greek Chorus, after all).
The playing of the first few minutes of string music seemed likewise half-hearted. When the music shifted to the percussion-based instruments stage right, though, the mood took off on a more confident footing. Partch considered the strings to represent the soul and his percussion instruments the body, so the arrival of the dancers on stage was a powerful moment.
This blasé opening and T-shirted costume debacle was apparently the result of two failures that would have been only too familiar to Partch: a choreographer (Dawn Akemi Saito) who paid no attention to the musicians, and an errant costume designer. These shortcomings had plagued the original production, too (as he made clear to Madeline Tourtelot in 1972 while editing the film of the original production), and make one question the management protocols that allows such blemishes to occur time and time again. Added to that, Dean Drummond’s role (the only person on the team with first-hand knowledge of Partch’s concepts) was relegated to that of mere Music Director, so bureaucracy determined that he had no influence on anything but playing the right notes. Once again it is shown that decisions made by committee, or with a misinformed boss (even though—having been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant—John Jesurun must be one), can lead to mediocrity.
The choreographer’s role is usually assumed to be relevant only to dancers, but in Partch’s world, everyone is a mover/dancer/actor; the musicians are characters visible on stage and thus demand as much meaningful, intentional, suggestive body movement as anyone else. By ignoring one third of the performers in this production (after the Moving Chorus and the leads), the choreographer (who otherwise did a fine job) should take a 33% pay cut, hang by a treble kithara string, and/or be forced to memorize Partch’s extensive writings about “the curse of specialization” in the arts. Partch embeds all kinds of musical interactions between the players and the actors—expressive vocal ejaculations, angry stomping, and mysterious whistling. Without corresponding gestures, these musicians looked straitjacketed. By not paying attention to the movements of the on-stage musicians, the choreographer did both a disservice to Partch and also to the players; she ignored the basic premise of his work and exposed the performers to ridicule.
For her treachery to the concept the costumer [to the 1969 Delusion] should have been tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail…
I did not know, being very preoccupied with the music, what was being contemplated in the costuming and choreographic departments…until the last few days before the performance… Thus the absolute necessity of a period of indoctrination.
—Harry Partch, Letter to Madeline Tourtelot, January 21, 1972
The other tragedy was the fact that the musicians wore basic black shirts and pants—today’s casual tuxedo: a suitable uniform for school concerts and waiters but diametrically opposed to everything Partch stood for. Partch railed against “the inhibitory incubus of tight coat and tight shoes” that was the standard concert attire of his day and insisted on “some visual form that will remove them from the limbo of the pedestrian.” Black T-shirts are the epitome of pedestrian.
There was a reason for this, but no excuse. Apparently the original costume designer (Ruth Pongstaphone) was fired four days before the opening night for producing unsuitable costumes. “Sacred robes for a Thanksgiving parade” was how one musician put it. Even “unsuitable” might have been better than black T-shirts though. Not having seen them, I can’t comment, except that still left four days to find a better alternative. The new costumer was necessarily preoccupied with clothing the lead characters (which she did fine), so someone needed to rise to the challenge and take care of the musicians’ appearance. Partch’s instructions in the score are precise enough: pantaloons, one-piece tunics, fantastic headpieces, and body paint, so when the tops are removed for Act II, the musicians are half naked. None of this happened. Ultimately, body paint with black pants apparently didn’t look right, so the whole idea was abandoned as the clock ran out.
Have attitudes changed that much in 40 years? Are we now in an age of American prudery? Perhaps they reasoned that the original plan might have been all right for California in the ‘60s but wouldn’t go over in 21st century New Jersey, where school fees, lawsuits, and parental/student complaints carry more weight than they used to. Has Protestant body shame (Partch’s lifelong nemesis) returned triumphant, even to New York? Is it kosher for the Japan Society to present near-naked Butoh performers one week but anathema for an American drama to do the same the next? Someone is guilty of being over-cautious.
Now surely someone could have figured out in those four days that a hibiscus behind the ear, or bare feet, or a piece of rope tied around the forehead, or a colored shirt could have a similar effect without embarrassing anyone? As it was, the musicians became invisible; their presence as a mystical chorus watching and commenting on the eternal action in front of them became prosaic. More like watching a rehearsal, and not even the dress rehearsal.
