Harry Partch's "Oedipus"

by Barry Drogin

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We seem to be having a season of Greek Revivals here. There was "The Trojan Women" last Christmas, "The Odyssey" is on television, and a "Hercules" parade down Fifth Avenue is planned by Disney to publicize their new cartoon (well, maybe Max will like that). And last night attended the World Premiere of the 1967 "third version" of Harry Partch's "Oedipus", performed by Dean Drummond's Newband, directed by Tom O'Horgan with masks and props by Tom Lee --- probably as good a production as I am likely to ever see. Can't help comparing it to Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky's "Oedipus", which I did a long paper on back in college (follow that link, as it is now up on this website). The Cocteau/Stravinsky "Oedipus" is psychologically more satisfying, with the climax occuring at the moment Oedipus realizes that he is the guilty party. The Partch may be more faithful to the original, but basically Oedipus is told straight out by Tiresias that he is the murderer and has married his mother, whereas in the Cocteau Tiresias merely admits that "the killer of the king is a king" (well, that's the English translation). In the Partch, this makes Oedipus more a study in denial, anger and doubt, with less time for the proud, arrogant boasting of the Stravinsky. The climax of the Partch is the moment of self-inflicted blindness, which comes after a particularly furious passage for the entire ensemble.

The Partch chorus consisted of six female voices wailing vowel sounds and a male "spokesman" who sang in English. The Cocteau/Stravinsky chorus is all male, and the whole piece is in Latin, with that annoying narrator stepping in at inopportune musical junctures. The significant Partch orchestra, which included various Chromelodeons, gongs, marimbas and other invented instruments with novel tunings, was on stage and sometimes overwhelmed the singers' voices in this production. Nevertheless, a strong case was made for Partch's musical language, which was well-suited to this subject. The first version, which Partch lost the rights to, was based around a William Butler Yeats text --- since Partch's musical language evolved as he continued to the second and final third version, I suppose there will be no attempts at restoring this version when the copyrights expire. Don't know if this first version is dramatically and poetically stronger than the final version I saw, but suspect it may be.

There was only one performance, and I wouldn't bet on any plans for a tour or recording. Given that the instruments themselves only exist at SUNY Purchase, NY, other productions are not possible, but you could contact Dean Drummond at SUNY if you're interested.

For those brave enough to read this far, also saw a concert this month of music by c-opera listserv member Beth Anderson. In addition to her so-called "swales" for string quartet and other instruments, Beth performed some sound-text pieces from a decade ago. Most were effective experiments into the interaction between the meaning of word phrases and playing with the sound of the words themselves. No pitches involved, and I suspect the rhythms are not written out either, but Beth gave a wonderful performance. Hope others will look into performing these bon bons also.


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Last Updated: August 4, 2007