Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

California's Gold

June 01, 2009

Partch in action

It’s easy to dislike California. Especially now, considering it’s a state mired in financial and political problems largely as a direct result of the fear and idiocy of its own populace. (Vote all you want, you still have to pay for your kids to go to school.) So it was nice to have a weekend of quintessential California originals to remind me of the good things and good folks to come out of this golden state. Saturday night brought this year’s performance from Partch, the ensemble named after the California composer and iconoclast, Harry Partch. These shows, which take place annually at REDCAT downtown, are highly regarded events honoring Partch’s musical life and works, and this year’s installment was sold out. Part of the draw, of course, is getting to see the idiosyncratic instruments designed by the composer to create the microtonal landscapes he imagined. From the giant diamond marimba to the modified guitars and chromelodeon, Partch’s instruments can appear as strange as the music itself.

This year’s show entitled “Partch Dark/Partch Light” included what might be described as songs and song cycles divided into more and less somber groups. I mean “songs” to the extent that the works were mostly short and involved vocal passages. Although not always sung, the pieces reflected on a variety of literary texts including James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, as well as mid-20th century American experiences. They reminded me mostly of Charles Ives, but with less of a New England flair. The first half of the program, “Partch Dark” included Eleven Intrusions a conglomerate of pieces on Greek scales, war, and other topics. The second, lighter half, was more literary in focus, but both groups of songs contained elements of humor. The final cycle Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions reflected the composer’s own itinerant days in a setting of material about hard scrabble characters and life on the margins. Not only did it involve spoken passages, but some opportunities for the players to act and move.

Unfortunately, the show was plagued with technical problems. There were two pieces of video, the first of which Windsong featured a soundtrack by Partch. The non-sync sound art film on Greek mythological themes kept breaking up and eventually after several pauses had to be completely stopped and restarted from the end point. It broke the tension in an already choppy program of short works. I never seemed to be able to get back into the show after this point. The second short piece, Rose Petal Jam, was a brief outtake of documentary footage of Partch himself explaining the recipe for the title foodstuff and railing against music writing in the popular media. It was perhaps the most cogent reminder all evening of the spirit and personality behind this unique art.

Meanwhile, last Thursday brought us a very different group of California-based, if not native, musicians in the latest local show from Fleetwood Mac. The group defined a late 70s California aesthetic that would be repackaged for mass consumption and eaten up until this very day. The group returned with their most famous line-up minus the now retired Christine McVie. This current tour, which is wrapping up here in the Southwest, was not in support of a new recording but focused instead on the wealth of expertly-written popular songs this collaboration produced over several decades. It was fun, which it was supposed to be. It was also plagued by poor acoustics and over-amplification in the Staples center downtown. When the band played simply, things were good. During the last half-hour of the two-and-a-half hour set, though, things did descend dangerously into self-parody. Ribbons and lace are one thing, but when Stevie Nicks pulls out a top hat you know your in trouble. Later in the first encore, Mick Fleetwood descended into an extended drum solo marked with failed attempts at a call and response with the audience who at this point were beyond deciphering any of the barking coming from his head mic. But it was a reminder of a sunny golden past and of a California, which, as Lindsay Buckingham noted from the stage has a way of “pulling you in on its own terms.” It’s still true now 30 years later despite all the bad news.

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