King's Theatre, Edinburgh
When Tom Waits hung his nightclub barfly shtick out to dry in favour of
something more primal with his 1983 Swordfishtrombones album, as
Tristram Bath made clear in a thirtieth anniversary study of the album
in The Quietus in September 2013, it was composer Harry Partch who in
part liberated Waits' muse. Partch, who died in 1974, built his own
instruments with extravagantly other-worldly sounding names such as the
Chromelodeon and the Quadrangularis Reversum. He also worked with
micro-tonal scales that ditched western systems for more
exotic-sounding sonic provocations gleaned from Africa and Japan.
Partch's interest in the East may have been voguishly in keeping with
the trappings of post World War Two modernist esoterica, but his
interests in ancient Greek drama and Japanese Noh theatre lent his
increasingly ambitious fusions of sound, song and spectacle a classical
formality that gave what was effectively the original junkyard
orchestra a gravitas whilst retaining a sense of fun.
Other artists have made their own instruments, from Max Eastley's
environmentally driven constructions on New and Rediscovered Musical
Instruments, an album shared with David Toop and released on Brian
Eno's Obscure label in 1975; to the Heath Robinsonesque contraptions
built today by Glasgow-based artist and performer, Sarah Kenchington.
But beyond Waits and co, Partch's influence, whether consciously
realised or not, is alive and kicking in a latter-day generation of
artists intent on reclaiming music from push-button facsimiles of sound
generated by the all-pervasive laptop and bringing it back to its raw,
more physically primal state. These influences trickled into
Edinburgh's festival season this August both at its outer edges and its
official face, counterpointing each other in a way that reflected
Partch's own contrary tendencies as a wilful outsider who nevertheless
subverted the mainstream.
This could be heard in the dervish-like Afri-delic dancefloor voodoo of
Glasgow band Golden Teacher, who let rip their percussion-heavy brand
of delirium at the city's Summerhall venue (which is also currently
hosting an exhibition by another musical primitive, Genesis Breyer
P-Orridge, alongside s/her late partner in pandrogeny, Lady Jaye Breyer
P-Orridge). This was on a bill promoted by the adventurously inclined
Braw Gigs operation and shared with Awesome Tapes From Africa and
Optimo's JG Wilkes at the controls.
Partch's influence also manifested itself in an appearance by the
spectrally inclined Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides at the
artist-run Embassy Gallery, currently situated in a large basement
space beneath a Yoga studio. The location was all too appropriate for
PWHMOBS' Manchester-based duo of Kelly Jayne Jones and Pascal Nichols'
presentation of Conduit of the bottomless submundane, a two hour
conceptual piece played in the dark by an expanded quartet with the
audience in repose on yoga mats.
With speakers, drums and assorted tables full of electronic kit, found
objects and assorted detritus placed around the room, the four players
moved around the space, utilising percussion and flute patterns woven
around looped compositions. The result was a Zenned-out form of
immersive anti-theatre that left space enough for the audience to
create their own narratives, whilst retaining formal enough structures
to bolster the improvisations and allow them to breathe beyond any
notions of an old-time chill-out room sensation.
It was Partch's work itself that book-ended August in Edinburgh on the
grandest of scales in a major staging of his rarely performed music
theatre piece, Delusion of the Fury. Fusing two life-and-death myths
derived from Japan and Ethiopia into one seventy-two minute work
utilising some twenty-seven instruments, in presentation, scale and
delivery, Delusion of the Fury was the antithesis of Conduit of the
bottomless submundane. Where discretion and understated intensity was
at the heart of Conduit of the bottomless submundane, Delusion of the
Fury was as much visual spectacle as aural.
Or at least that was the case in the Edinburgh International Festival
production first seen at the Ruhrtriennale International Festival of
the Arts in north-west Germany during 2013 as performed by the
Cologne-based Ensemble MusikFabrik and overseen by German composer,
theatre director and maverick auteur, Heiner Goebbels.
Given that Goebbels spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s playing in
Cassiber, a quartet formed
with guitarist Christoph Anders, sax player Alfred Harth and Henry Cow
drummer and percussionist Chris Cutler in an attempt to fuse punk, free
jazz and classical music, he was a natural fit for Delusion of the
Fury's long overdue revival.
