Ensemble musikFabrik: Delusion of the Fury – King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 29 Aug
Awesome musical theatre with Japanese and Ethiopian influences, featuring Harry Partch's innovative instruments
Leaving western scales, recognisable instruments and pretty much every other cosy music convention at the door, Delusion of the Fury is a pretty exhausting musical undertaking to stage. Composer Harry Partch was one of the generation of American visionary musicians who sought to reinvent music from the ground up, which for Partch meant abandoning the 12-note octave entirely and devising his own 43-tone scale, which in turn required designing and building his own series of instruments capable of playing it.
With the instruments used in the piece's original 1969 performance now too fragile to move, Cologne's Ensemble musikFabrik, who performed their Tribute to Frank Zappa at EIF 2013, spent three years alone on building replica versions to play it on. The resultant sound, which isn't as cacophonous as this backstory might suggest, is certainly alien enough to most ears to seem entirely outside of any tradition, and raises endless series of WTF? questions. How do you write it down? How can you commit it to memory? How do you rehearse it?
Staging this music/theatre hybrid involves 22 costumed Ensemble musikFabrik musicians moving around a stage crowded with the unique and mesmerising collection of glass bells, wooden tubes and multi-layered xylophones that make up the set. Beyond the instruments themselves, the set also includes inflatable polythene shapes, lights perched on metronome-style pendulums and sheep fashioned from carpet and gaffa tape. A huge water feature running through the whole thing adds to the absurdity. The section titled 'The Quiet Hobo Meal' features a pan of water being brought to boil on a camping stove sitting in a pool of water, centre stage. One particular instrument, Marimba Eroica (they all have crazy names), could be described as several huge single xylophone keys fashioned from giant MDF boxes the size of a mattress on its side which, when struck with a football-sized mallet, emits a bass frequency deep enough to be felt internally.
This sprawling stage set and the large scale of the instruments means the business of playing the music is a theatre in itself, with these imposing contraptions – most of which are hit, struck or otherwise interacted with in a very physical way – being played by the musicians using movements as purposeful as those found in dance. Amid this, there's also the actual theatre, telling a tale of a pilgrim seeking penance for murder, the murdered man and his son. Consciously drawing from Japanese Noh theatre and Ethiopian myth, there are also echoes throughout of Brechtian theatre techniques and Greek drama. There's also an absurd humour. At one point, The Colonel (the Kentucky Fried Chicken one) gets defaced using bright pink paint.
The sheer spectacle and unrepeatable nature of Delusion of the Fury could threaten to makes it difficult to engage with beyond goggle-eyed admiration for effort and energy expended in staging the thing – it's little surprise that the biggest cheer of the curtain call is for the instrument builder. The engaged physical nature of the performance prevents it being purely cerebral and abstract however, and ensures it's in no way exhausting for the audience. With barely a conventional instrument to be seen or heard, and a wilful desire in the composer to make a wholly new kind of music theatre, scope for a hummable tune is understandably limited, yet the haunting ascending and descending recurring motif played on a variant or the hammered dulcimer sticks in your head for days.
King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 29 Aug.