Monday, April 23, 2012

Harry Partch: Revelation in the Courthouse Park

Harry Partch (1901-1974) was from Oakland and of parents who had served as Presbyterian missionaries in China.  His mother was an organist and singer and his father collected instruments so, growing up primarily in Arizona and New Mexico, Partch was exposed to much music. 

As a composer, however, he was self-taught and, going far beyond just that aspect, he developed his own 43-tone music system as well as building a series of instruments of his own design for that system.  In the Great Depression years, after some time studying in England, he wandered the United States essentially living as a "hobo" riding the rails and taking inspiration from so-called "hobo graffiti" for some of his earliest pieces. 

From the late 1920s, he began building instruments adapted from traditional ones.  After years of wandering and experimentation with his system of performing music, he received, in his early 40s, a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue his ideas with decent funding.  By the late 1940s, he had a position as a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin, during which time he built new instruments and wrote a book based on his musical notation system.  During the 1950s, he continued to receive assistance from the Guggenheim Fellowship program, universities, and other foundations while living and working in California. 

In 1960-61, he wrote the remarkable Revelation in the Courthouse Park.  His later years were spent at La Jolla and San Diego and received somewhat more attention with such landmarks as an exhibit and concert at New York's Whitney Museum and recordings with the major label, Columbia.  He died in San Diego at age 75 and, as an outsider in the "classical music" world, is generally considered a "cult" figure.

To ears conditioned to listening to "Western" music in just intonation and established scales, Partch's music seems foreign and strange.  Much of this is because of his microtonal system and unusual instrumentation, of which there was essentially an entire orchestra, but a great deal of it also comes from his interest and application of ideas from Asia, Africa and ancient Greece.  If a listener has had any appreciable exposure to music from these parts of the world, Partch's pieces will sound familiar, but also has their own individuality of sound.

Instruments include the "kithara," a large stringed instrument with 72 strings in a dozen groups of six that was modeled after ancient Greek instruments.  Rods are moved to create changing sounds while a pick or a finger are used to pluck the strings.  A zither-like "harmonic canon" is also used with picks or the finger while glass rods are used to change the tuning for either 44 or 88 strings.  The "crychord" has a single string over a box that resonated the string's sound and a handle, rod or arm controlled the string's tension to change pitch; meantime, a beloows was conected to an car's horn and three small organ pipes.  A "chromolodeon" is an adapted pump organ, an instrument Partch's mother played, with the reeds tuned to microtones.  Partch also had adpated violas and guitars.  He also had a variety of marimba instrments made of bamboo or spruce blocks and one, the "bamboo marimba" or "boo" was struck with dowels covered in felt, rather than with mallets.  The "cloud-chamber bowl" consists of Pyrex bowls with the centers removed and which were recovered from a radiation lab at UC Berkeley.  These were played from a rack.  "Cone gongs" were made from airplane gas tanks and put on stems.  Then, there were the "spoils of war," consisting of seven shell casings placed on a stand along with the cloud-chamber bowl and other percussion components, including bamboo peces, a Chinese wood block, and others.  On his instruments, Partch wrote out tunings based on his use of 43 microtones per octave, which he considered more natural that the just intonation or equal tempered scale of twelve notes per octave.

Revelation in the Courthouse Park is a fascinating adaptation of the ancient Greek play The Bacchae by Euripides, in which Dionysus, born in Thebes of the god Zeus with his mother Semele, is denied recognition of his divine status by his father Cadmus and members of that household.  After wandering in Asia and using his charisma and divine power to attract a passionate following of primarily women (the bacchantes) in a cult.  Returning to his hometown for revenge, he is able to gain more followers, including some of his aunts and eventually Cadmus, but the Theban king, Pentheus, Dionysus's cousin, is determined to destroy the cult.  Dionysus, appearing in disguise as an Asian priest, convinced Pentheus to don his own disguise to spy on a bacchanalia, or ritual of his cult with frenzied music, dancing and sex, from a tree.  Dionysus then alerts his entranced followers to the presence of the intruder and the women, including Pentheus' own mother, Agave, attack and kill him.  When it is realized what was done, the house of Cadmus is ruined by the tragedy.

Meantime, Partch introduces a modern corollary built around Dion, a modern rock and film star (likely drawn from the Dion of pop fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s) who is modeled after Dionysus and who has established a nonsensical cult of Ishbu Kubu.  Sonny (Pentheus), a young man based in the "courthouse park" is challenged by the presence of Dion and seeks to expose him as a fraud.  Sonny's mother, Mom (Agave) joins the cult as does the town's mayor (Cadmus.)  The piece is a not-too-subtle damnation of moralistic authority figures trying to tamp down the natural inclination of younger people to enjoy earthy entertainments of all sorts, including music, and its creation in 1960 came right in the middle of the highly conservative, Cold War environment in America.  This is a universal story that could resonate in many places in many eras.

The galaxy of Partch-built instruments provides a wonderful and provocative accompaniment to the chanting and singing of the performance's text and there is also a marching band of traditional elements such as piccolo, trombone, trumpet, bass, tuba and drum during some of the modern scenes.  The main issue was that the recording was made in 1987 for The American Music Theater Festival, but the piece had only been performed once in the composer's lifetime, in 1960 at the University of Illinois.  While a Partch disciple, Danlee Mitchell, would transport the instruments from San Diego to Philadelphia for the performance, musicians were needed and the problem of training some to play the unorthodox instruments seemed insurmountable.  The head of Drexel University's music department, who happened to be a Partch devotee, offered to take on the task and also prepared the singers, none of whom had worked with microtones before.  In addition, the piece was performed at the city's Great Hall and its Greek Revival architecture also provided an apt setting as well as excellent acoustics.

Dionysus/Dion is performed by Obba Babatunde, a highly regarded actor, nominated for a Tony for his work in the original production of Dreamgirls and an Emmy nominee, who was a student of Sammy Davis, Jr. with great talent in singing, music performance, dancing and other areas.  Other cast members are excellent, including Christopher Durham as Pentheus/Sonny, Suzanne Costallos as Agave/Mom and Casper Roos, who has a highly distinctive dramatic voice as Cadmus/The Mayor.

It may take time for a new listener to get used to the unusual musical sounds, but Revelation in the Courthouse Park is a revelation into the musical and theatrical talents of the great Harry Partch.  The cover above comes from a 2003 release from the Tomato label, which is a 2-CD set running about 84 minutes.

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