Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Concert Review: Harry Partch at the University of Washington, 5/26/2015

This was the second concert presented by the UW Harry Partch project (I missed the first). As I walked in, I saw the famous one-of-a-kind instruments on the stage. Some of them were a lot larger than I had expected (and one, the “surrogate kithara”, was a lot smaller). Other people came in and filled up the seats; unexpectedly for “experimental” music, the hall was full to capacity.

For those unfamiliar, Harry Partch (1901 - 1974) was an American musical iconoclast who invented a 43-pitch per octave microtonal scale (based on extensions of ancient Greek concepts), wrote music in it, and invented an “orchestra” of instruments to play it. Most of these instruments are either percussion or plectra (plucked strings). The collection of instruments has resided at various places in the U.S., and is now in the University of Washington, Seattle.

Charles Corey, director of the project, introduced the concert. He stated that there would be a short film first, of Harry Partch himself introducing his home-made instruments. Then there would be the concert itself, played mostly by UW students, then a round-table discussion with questions from the audience.

The film began. They projected it on a curtain (with obvious folds and flaws), not on a screen – and several times at the beginning it (the movie) froze or skipped around. Finally it went blank altogether. Pause for a couple of minutes, then reboot the computer (or boot up another one) and retry. This time it worked. Comment from the audience: “Hey, that theme (the fanfare the computer plays while turning on) isn’t Partch – it’s in a tempered scale!” In the movie, Mr. Partch talked about and played several of his instruments, then played random cuts from “Daphne of the Dunes”. The sound quality wasn’t particularly great, as a lot of early Partch recordings; but it was a suitable (if rather fragmented) intro to the music for those who weren’t familiar with it.

The concert began with the famous “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales”, for bass marimba (played by Kaley Eaton) and and harmonic canon (the latter is a variation on a koto, though with many more strings much closer together – played by Josh Archibald-Seiffer). The sound was much richer than it has been on recordings. The bass marimba is extremely resonant.

“Two Psalms” followed. “The Lord is My Shepherd (Psalm 23)” was, to me at least, just a voice intoning the text without a particularly interesting accompaniment; but “By the Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137)” was a more extended chamber movement. The bass-baritone (Jeff Bowen) intoned the first few verses in the same manner as in “Psalm 23”, becoming progressively expressive as the Psalmist lamented the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. Coming to “How can I sing the Lord’s song?”, the instruments took over, building to a heart-rendering climax for the brief return of the vocalist. Instruments included the adapted viola, chromelodeon (adapted reed organ, played by Anna Stachurska) and kithara (played by Jeff Boven and then Jacob Sundstrom). The latter instrument is much larger than its ancient Greek prototype: the player has to stand on a riser behind it to play its several banks of strings arranged in chords.

Next, there was an excerpt from “And on the seventh day petals fell in Petaluma”. This is a high-spirited instrumental allegro, far different from the introspective “Psalms”. Huck Hodge and Greg Sinibaldi played it with aplomb on the diamond marimba and surrogate kithara (the latter is so named because it plays in the same manner of the kithara but is smaller and easier to play – it resembles a pedal-steel guitar with two banks of strings).

Back to the introspections. The three excerpts from “Eleven Intrusions” were written just after WWII, with memories of the Great Depression, and embody the despair and anxiety of those periods. “The Crane” is particularly mournful, while “The Waterfall” seems at first a happy little tune but soon takes on darker hues as the vocalist chastises crowds for seeking the “pool of oblivion”. Josh Archibald-Seiffer sang; Luke Morse played the adapted guitar (which has an extra brace on the back besides its adapted tuning) and Declan Sullivan played the diamond marimba.

Probably the most crowd-pleasing piece on the program, “O Frabjous Day!” is a setting of the great humorous poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. Kaley Eaton (harmonic cannon – seemingly amplified) and Isaac Anderson (bass marimba) accompanied with folk-like rhythmic drones and catchy, even rhythms, while Charles Corey sang the poem in a tuneful declamatory style. The humor of the nonsense poem was enhanced by Partch’s cheery setting.

The last piece also included humor, provided in part by the Mazda marimba played by Andrew Angeli. This is one of Partch’s zaniest instruments. The sight of a percussionist using mallets on what looks like a table full of light bulbs is in itself subtly hilarious, and when the timbre is added (it really sounds like percussive burps), all bets are off. The boos (as in “play the boos” – bamboo marimba, played by Declan Sullivan) – a stack of bamboo segments strapped together – is only slightly less madcap. The interesting thing is, though, that this second excerpt from “Petals fell in Petaluma” is perfectly serious music, though it is another happy allegro. As in several of Partch’s other works, the humor and the seriousness merged into a seamless whole.

Several members of Partch’s original ensemble were present for the round-table discussion. Some of their comments:

“What we saw at the beginning of the concert tonight (the film starting and restarting) wasn’t Partch – it was classic Cagean chance!”

“When we were rehearsing some of Partch’s music in his original ensemble, he would often say something to the effect of, ‘hey, you’re singing it wrong – it’s not a semitone, it’s supposed to be three-fourths of a semitone…!’”

“Symphony orchestra players play in just intonation. The ‘cellos and basses form the bass line, and then the other orchestra members have to subconsciously adjust, in microtones, to stay in tune.”

“Patch often composed in a way that was explored by Bach: continuous variation. He’d take one idea, spin it out as far as it would go, and then take another idea, and spin it out as far as it would go.” I commented that this was a similar technique (also) to Indian ragas.

“Partch’s music has three periods. First, he wrote art songs (like what was most of the program tonight). This was his lied-in period, pardon the pun. Then he wrote ‘Americana’ based on hobo trips and the like. Lastly, he wrote extended theater pieces.”

“Partch often said his music was ‘corporeal’ in that it involved graceful movements while playing. Also the players had to sing and dance – a very ancient concept.”

“Partch was looking to the future of music by looking into its deep past.”

“After practicing in one of Partch’s early ensembles, everything I heard on the way home – the wind, my car’s tires on the road – became music.”

“The fact that these students could learn this music in just a few weeks, and perform it so well, proves that Partch was a great composer – the music flows well, and just makes sense the way that good music does.”

1 comment:

  1. thanks so much for the extensive great review! Now if they would play, one of these days, one of my all-time favorites, "Ring around the moon!"