In a total art work such as this, all the components make up one whole body; this performance had at least one amputated limb. Directing the musicians, dancers, and actors on stage so they are seen to have mutually supportive interactions is hard enough, but this was a major element jettisoned. Partch was once asked what he thought about “poetry cum jazz.” He felt it needed more “cum.” It did here, too.
There are many fairly long periods where only 6 to 12 instruments are employed, and duets and trios are frequent. The tacit musicians may thus become actors and dancers, moving from instruments to acting areas as the impetus of the drama requires. For example as court attendants in Act II, bodyguards to the justice.
—Harry Partch, Scenario for Cry From Another Darkness (aka Delusion of the Fury), December 30, 1964 (Instructions ignored in this production.)
On a positive note, the instruments themselves, their staging, shapes, and materials, were as warm and fragile as ever; giving off a wooden glow, like walking down the corridors of the Queen Mary bathed in rich living wood from around the world. Jeff Nash lit the stage unobtrusively and effectively, balancing visibility of the instruments and the performers nicely.
The Moving Chorus (six dancers moving silently as a group) operates in dangerous territory and can verge off into the forbidden zone of abstract modern dance (Partch’s bugbear) at any moment. This group, though, was a model of its kind. With form-hugging tights the young men and women were sensuous, sexy, and engaged; a kind of erotic shadow play that added to the drama and flaunted their lack of Anglo Saxon body shame, which would have been much, no doubt, to Partch’s delight.
John Jeserun’s video of nature shots (web, moon, bamboo, smoke…) was cleverly projected onto the ceiling of the auditorium. This had the effect of extending the lighting across the proscenium arch and into the audience’s airspace. At times, it acted like a multi-media chorus, extending the metaphor of the stage action. The Exordium, for instance, the spinning of a web, featured a web pattern on the ceiling. Or when the hobo lights a small fire to cook his meal, the smoke through the trees is projected overhead. An elegant and appropriate touch that extended Partch’s own passion for multi-media.
The main protagonists, like the rest of the cast, were young and multi-racial. In itself, such casting is laudable; Partch was in fact a pioneer of racially blind casting (Odetta nearly played Jocasta in the 1952 Oedipus, for example). In this case, it clouded the already confusing relationships between the slayer, the ghost of the slain, and his son.
Without benefit of dialog, if you hadn’t read the program notes, you might think the story of Act I—instead of enacting the pilgrimage to Atsumori’s grave, the appearance of his ghost, the re-enactment of his death, and an act of forgiveness—was simply a white guy wandering around, picking a fight with a black guy who is joined by an Asian tomboy all around the same age, and then they stop. It is critical that the audience knows what is going on in terms of plot for the whole gestalt to work, and at least this was abundantly clear in the 1969 production.
The standout performer of Act I was Mina Nishimura, who played the Son in search of his father’s face. Her shoulders moved as though by a hidden force, and she acted as if in a trance possession.
The Japanese theme was stressed as a premise for presenting Delusion at the Japan Society. Curiously, this production strayed farther from Noh and Kabuki conventions than had the UCLA one, which featured more traditional stylized motions and heavy face make-up. Partch was interested in American equivalents to world traditions (The Bewitched, for example, portrays everyday urban scenes that he thought of as American Kabuki). This Japan Society production fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between being exclusively Japanese or American. A clear decision one way or the other may have helped clarify the narrative and relationships of the first half. Because of the confusing characterization, the denouement was not as tragic as it needed to be. We are meant to be floored by the spiritual and emotional conflict of these family archetypes, so the resolution will be a cathartic relief and we can move on, having earned the right to the more naturalistic relief of Act II. In short, there was neither delusion nor fury.
The other problem with the casting was the mismatch between the lead actors’ youthful vocal ranges; while they negotiated the unconventional melodic lines with ease, none of them had the necessary power in their low registers to convey any gravitas. This weakness corresponded to the already lightweight choral singing from the musicians (the 1969 choral singing from the instrumentalists was comparatively butch). Partch spent a lifetime setting music to underpin words, retaining and enhancing their natural inflections and intelligibility. When he went beyond words, though, he did so for a purpose; using vocables to convey specific meanings, like some pre-verbal ancient message. He had transcribed Native American music from cylinder recordings in the 1930s and had been told that “the syllables meant something once but no-one knows exactly what any more.” Similarly, in the 1950s he was inspired by hearing the voice of Helen Keller, which was expressive even when the literal meaning was incomprehensible. Partch’s “nonsense syllables” then must be uttered as if they really meant something.