Composed by Partch in 1966 and subtitled A Ritual of Dream and
Delusion, Delusion of the Fury was performed for one night only at UCLA
in 1969 in a version conducted by percussionist Danlee Mitchell, who
would go on to become Partch's heir. The recording of the performance
was released on record in 1971, and later on CD in 1999, though both
are hard to come by. A film of the performance also exists, as one
hopes there is too of the Edinburgh dates, although the King's Theatre
ushers were as diligent in staving off mobile-phone wielding souvenir
hunters as stewards keeping tabs on Kate Bush's current twenty-two
night adventure in musical theatre.
The comparison is not a facetious one. In the unlikely event that Bush
ever graces the stage again following her similarly portentously named
Before The Dawn shows, she could do worse than get Goebbels on board to
co-ordinate theatrics rather than an old-school RSC man.
Before a note was even heard in Edinburgh, the elaborate network of
hand-crafted musical jumble onstage looked to have been beamed down
from a space age that had reclaimed the ancient. Its symmetrically
arranged construction looked somewhere between Dada, Dali and Dahl in
the imaginative largesse of its glass domes, custom-built keyboards and
other oddities built around a small waterfall that trickled into a pool
at the front centre of the stage. As overblown as a Hammer horror flick
as it was, there was something child-like there too, as if Dr Phibes
had rewritten Dr Seuss's equally crazed Dr T, who built a piano so big
he required five hundred small boys to play it with their five thousand
As it was, there were some twenty-two players who came on sporting an
assortment of dressing-up box vintage outfits. Hi-vis jackets and
lamp-lit hard-hats; street-corner trilbies and thrift-shop furs; Dead
End Kid caps and Sunday-best tweeds were all in the mix. They could
have been a gang of blue-collar factory trolls bashing out another
shift, or a down-at-heel busking troupe peddling for change. Once they
struck up the first notes of the instrumental Exordium: The Beginning
of a Web, however, things became even more playful in an eastern tinged
overture of bells, scrapes, pops, clangs, busy percussive flourishes
and fairground organ wheezes which at moments appeared to threaten to
break into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, at others into Loony Tunes
style cartoon cavalcades.
What followed was a Frankenstein's monster of two knitted-together
narratives fused at the hip by a mid-section Sanctus. The first, taken
from a Japanese Noh play, concerned a pilgrim in search of a shrine who
finds reconciliation through death. The second, On an African Theme,
told of a deaf hobo's quarrel with an old woman and the legal battle
that follows. It was the delivery that counted, however, as Ensemble
MusikFabrik proceeded to leap, not just from instrument to instrument,
but to acting out the scenarios with pantomimic glee by way of an
eye-popping display of quirky choreography, massed Yo-heave-ho/Follow
The Yellow Brick Road style chorales and dry ice.
Hooded figures knelt in a line facing away from the audience to pay
homage as part of some tribal ritual, while each scene was captioned a
la Brecht using a retro cinema style light box display. Not since Brix
Smith clambered aboard a giant hamburger on the stage in choreographer
Michael Clark's collaboration with The Fall in I Am Curious, Orange on
the same King's Theatre stage in 1988 has Edinburgh seen such a display
of serious fun on such a grand scale.
At times it sounded akin to the spirit, at least, of the 1970s
collaborations between playwright and actor Sam Shepard and theatre
director Joseph Chaikin. Originally performed by Chaikin, Tongues and
Savage/Love fused words, physicality and an (improvised) percussion and
flute score that one imagines Part wild horse mane on both sides might
also have had a hand in had they been around. There are shades too of
Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann at their most urgently martial.
Delusions of the Fury's second half was shot through with
prat-fallingly good-humoured physicality, both in the musical playing
and the Jungle Book joie de vivre of the performances. Cosmic-ancient
science-fiction warriors square up to each other on a slow revolve in
front of the fountain. Stuffed toy farm animals wrapped in bin bags and
tape line the stage. Lights on tripods sway and bend like giant
metronomes or dancing palm trees. Then, inbetween the flute-like
trills, jaw harp and some heavy marimba-style action, a giant cut-out
of a smiling Colonel Sanders takes centre stage, only for his eyes to
be blinded by way of a pot of day-glo pink paint. Of course.
In terms of concept, Delusion of the Fury was akin to spending a night
in both Partch's and Goebbels' heads. In its increasing euphoria, it
was also a gloriously audacious staging of a vital and era-defining
work that needs to be witnessed as much as heard.
The Quietus - September 2nd 2014