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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

John Kelman By

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Other artists invited to contribute to Musicity Oslo were drummer/percussionist Audun Kleive and saxophonist Froy Aagre (also on-hand at the press conference). The beauty of Musicity is that it becomes a permanent installation in the city, and all the city has to do to keep it going is make sure it is mentioned in tour guides, along with a link to where the web app can be downloaded. It is also possible to register at the Musicity site and download MP3 versions of the music, in order to listen to the music without being at the location. But there's something specifically compelling about hearing music at the location for which it was written, and with Musicity looking to expand further in Europe and into North America, it could be coming to your town sometime soon.



That evening, walking into the National Theatre, just one look at the stage was enough to suggest something special was about to happen. With instruments ranging from massive marimbas to large glass gourds, Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury was about to receive a 21st century makeover. While termed a theatre work—but not in any conventional sense—the piece was received with curiosity when it was first presented in 1969, having been composed three years prior. Its Oslo performance made clear that Partch and his composition were ahead of their time—and not just from musical or theatrical perspectives.

With some instruments so loud as to require almost no amplification, and others so quiet that they could not be heard a mere meter or two away, staging Delusion of the Fury was as much an exercise in logistics as it was a musical and theatrical effort. With over one hundred microphones (largely invisible), small stage monitors (also not seen) and two sound engineers to balance the entire soundstage for both the performers and audience, the size of the production was actually slightly more than double the 21 musicians/actors onstage, who were clothed in workers clothes and an assortment of unusual headpieces. That it took over a year to build the instruments, and just as long for the musicians to learn how to play them—all with generous funding support without which it would simply have not been possible—only made the final result something that was talked about for days after the event and will, no doubt, go down as one of Ultima's most memorable performances in its 22-year history.

The instruments were as intriguing to see as they were exotic to hear. While the concept of microtonality sounds daunting—suggesting dissonance and inaccessibility—there was no shortage of beauty in Partch's music. Despite being something of a separate entity unto himself, there were elements of Delusion that seemed connected to the emerging minimalist movement in the United States at the time of its writing, with its tuned glass and metal, in particular, redolent of the Gamelan that would so compel Steve Reich a decade later with 1976's Music for 18 Musicians.

Two tales—one, from a Japanese Noh drama about death and release from suffering, the second a more comedic Ethopian tale of ordinary life and relationships—were staged with stunning costumes and, unlike Le Grand Macabre from a few nights before, less melodramatic action. Still, no matter what they story, it was the music and impressive visual of the stage itself that made this 70-minute piece such a success. There were elements of humor (as when each member of the production brought a stuffed animal out to the front of the stage, lining them all up) and greater drama as well.



But ultimately It was the otherworldly yet thoroughly compelling nature of Partch's music that, with a great many musicians in the audience—ranging from Susanna and Helge Sten (Supersilent, Minibus Pimps) to Morten Qvenild (In The Country, pianist Kjetil Husebø and guitarist Bjørn Charles Dreyer—suggests not just a memorable performance, but one that may well have a palpable impact on these musicians' music. This may have been, for some, their first exposure to Partch, but it may turn out to be a new starting point for further exploration into the life and music of a man who may have been largely ignored in his lifetime (though he did have advocates like Frank Zappa), but who is gradually evolving into something more like a legend. As this new production hits the road, there's little doubt that it will help to elevate Partch into the upper echelon of groundbreaking 20th Century composers, where he's always belonged.

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