Tuesday, June 19, 2012

He Who Has Not Known Bitterness...

Last Thursday night the Partch Ensemble performed their annual summer concert at REDCAT. Partch Ensemble concerts typically end in a musical petting zoo, with half the audience on stage plunking or plucking notes on the many beautiful recreated Partch instruments that fill the REDCAT stage. Thursday's performance involved a drastically pared down ensemble, however, centered on John Schneider's recitation of Harry Partch's Bitter Music (a fascinating journal of his time in London and life as a hobo during the 1930's). At relevant junctures, his words were punctuated by piano, chromelodeon, kithara, adapted guitar, adapted viola, and various voices from the ensemble (most notably Garry Eister).

Bitter Music tells a fascinating story, brutally honest and historically unique, and the melodic flow and theatrical flair of Schneider's voice gave it a moxy reminiscent of depression era entertainers. Garry Eister's contrasting nasal vocalizations gave the pair a kind of Laurel and Hardy charm, as Eister sang and accompanied Schneider on the piano. They were also joined by pianist Richard Valitutto, Erin Barnes on kithara (her kithara performance during The Letter was particularly notable), and David Johnson on chromelodeon. 

The projections behind the performers were often engaging as well. As Schneider accompanied himself on adapted viola for By The Rivers of Babylon, Partch's unique notation for that early arrangement was displayed (the viola part written as a series of ratios). It's a simple image, but an exciting one because it is so rare. Partch's While My Heart Keeps Beating Time was given the same treatment, and it was subtly hilarious to see his credit as "Paul Pirate." Schneider's sung/spoken delivery added a narrative poignancy to the piece, supported by Valitutto's elegiac piano playing.

The performance concluded with two postludes: an audio recording of Partch reminiscing about his attempted destruction of Bitter Music, followed by a performance of a rare re-orchestration of Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. Though slightly re-orchestrated, it is a piece as well worn as the Barstow Freeway, and the ensemble travelled it well.

Though I have poured through his Genesis of a Music, I must admit I have not read Bitter Music. My familiarity with it comes through the Extracts from Bitter Music recordings on Innova Records' Enclosures 2. I found myself favoring Schneider's radio friendly voice (you can hear him Thursdays on KPFK's Global Villageto that recording, and am curious to check out his recently released recording of the piece on Bridge Records.

Knowing about Bitter Music in advance was to my advantage, as my expectations were attuned to what was presented. From overheard intermission chatter, I discerned that some people were confused about the unusual ratio of speech to music. Had they read the REDCAT write-up of the show they would not have been surprised. If the whole Partch ouevre were an LP, Bitter Music could be considered a deep cut, albeit a profoundly rewarding one. I applaud the Partch Ensemble's bravery in programming it, and give a standing ovation for a great performance.

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