First published by the Guardian on 29 August, 2014
The American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) had a musical vision for which 12-toned instruments were not enough. His objection to the standard western classical scale wasn’t so much along the philosophical lines of Schoenberg and other early 20th century atonalists; he was mainly frustrated by the musical limitations of the equal-tempered octave, so devised a system that split the octave into 43 notes instead. Partch’s masterpiece is the bizarre 1960s music drama Delusion of the Fury. It is outlandish and magnificent and it spits you out wanting to dive back in and experience the whole strange thing again. And if it is hardly ever staged that’s because it can’t be: it requires its very own orchestra of hand-built instruments, each one specially invented by Partch to play his unique microtonal music.
Even the names of the instruments are little poems in themselves: Eucal Blossom, Zymo-Xyl, Quadrangularis Reversum, Castor & Polux, Spoils of War. There are closely-tuned glass gongs and thin sheets of metal which, when tugged by strings, make loud wobbly noises. The Chromelodeon is a sort of harmonium that produces a mellow thrum. The heavy bass of the Marimba Eroica hits you first in the stomach then in the head, like a big wooden subwoofer. A zither-ish instrument plays a recurring spaghetti-western figure – glimmers of Partch’s childhood in remote Arizona, like heat-haze on a long horizon.
There is more to these instruments than wild names and weird sounds. What’s surprising is how, well, tonal his music often ends up sounding. “For me it’s early pop music,” says composer and director Heiner Goebbels, whose extraordinary production of Delusion of the Fury comes to the Edinburgh International Festival later this week . “It is a crazy dream grounded in solid rhythms and harmonies. It sounds like the experiments of the late Beatles and Beach Boys. As much as it is accessible, it is also impossible to grasp. Like any good artwork it is vague and enigmatic, yet at the same time instantly touching. The whole thing is magnetic. It draws you in and transports you to a different planet.”
What remains of Partch’s original instruments are now so frail that they can’t be moved from their home at Montclair State University in New Jersey, so when Goebbels decided to stage Delusion with the Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik he needed to somehow recreate them. It took percussionist and instrument maker Thomas Meixner three painstaking years: each obscure material had to be sourced, each exact tuning replicated.
But the results are spectacular. Not only has Meixner successfully conjured Partch’s soundworld, but the constructions look superb (after a performance in Amsterdam in June, the audience crowded around the stage, everyone keen for an up-close ogle). This isn’t an incidental point. Visuals were important to Partch, who believed that the central feature of a set design should be the instruments and the people who play them. It had to do with his concept of ‘corporeal music’, in which a musician’s physicality is integral to performance. “The person who plays the instrument is a part of the instrument,” he said. “It is a oneness, a wholeness, and if I have anything to say about it he’s not going to look like an amateur Californian prune-picker.”
Partch called Delusion “a ritualistic web”. The narrative is a bleary mix of Japanese Noh theatre, Ethiopian folk mythology, Greek drama and his own wacky imagination. There are two parts, both parables: the first is serious, the second farcical, and together they carefully balance each other out. “You seem to know the scenes but you can’t seem recall them, maybe because of the hazy microtonality,” says Goebbels. “It’s the same thing with the story – I mean what is it? If he wanted to be clear he could have used words, but he didn’t. I mean there are only about 25 words in the whole thing.”
Goebbels’s brilliantly zany set design is a cross between a warped botanical garden and a vintage American diner; props include massive inflatable slugs, a roaming KFC mascot and a gaffer-tape goat. “Some people think that I took drugs when I was designing it,” the 61-year-old German tells me with a hint of a smile. “I guess they aren’t used to seeing such colourfulness from me. But no, I didn’t take drugs.”
In fact he simply tried to follow Partch’s score as closely as possible. “The more precisely we followed, the better it became. This is a dreamworld but its construction is so intricate – anything but hazy. Balancing looseness and precision was the biggest challenge. It should sound like a pop group performing, but you need academic musicians who can read super complex scores.”
If any ensemble could pull it off, it had to be musikFabrik. Run as a musicians’ collective, these contemporary music specialists have a serious appetite for off-the-wall projects. They always look as though they’re having enormous fun, too, whether they’re playing Lachenmann, Stockhausen or Frank Zappa. “Even just agreeing to perform Delusion was a huge step,” says Goebbels. “To leave behind their regular instruments – which they have practised for six hours a day, every day for 30 years or more – that is an enormous liberator in itself. I think the experience will change the way they play forever. Once you absorb the corporeality of Partch’s music, it doesn’t go away.”
Goebbels himself has been composing iconic staged works since the 1980s, full of their own beguiling rituals and physicality. “Back then I thought I was developing a new format,” he says, “but it turns out Partch had already done it in the 50s and 60s. He was so far ahead.” Goebbels pauses. “We are very different people, of course. I’m rarely drunk; he was often drunk. Towards the end of his life he was full of anger and that gave him a lot of creative energy. But I have sympathy for his anti-establishment beliefs. He didn’t make artistic compromises. This is something I think about a lot, and I respect Partch for being so totally non-conformist – for just doing his incredible thing.”