Seeing syllables written in the score next to a fixed pitch presents the singer with the challenge of how to bring them to life convincingly (without resorting to wobbly opera cliches). At best, there is an animalistic sliding, gutteral cry, as much personality as technique: a fantasy mixture of Tom Waits, Chaliapin, Odetta, Paul Robeson, Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas, and Mei Lan Fang. Vocal maturity is one area where the UCLA recording is superior; the voices are rich and focused (though they cheated in that performance by having trained singers in the pit and the actors miming their words; they too, as it turned out, couldn’t find actors who could sing and act equally well.).
Partch lived at a time when cross-disciplinary performers were exotic and rare. The few models for such integrated abilities were typically from Asia or Africa, and few of those performers made it to U.S. shores. Partch’s experience was largely the result of attending San Francisco’s Mandarin Theater in the 1920s. We have now had many years’ more exposure to examples of hybrid arts from overseas and locally; performing academies teach multiple skills; Broadway shows, Stomp, and Cirque de Soleil all require such abilities. So why is it so hard to find such talent for Partch works? Is it just the cost and infrequent nature of the productions? Will we ever see Partch’s work routinely performed as intended or will it always be an uphill battle to find suitable vision and talent? Is that the price of being so original and demanding in every aspect of his art, that makes the challenge of producing a Partch work successfully, insurmountable? Though they were few and far between, such productions have taken place, so we wait for such a combination of talent and circumstances to manifest itself again.
Charting an appropriate course for the movement vocabulary is tricky in Partch’s works; choreographers are typically afraid to be as literal and potentially hokey as he demands; they usually fall back on abstract modern dance clichés. Partch, after all, had been an accompanist for silent movies as a teenager and was very familiar with the exaggerated gestural, miming style used in that medium to tell a story. If this production had gone further in that direction it might have clarified the motivations and relationships of Act I more convincingly.
The Sanctus, the compelling instrumental entr’acte, brought out the most spirited music-making of the evening. Even the shattering of one of the Pyrex carboys that make up the Spoils of War—a result of enthusiastic beating or Partch’s closing-night message from beyond the grave—failed to dampen the energy (and also, thankfully, to cut any of the dancers’ feet).
Because of less abstract production concepts, Act II was largely more successful in dramatic terms than the first; its humor is the counterpoint to Act I’s tragedy and shows Partch’s potential for biting satire. This was also where the vocal ejaculations of the chorus, the mimetic action to music, and the main characters played off each other most successfully.
A young vagabond is seen cooking a meal outside (he was the slayer in Act I). In appearance, he looked like a scruffy Gen X-er who just lost his job as coffee barista and is temporarily homeless. This seems an entirely fitting update of the hobo archetype: Partch, too, had been a homeless wanderer in the 1930s. An old goat woman appears looking for her lost kid. She seemed about the same age but with an extravagant club-kid hairdo, and she seemed to be hitting on the young man more than seeking her lost goat, but hey, the kid is a Lambchop hand puppet and plenty cute. The woman keeps bugging the young guy, who announces to the world (notably absent in the first recording), “I just want to be a hobo. Why doesn’t she just go away?”
Partch doesn’t miss a dig at the Establishment: the quarrel ends up in court where a deaf-blind judge assumes they are a hetero couple and the goat is their charming child. “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” Indeed. The fury of Act I has morphed into sarcasm by Act II. This is followed by a Zeussian thunderclap and the Chorus echoes the end of the first Act’s “Pray for me” chant. This time it is a general plea—an enlightened Coda moment—to be released from the worlds of regret, death, misunderstandings, dogooders, idiots, and bureaucrats. Amen to that.
What was gained by seeing Delusion as a theatrical production after surviving so long as a sound recording? Some people were just as happy to close their eyes and listen to the music. Perhaps if the production had worked as planned, they couldn’t have taken their eyes away from the action on stage. Apart from the fatal and telling flaws of a few, the production had much to commend it. Partch’s worth as a deeply serious creator of drama was never in doubt. And the Japan Society’s gargantuan effort to demonstrate works that bridge Japanese and American cultures was amply rewarded. Now, if we can only see annual productions of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury and iron out the remaining production wrinkles, we can truly see what Partch’s universe is all about and why his efforts are still relevant to us all.