Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Rotator Cuff

June 05, 2010

Partch, the ensemble, at REDCAT
Photo: mine 2010

With all the Ring excitement this week, it might have been easy to overlook some other worthwhile musical events in town. Included in those would be the annual appearance by Partch, the ensemble dedicated to the preservation and performance of American composer Harry Partch. These musicians returned in their annual visit with their reconstructed versions of Partch’s idiosyncratic instruments to REDCAT this week for an evening that really couldn’t be any farther from the music of Wagner if they tried. This year’s theme focused on “Vernacular Music” or specifically works that are based on speech and often incorporate common ethnic or folk elements. This idea is commonplace to a listener today, but was far more outside the norm when Partch was composing in the 1950s before “World Music” was a category on iTunes. In addition to three pieces from Partch, the ensemble also played the similarly themed Canticle #3 from Lou Harrison and Anne LeBaron’s Southern Ephemera.

The centerpiece of the evening was Partch’s “opera” Even Wild Horses, which loosely incorporates text from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Over three acts and eight scenes that ran about 30 minutes, Partch incorporates a wide variety of Latin and African dance rhythms across his oversized marimbas, and various stringed instruments. There is a small amount of half-spoken, half-sung text in Act II, but this is not narrative material by any means. Partch’s music is nothing if not a lot of fun, though it can sometime be tinged with an eerie sense of memory. (Take a look at the clip above from 1968 for a sense of it.) And while this is certainly present in Horses, I was even more struck by the inventiveness in another offering on the program, a film directed by Madeline Tourtelot from 1961 entitled Rotate the Body in All Its Planes – Ballad for Gymnasts. While Partch was preparing a performance of another work at the University of Illinois in Urbana in that year, the school’s gymnastic coach came for a visit to check up on athletes that were involved in the composer’s upcoming performance. The coach was so taken with what he saw, he convinced Partch to develop Rotate to be performed in conjunction with the NCAA championship meet to take place at the University later that year. Partch did, and the resulting music, timed to coincide with the gymnastic performances of these athletes, was caught on film. The film is a product of its time, but amazing in that it’s the product of a collaboration I would imagine being quite alien in today’s ever balkanized world of academia. So while there were no gods falling from grace in Partch’s tinkling melodies, the return of the ensemble bearing his name was welcome this week as it always is.


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