By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK — It was only a matter of time before Heiner Goebbels took on Harry Partch. Goebbels is a German composer and director known for staging huge orchestral works that draw much of their drama from their instrumentalists’ activities. Partch was an early 20th-century American composer and part-time hobo whose works, while often following some abstract narrative or other, evolve out of the same impetus, but with a distinctive difference: The instruments, mostly percussion, are of his own invention, based on his own system of 43, as opposed to 12, pitches.
While still artistic director of Germany’s Ruhrtriennale, from 2012-14, Goebbels and his Ensemble Musikfabrik mounted what is said to be Partch’s largest work, Delusion of the Fury, A Ritual of Dream and Delusion (1966). They did so by commissioning the reconstruction of the Partch orchestra (his original instruments are under lock and key at the University of Washington), a task assigned to percussionist and instrument maker Thomas Meixner (also an ensemble member). The fruits of their collective labors were evident in the U.S. premiere of Delusion at New York City Center on July 23 and 24, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival. (The Festival concludes on Aug. 2.)
Partch’s instruments are a wonder: filling the City Center stage to its bare walls, they were artfully arranged in a kind of gentle uphill slope, with the largest ones, such as Kithara I & II and the Cloud Chamber Bowls, farthest upstage, the Marimba Eroica (a four- to six-pitch monster requiring huge mallets and matching muscles) mid-level with the Quadrangularus Reversum (a diamond shaped marimba/xylophone flanked with segments of conventional xylophones), and the Chromelodeons I and II upstage right and left. A square pool of water in the center of the stage was the site of much of the action, with Harmonic Canons I & II (which look and appear to be played like hammered dulcimers) to its right and a dizzying array of other exotica scattered artfully about.
For the occasion, the 20-plus members of Musikfabrik, which specializes in contemporary music, had to morph from conventional instrumentalists into Partchian virtuosos, nimbly crawling up, around, and through the instruments, which frequently had multiple players. All of their movements were part of the stage action of Delusion, a two-act opera divided into sections bearing titles like “Chorus of Shadows,” “Emergence of the Spirit, “Arrest, Trial, and Judgment,” and “Pray for Me.” The program note indicates Partch based Act 1 on a 14th-century Japanese Noh drama about a ghost warrior and Act 2 on an Ethiopian folk tale about mistaken identity.
There was no division of labor: Musikfabrik members played, sang (chanted, actually), and acted all the roles of the 90-minute musical drama, and radical mood changes were accomplished aurally with the instruments and visually with dramatic lighting shifts (Klaus Grünberg is credited with sets and lighting design). Costumes ranged from bare chests and miner hats (which doubled as mobile score-lights throughout) to black long coats to fire-fighter jackets to bright orange vests to samurai robes to hobo-wear (Partch was a transient for many years). In addition to the instruments, four large black shapes that mostly resembled ant eaters slowly inflated throughout the performance; there were also a couple of fires, some dry ice, and other assorted effects.
But most of the drama was in the playing of the instruments; Musikfabrik members often acknowledged one another’s performances with a nod or a smile, and cued each other in lieu of a conductor. It was all very communal.
Collectively Partch’s instruments created a sound unlike any other; all those different shapes and surfaces, most of them wood or bamboo, come together in a non-threatening calliope of microtones. Most are percussion instruments. It may be sacrilege to try to describe their conventional likenesses, but I’d venture accordion, organ, bass marimba, drums, xylophone, pedal steel/zither/autoharp, hammered dulcimer, guitar, bells, theremin, koto, thumb piano, and a bass tone generator that makes the walls rattle.
Partch derives tension in the music of Delusion through gradual changes in dynamics and the layering of instrumentation; he’s also quite fond of call-and-response, especially in his vocal writing. Fascinating to watch, pleasing to listen to, this piece is less about linear development than it is about the creation of endless waves of sounds. About 60 of the work’s 90 minutes would have been sufficient. That said, Goebbels and his team of players, dramaturgs, and designers have done yeoman’s work in bringing a little known musical drama back to life.
Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com.