Revisiting a Rare Surrealist Relic
One of the most bizarrely entertaining, inimitable largescale ensemble albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is the live recording of Harry Partch‘s “ballet satire” The Bewitched, streaming at Spotify. Recorded by a sixteen-piece group in concert in Berlin in 1980, it’s a dadaesque, often cartoonish suite written as a spoof of musical and societal pretensions. Partch was the quintessential outsider and took great satisfaction in deflating any bloated ego within earshot.
The twenty-minute prologue sets the stage, a defiantly swaying, percussion-heavy, quasi-gamelanesque theme featuring several of Partch’s inventions including the “marimba eroica” and “cloud chamber bowls” along with swooping winds and strings. If Spike Jones did a joint parody of Robert Ashley and Juan Esquivel, it might sound like this. With its persistent clickety-clack phrasing, some might say that you have to be stoned to appreciate this kind of beatnik excess.
Isabella Tercero plays the Witch as an operatic diva, sent to thumb her nose at a long list of hypocrites and other targets of derision, some more obvious than others. She doesn’t get much time singing out in front of the band. The first scene concerns the Transfiguration of American Undergrads in a Hong Kong Music Hall via anvil rhythms, warpy kithara and koto, and ersatz Asian tonalities.
Beyond the titles of the successive variations, it’s often not clear exactly what Partch is critiquing. The Permutation of Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint turns out to be a comfortable baroque-tinged theme and what sounds like vocal warmups within an increasingly noisy environment. Faux Middle Eastern allusions come to the forefront early on, especially in The Inspired Romancing of a Pathological Liar.
What is The Alchemy of a Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music? Not a happy place to be. It’s easy to imagine a young Terry Riley hearing Partch’s Visions of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room and having a eureka moment.
The Euphoria on a Sausalito Stairway could be a subtle sendup of suspense film cliches. There is suspense, along with moments of phony jazz, in The Transmutation of Detectives on the Trail of a Culprit.
The haziest interlude is where Partch has a court address its own contempt. From there, a Political Soul wanders Lost Among the Voteless Women of Paradise. Then the ensemble get to pounce and clatter their way through the groupthink of the Demonic Descent of the Cognoscenti While Shouting Over Cocktails. The coda is wry and caricaturesque.
Maybe this is too much to ask for, but the suite also has a visual component involving audience participation and a basketball drill: a DVD might offer additional insight into what Partch is up to here.