In Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, there’s a scene where the children of Whoville “spin their trumtookas” and “slam their slooslunkas”, “beat their blumbloopas” and “whack their whowonkas,” joyfully playing on a variety of whimsical musical instruments and noisemakers. Dr Seuss’ imaginings evoke a fleeting sense of farce; however, the instruments constructed by instrument craftsman Thomas Meixner for Ensemble Musikfabrik command reverence and provided the basis for a vivifying and potent shift into the world of Harry Partch at the Lincoln Center Festival. Under the direction of Heiner Goebbels, Ensemble Musikfabrik’s 22 multifaceted percussionist-vocalist-actor musicians executed an industrious performance of Partch’s magnum opus, The Delusion of the Fury.

<i>Delusion of the Fury</i> at Lincoln Center © Stephanie Berger
Delusion of the Fury at Lincoln Center
© Stephanie Berger

Designed by Partch and built between 2011-2013 by Meixner, this menagerie of instruments was conceived throughout the composer's life, the earliest originating from the 1930s, and are tuned to a 43-tone scale. The instruments, with names like the Chromelodeon and the Eucal Blossom, reflect the composer’s rejection of the dominant traditions of European tonality and musicianship in the early 20th century. Partch was adamant in the idea of not concealing musicians and instruments to a pit, so he instead integrated the ensemble into the stage itself. Klaus Grünberg’s set design, and especially effective lighting design, evoked a newfangled world of dulcet enigma. Four tall rods with illuminating orbs were positioned among the forest of Partch’s unique instruments, and a flowing stream slithered across the stage to complete the transformation from a well-arranged band to an artificial wilderness.

The overall costume designs by Florence von Gerkan alluded to the composer's life as a hobo; the musicians donned “mismatched” items of clothing, layered jackets, and blankets. Each member of the ensemble wore a headband light that served a functional purpose while visually pairing with those clothed in safety vests, creating an industrial atmosphere. Whether it was intentional or not, the vagrant aesthetic in costuming contrasted greatly with the richly engineered instruments themselves, and this particular duality alludes to Partch’s own abundance of musical genius that developed throughout his life as a penniless wanderer.

<i>Delusion of the Fury</i> at Lincoln Center © Stephanie Berger
Delusion of the Fury at Lincoln Center
© Stephanie Berger

In terms of narrative, The Delusion of the Fury is straightforward. The first act follows the story of the Japanese Noh play Atsumori in which the ghost of a slain warrior reconciles with his son and the man who killed him, a tragedy that illuminates Partch’s own desire for reconciliation with the world. The work begins with glissandi on the harmonic canon (a kind of flat harp with 44 strings), wide bellows from Cloud-Chamber Bowls (hung upside-down to peal bell-like tones when struck with a mallet) and accented plucking from the koto, ultimately created the atmosphere of feudal Japan. The beginning motif, which recurs at key points repeatedly in the first act, articulates Partch’s thorough conception of form. His fixed structures set him aside from aleatoric contemporaries like Cage and Boulez, and musicians who perform his work must demonstrate focus and dexterity, two qualities that every single musician manifested in this production. Throughout the work, the musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik executed technically demanding mallet work, specifically on the marimbas, hammered harmonic canons, and the Cloud-Chamber Bowls. Though the musicians were not identified in the program by the instrument(s) they played, these particular players deserve the sincerest praise.

Partch was increasingly interested in human speech as a form of music in his journey as a hobo, and he mapped out the speech patterns of the people he met. This is reflected in the second act, which follows an Ethiopian folktale that plays with the idea of miscommunication. A mother in search of her lost child asks for help from a deaf man who unintentionally points her in the right direction. She returns to thank the deaf man, but instead a quarrel ensues. The two are put on trial as a married couple by a blind-deaf judge (masked in this production by a giant cut-out of fried chicken icon Colonel Sanders) who instructs them to take their child and be gone. Each time the mother spoke with the deaf man, only her mouth moved while virtuosic patterns were beat out on mallet instruments to represent indiscernible speech. The ensemble successfully highlighted the slapstick undertones of the second act, and it made for an amusing contrast to the first. This versatility of character displayed by Ensemble Musikfabrik emphasizes their sophistication as both musicians and storytellers.