Dream and delusion | Music | DW | 28.08.2013
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Dream and delusion

Contemporary critics called him the "Don Quixote of music." At the Ruhr Triennale in Bochum, "Delusion of the Fury" by the idiosyncratic American composer Harry Partch was staged in Europe for the first time.

The audience is awed at the very first glace into "Centennial Hall": The stage looks like fascinating instrument museum - with the scenery consisting of 40 giant wooden percussion and plucked string instruments. But hubcaps, bamboo tubes and empty whiskey bottles have also been transformed into instruments, from which musicians of the musikFabrik ensemble elicit strange tones and archaic rhythms.

Especially exciting is the way the music is created: In Harry Partch's most significant work, "Delusion of the Fury," music performance mutates into theater. The switch from one instrument to another is staged - and follows the lines of a choreography. The musicians become actors who handle instruments, props and costumes and sing ritualistic chants in alternating groups. For director and Ruhr Triennale head Heiner Goebbels, this "physical way of making music evokes a music that is compelling, even though one is not familiar with it - perhaps precisely because of that."

Harry Partch and adapted guitar Collection title: Harry Partch Estate Archives, 1918-1991 Date: 1941 Sousa Archives and Center for American Music University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Harry Partch Estate Archives, 1918-1991

Harry Partch

A new tonal system full of poetry

Harry Partch, born in Oakland, California in 1901, is considered one of the US's most creative and original American composers of the 20th century. The loner and rebel was admired by musicians as diverse as György Ligeti, Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. When Partch returned to the States in the mid-1930s after a brief period of study in Europe, the country and the world were in the throes of the Great Depression. Like writer Jack London before him, Partch struggled through a decade of being a migrant worker and a hobo, traveling from job to job on freight trains.

During this time, the creative and spirited Partch not only called into question the antiquated structures of society, but also established music culture. Because Western music seemed "overly intellectual," cold and analytic, he established his own musical aesthetics, creating pitch and rhythmic pulses that were physically tangible, sensual and passionate. Based on the melody of human speech, he developed a new tonal system with an octave not divided into twelve, but into 43 notes. To play it, he built new instruments and gave them poetic names such as "Blue Rainbow" or "Castor and Pollux."

Partch's Chromelodeon Copyright: Michael Bölter. 2012

Partch's Chromelodeon

Exotic creations

Partch realized that his works would only rarely be played, and for the most part, they remained unknown in Europe. The original instruments he built are now held at the University of Montclair in the US state of New Jersey. Not transportable, they may only be used for study purposes.

Thanks to musikFabrik and Cologne-based drummer and instrument maker Thomas Meixner, audiences could experience replicas of those exotic creations in Bochum's "Jahrhunderthalle." Meixner worked on the replicas for over two years and traveled to New Jersey to study the originals - including a giant xylophone, whimsical glass chimes, dulcimers, woodwinds and a pump organ with Partch tuning and a colored keyboard - the Chromelodeon. The musicians of musikFabrik first had to learn how to handle the strange instruments before they were able to evoke sounds from them with evident pleasure in music making.

musikFabrikensemble Copyright: musikFabrik


Tapping all the senses

For Heiner Goebbels, artistic director of the Ruhr Triennale for a period of three years, Partch's "Delusion of Fury" is a piece of music theater "which invites you to experience it with all your senses." It is in fact difficult to not be seduced by the magic of sounds both strange and familiar, somewhere between pop and minimalist music, with infectious rhythms and short melodic motifs. The storyline, for its part, is comparatively secondary. It is based on Japanese and African myths - in which a Japanese pilgrim encounters and makes peace with the ghost of his slain opponent. In the second act, a goat herder gets into a dispute with a tramp. A blind and deaf judge arbitrates. Both acts end with the request: "Pray for me."

The performers in musikFabrik take on all the roles, and as a choir - as in ancient Greek drama - comment on the events in ritualistic song that first sounds slightly Asian, then Indian. Varying moods and captivating new perspectives filled with poetry, magic and humor: Harry Partch called it a world between "dream and delusion."

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