Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Old Curiosity Shop

May 30, 2008

Partch at the REDCAT
Photo : Jeff 2008

In case the WDCH way-back machine trip to the 1960s didn’t float your boat last weekend, there was more time travel afoot this weekend in the same building downstairs at the REDCAT. This time around the decade was the 1950s with a program featuring Partch, an ensemble (formerly known as Just Strings) dedicated to performance of works from American composer Harry Partch under the leadership of guitarist and founding member John Schneider. The evening was momentous in a way in that it consisted of the first full performance of Plectra and Percussion Dances, an hour long work of music for dance and other potential collaborations, since it was originally premiered during a live radio broadcast in 1953. In fact, the performance included the recorded elements of the original broadcast such as Partch’s own introduction to the three segments of the work. The piece deals with a variety of themes based on mythology but has a much broader agenda and sense of humor about topics of life and death on the whole.

Partch was known not only for his microtonal compositions, but also for the wide array of self-made instruments he invented to have them played on. Partch, the ensemble, has reconstructed many of these instruments, which were brought to bear in Saturday’s fascinating and quite enjoyable performance. These instruments are largely percussive and string-based in nature and, while reminiscent of familiar marimbas, harps, and cimbalons, could just as easily have stepped out of a sci-fi adventure. The sound is augmented by the chromelodeon, a sort-of wheezing fractured organ that sounds like a distant memory - a sound that would play a huge role in the late 80s and 90s recordings of Tom Waits. Here it was unleashed in all of its 1950s glory wedded to versions of latin dance rhythms, which form the structure of “Even Wild Horses” the third and longest Act of the piece which also included settings of Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.

The playing was great, and, while there is so much detail and craftsmanship to admire in the ensemble’s performance, the best thing about it was the way they captured Partch’s own sense of fun in the work. This was evident by the composer’s own description of the pieces for the radio broadcast, and the musicians clearly share his love for these instruments and the sounds and ideas they were meant to express. The sold-out crowd responded enthusiastically and often throughout the night. Partch’s visits have become regular events at REDCAT in recent years, and, with evenings that are this much fun, here’s hoping they continue.


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