He Is Legend

The Japan Society remounts Harry Partch's "total theater"

Iconoclast composer Harry Partch—in discussing his late masterwork, Delusion of the Fury—stated in his notes: "Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing." Indeed, had you not been in attendance for Fury's lone staging (in 1969), the experience of Partch's singular music would be but half-formed. Through the concerted efforts of the Japan Society, director-designer John Jesurun, composer and Partch expert Dean Drummond, choreographer Dawn Akemi Saito, and a cast of 24 musicians and 10 dancers, Delusion of the Fury's second staging will take place December 4, 6, 7, and 8 at the Japan Society. Needless to say, it's a once-in-a-lifetime concert.

Fury was the culmination of Partch's five decades of composition, microtonal theory, instrument-building, theatrics, modern dance, and ancient chorale, a piece of "total theater" that incorporates Japanese Noh, Ethiopian folk tales, and mime into its 70-minute duration. Born in Oakland in 1901 (he died in 1974), Partch lived an iconic life: He met poet William Butler Yeats (setting his verse to viola), hoboed cross-country, chucked 12-tone Western intonation for one of his own creation (his most famous being a 43-tone scale), and turned snatches of Depression-era graffiti—as well as the Chinese poetry of Li Po—into musical compositions. Partch also created the first artist-run record label to release his music, and crafted instruments out of bamboo, Pyrex bowls, and artillery-shell casings, their presence as sculptures matched by the startling sounds that emanate from them. "I remember thinking that it sounded like nothing I ever heard before," Jesurun says about first encountering Partch's music. "I thought it was pretty out there."

In the nearly 40 years since Fury premiered, it has remained far out there. Percussive, bewildering, salient even amid the 20th-century avant-garde, Partch's prickly music has stymied and entranced listeners for decades, yet far too often the visual and theatrical are excised from the experience. Even Drummond, who performed as a student in the original staging of Fury (and who now maintains Partch's instruments at Montclair State University), finds that the music retains its enigma, despite his intimacy with the material: "His theatrical intents, with how he incorporated the Japanese legend . . . are extremely mysterious, surreal, strange, and not really explained. I'm kind of curious."

Only the second staging ever: 
Delusion of the Fury's Partch, circa 1970
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Only the second staging ever: Delusion of the Fury's Partch, circa 1970

Running through rehearsals leading up to the premiere, Jesurun feels that he's still discovering nuances in Delusion of the Fury, too. "I've been struck by the continuing depth of the music. Physically, the vibration of it . . . there's a real power emanating from the music and the instruments. It continues to resonate. The more you're around Partch's music, the deeper you go. Right now, we're in the middle of the ocean."

 
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