David Lang, author of the whisper opera and countless other probing works, is this year's Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall. Responsible for curating a concert series this month in Carnegie's Zankel Hall, he chose to emphasize the storytelling nature of music rather than other possible themes, and rather than simply programming a bunch of his own music. The series, collected stories, offers a view into the mind of a composer with its unique array of sounds and histories. The first night, “Hero”, focused on spoken storytelling rather than music in the traditional sense. Dr Lang wrote in the program notes that “the music intensifies our hearing of the words, but hearing the words is where the action is”. The concert featured two massive tales, one medieval and one of the 20th century; one starring a warrior and the other a hobo. Neither contained much conventional melody or harmony, but both possessed a more literary sense of teleology through the narratives’ rise and fall.

Benjamin Bagby © Hillary Scott | Benjamin Bagby
Benjamin Bagby
© Hillary Scott | Benjamin Bagby

When Benjamin Bagby first settled into his seat in the center of the stage, surrounded by the quirky array of Harry Partch’s original instruments (already set up for the next piece), I wasn’t sure what to expect. As the lights dimmed and he opened his mouth, I genuinely had no idea what was going on. He was speaking – not singing – the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in Old English, with English supertitles projected onto the wall behind him. I quickly realized that the quickening or softening of his voice and the rhythm of the bizarre syllables were music in themselves. There were occasional bursts of conventional musical phrasing and lines of “notes” in the traditional sense, combined with the periodic plucking of Mr Bagby’s six-string harp. But as Dr Lang pointed out, the storytelling really occurred in the text and Mr Bagby’s telling of it.

Mr Bagby adopted the sometimes violent and sometimes humorous mannerisms of the different characters, each with their own distinct tone. In addition to singing, he laughed, whispered, grumbled, smiled, gestured, conversed, rasped and shouted. At the beginning of the third section, he portrayed a warrior from another tribe who mocked Beowulf in sing-song after a bout of drunken rambling. Later, Mr Bagby told of the “horrid surge of waves mixed with sword-gore” before ending his selection “Then hell received him”. I would have loved to continue listening to the rest of the epic (whose total length is five hours) as these segments were so engaging. Mr Bagby’s Beowulf, besides being an excellent story with which to begin the series, proved that the spoken human voice can be just as expressive and musical an instrument as the six-string harp.

So, then, were Harry Partch’s homemade instruments used just as validly as a piano would have been. After the intermission, we were treated to a performance of Partch’s opera The Wayward by the Harry Partch Institute Ensemble. The opera, which premièred exactly seventy years ago at Carnegie Hall, had its beginnings when Partch would jot down the words of hitchhikers and hobos (himself a transient) and set them to music. Aside from pioneering microtonality and just intonation, Partch would go on to create his own instruments with tunings specific to his compositions. These include the Bamboo Marimba, Bloboy, Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Kithara, and Chromelodeon, the original versions of which appeared onstage in Zankel Hall, on brief vacation from their residence at the Harry Partch Institute in New Jersey.

The musicians of the Ensemble joined the plethora of percussion instruments as video footage flickered on the screen behind them. They skipped onto the stage clad in cowboy hats, overalls and bandanas, and the tale of hitchhikers out west quickly sprang to life. The visuals behind them – grainy videos, footage of a dress rehearsal of the opera, and still images of  dusty roadsides, sunlight glaring through naked trees, and distant mountains – were almost unnecessary considering the vitality of the performers. Once again, the text – particularly the humorous letter from “Pablo” to Partch – was the driving force. Like Beowulf, The Wayward lacks any sort of traditional melody or musical movement, and the instrumental chorus of twanging, thrumming, pattering, and plunking aided the narrative rather than doing any narrating itself. And yet, from the opening train whistles to the final chanting of “Chi-ca-go”, there was never any doubt that The Wayward is a masterpiece – of music, and of storytelling.