I have to confess to not being much acquainted with Harry Partch before this concert. I would now consider myself a fan.
Harry Partch was born was born in California in 1901 and died there seventy-three years later. Although he had no formal musical training he studied conventional Western tunings and musical techniques only to reject them in favour of the 43-note octave that he devised and the series of new instruments he invented on which to play it.
The Amsterdam based Scordatura Ensemble of the Koninlijk Conservatorium is a leading exponent and promoter of his work and their too short concert at the Korzo last night was a joyous voyage of discovery. In addition to its educational and research aspects, the Ensemble’s Rose Petal Jam project is designed to bring Partch’s early work, and that of composers he influenced, to a wider audience.
On entering the auditorium we were confronted by a stage set out like the laboratory of either Heath Robinson or Baron Frankenstein. There were glass spheres dangling from a frame, glass flasks and what appeared to be light bulbs arranged on a rack, a large woodwind instrument that looked like a hotch-potch of old cigar boxes and what appeared to be the marriage of a harp and an Arts and Crafts wardrobe. There was also a beautiful, long-necked viola. These were some of the invented instruments but there were, of course, more conventional ones like bass clarinet, guitars, recorders in various sizes and a rather incongruous electronic keyboard.
The concert was dedicated to Harry Partch but many of the compositions were brand new pieces influenced by and in homage to the American. The seven musicians clearly loved what they were doing and set about their task with great enthusiasm. There was a lot of moving around to change instruments between numbers, some of which were only a few seconds long. I was surprised that a lot of the pieces were songs, or at least using the human voice as one of the instruments. Their absurdist, almost Dadaist lyrics adding another dimension to the already rich mixture of sounds.
Unable in the early days to earn money from his work, Partch, like many others during the depression took to the road, travelling the country as a hobo. One of my favourite pieces was The Letter from 1950 which was a . . . err . . . letter from one of his old tramping friends set to music. But I think my favourite, and one which the Ensemble clearly enjoyed, was Yankee Doodle Fantasy of 1944. This had strange echoes of the Laurie Anderson event in the same room a few days earlier when she had advocated Yankee Doodle as an alternative American National Anthem.
I was very pleased indeed to have discovered the work of Harry Partch and the excellent Scordatura Ensemble. Loved every minute of the concert. Great fun. Michael Hasted 12th April 2018
If you would like to find out more about Harry Partch and the Scordatura Ensemble I would recommend you click here to check out their website.
The second half of the evening’s entertainment, Fragments of a Piano, was across the foyer in the Korzo’s Studio. Again, the stage set-up was almost an entertainment in itself, with the remnants of three or four pianos forming an attractive installation. The performance was divided into three segments, each accompanying the projection of different paintings on a large screen. The three pairs of young men took it in turns to contrive and create their sounds on the various piano fragments and also, for the first piece, a couple of bassoons. Nicely done. Michael Hasted 12th April 2018