Sunday 31 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Delusion of the Fury, or, The Return of the Brilliant, Unclassifiable musikFabrik

The German ensemble musikFabrik were first seen at the International Festival last year with a tribute to Frank Zappa. It was one of the highlights of the programme. So I was delighted that Jonathan Mills made sure to invite them back immediately, this time with this bizarre but fabulous piece of music theatre. It was great to see a more youthful audience than usual at an International Festival performance, and a fuller Stalls overall at the King's, and there is food for thought for the Festival about timing of such performances and advertising, marketing and flyering which if such a performance had taken place earlier in the three weeks could have been used to encourage this element in the audience to try something more mainstream in the programme.

But to get back to Delusion of the Fury itself. It is a piece by the twentieth century American maverick Harry Partch. Partch, as the programme makes clear, was very much a loner who rejected just about all of the classical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – though I actually did not find his musical world as challenging to engage with as I thought in advance could be the case. In carving out his own distinctive path one of his major actions was to design his own instruments with a heap of bizarre names (ranging from the Adapted Viola to the Blo-Boy). One of the most remarkable achievements of this show is the work of Thomas Meixner (predominantly) in building new versions of these instruments (based on the only extant full set now in New Jersey which for preservation  reasons can no longer be used for performances). The result is an absolute visual feast. Some of these are outwardly familiar – the two organlike creations that stood at the front corners of the stage. Others, like the set of glass lampshades at the back, or the rows of what look like up-ended coloured bottles, or the giant bellows are very unfamiliar. The members of musikFabrik showcase their impressive versatility, moving about amongst their orchestra with grace and agility – one of the biggest pleasures of the performance is the simple joy of watching these remarkable creations being played. It is certainly some way away, and pleasurably so, from what can sometimes be the rather buttoned up environment of the concert hall.

The musical sound world is, as I've already said, not so alien as you might imagine. The closest kin I could think of was the American minimalists. An important principle seems to be that there should be a constant cushion of sound – often provided by basic rhythmic gesture on one of the percussion instruments, or a low drone from the organs, or atmospheric plucking from one of the strings. On top of this you can build the lyrical or the driven rhythm depending on the mood desired. The piece does break into distinct segments while also retaining a sense of wholeness. I'm not sure how effective this sound world would be over 75 minutes without the visual component, and the elements of story, but as one element in an original music theatre piece it works excellently.

That musical theatre piece is the kind of thing which under other circumstances, as with one or two other shows this year, might well have had me grinding my teeth in fury. That's to say the narrative is very fragmented. In the first part, heavily Noh influenced, two figures (possibly a father and son) replay a fight in which one kills the other. In the second, a herder appears to be trying to add a hobo to her band of sheep (another beautiful piece of visual design), they quarrel, and a rather bizarre trial ensues. It certainly isn't coherent, yet it manages to beguile and amuse – the whole of the ensemble declaiming irritably “Why doesn't she just go away?” and the ironic aside “What would we do without justice” are especially nice moments.

Then there are other visual elements I haven't yet mentioned. Water, fire, smoke and light are all used to lovely effect. The choreography is bewitching. The slow inflation of what I presume is supposed to be a giant white sun (I'm not quite sure about the black tentacles) is another clever touch. Costuming is nicely witty from the eclectic mix of hats to the traffic wardens. Director Heiner Goebbels and his team particularly Klaus Grunberg (scenography & lighting), Florence von Gerkan (costumes) and Florian Bilbao (choreography) have all done their work superbly. This really is, magnificently, a total art work.

After last year I urged other Festivals and organisations in the UK to book Ensemble musikFabrik. As far as I'm aware Edinburgh still has the British monopoly. This is a show that deserves a wider life on tour (at the moment it seems to be just appearing in Edinburgh and at the Ruhrtriennale – the Barbican would be an especially good place for it). Other Festivals like the Proms and Aldeburgh should be booking musikFabrik for Zappa or other modern music. In the meantime we can only hope that Fergus Linehan is lining them up for future Edinburgh appearances, rather than feeling he must make a completely new start as incoming director. Overall a stunning conclusion to what has been a very strong 2014 Festival.

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