Harry Partch: The Wayward; MariŽns: ToeŽnw‚s

Ictus Ensemble

Kaaitheatre, Brussels, 22 April 2010 4.5 stars

Harry Partch Harry Partch (1901 - 74) is usually seen as belonging to the great lineage of American 'maverick' composers alongside Ives, Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, John Cage and others.

Like Nancarrow — and, to a lesser extent, Harrison — practical considerations limit performances and recordings of Partch's music, which gets written about a lot but listened to less frequently. With Nancarrow, it is his fiendish rhythms that prevent human interpretation (much of his music was written for player pianos). With Partch, it is the fact that he wrote in microtonal tuning systems, often according to 43-note Just Intonation tuning cycles, and on self-built instruments designed with such systems in mind. So, what we get is lots of transcriptions, some recordings on the original instruments, and some on reconstructed models.

This evening we were faced with the first order, transcriptions. Fortunately, the composer Tim MariŽns and Ictus determined that the selected pieces should be transcribed for microtonally-adjusted instruments and not for the regulatory model of equal temperament, which medium often channels Partch. The Wayward (1941 -43), a desperately funny and humane cycle of speech-songs that depict, from the inside, the experiences of hobos travelling the railroads in America in the thirties and forties, provided the material.

The transcriptions were compelling and the performances mostly vivid. Spreading each of the four characterful pieces that make up the cycle across an hour, with a new MariŽns work using the same instruments (and thus the same sound world), ToeŽnw‚s, interpolated amongst them, the concert felt strange, fantastic, and, sometimes, mesmerising. The strangeness comes with the tuning system. At first you wonder at the septimal thirds, feeling the harmonic beatings and unexpected spectra as wonderfully exotic intimations of between-the-notes music. After some time, your apperception shifts decisively into the new regime. Aural conditioning is disregarded, so hypnotised are you by the peculiar and extraordinary patterns and colours. These are the advantages of micro tonality. The disadvantage, I suppose, comes with the system's challenge to conventional notions of tone and timbre, a challenge one or two people in the generally entranced audience clearly ceded to by walking out.

The Ictus flautist Michael Schmid took most of the vocal duties. His rather flat delivery of the opening The Letter robbed the text of some of its caustic humour (the line 'I think I have a job starting the twelfth of October and I truly hope my dear little wife is dead by then' raised nary a chuckle), and I was initially sceptical of Schmid's ability to convey the American idiom of the speech. The deadpan style however had a certain charm of its own - its stark juxtaposition with the quivering, repetitive zither figures from Tom Pauwels and Jean-Luc Plouvier's texture-enriching microtonal piano decorations made for a rich contrast. Schmid was much more impressive in the enduring, eight-part setting of found hitchhiker graffiti (by another hitchhiker - Partch himself), Barstow. Throwing shapes from across the American musical firmament, from barnstorming yankee fanfares to ironic ragtime slides, Plouvier and Pauwels (now on six string, full bodied and microtonally tuned semi-acoustic guitar, often played with a slide) led a riot of music. Sounding alternately like Pierrot Lunaire, Kurt Weill, and Tom Waits (in his dreams), the performance made communicable fragments of lives long lost to poverty and posterity. Schmid presented a varied canvass of emotion and technique; as comfortable with swooping exclamations and pulsing tension as he was with wise ass jeering, the vocalist totally commanded the attention. Pauwels, too, deserves special credit for navigating the cumbersome fretboard of his guitar with such fluency (even if the odd note was fluffed).

The following San Francisco, with Pauwels back on zither, gave us more of the same earthy character, only condensed to vibrant rhythmic and cyclic chants that nevertheless would not repay lengthy exposition (I have to say that following the earlier redolence of Tom Waits, San Francisco put me in mind of Steve Reich's Different Trains, a lauded piece that was here showed up as derivative and somewhat pallid). MariŽns' ToeŽnw‚s followed. Featuring a welter of interesting ideas — including an opening reed organ wheeze straight out of Nico's Lawns of Dawns, and a series of interesting sonorities achieved by subtle management of the unique colours of the ensemble &madsh; the work meandered somewhat, a little unsure what to do with its material. The sudden interjection of quiet, cascading, distorted guitar lines at the end, though pretty and ear-catching in themselves, seemed symptomatic of the slight gaucheness of the work's form and argument.

In ToeŽnw‚s and the following U.S. Highball, Schmid proved as responsive and pointed a flautist as he was a vocal artist. Gerrit Nulens on microtonal marimba and percussion widened out the palette skilfully in these two concluding works likewise. Highball, with its incessant cries of 'LEAVINGÖ!', is something of a hard listen, but this evening's multicoloured version is certainly preferable to the Kronos Quartet's committed but misdirected 2003 Nonesuch recording with David Barron. Sharing out the vocal duties for this finale between the four musicians proved damaging; Plouvier's resolutely Walloonian brogue actually charmed, but every time Nulens took over the standard fell significantly, with metric and idiomatic concentration becoming diluted. Some excellent effects were however achieved by the combinations of voices, particularly in the quick swapping between Schmid, Plouvier, and Pauwels. Generally, though, as with earlier, the musicians' skill and dedication to the difficult charge asked of them was remarkable; Partch's funny, strange and compassionate empowerment of hobo voices came ably and vividly through the transcriptions and the performances. This was a fascinating concert, singular even by Ictus' high standards.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Harry Partch with some of his instruments

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