Partch is part and par­cel to the ef­fort

Anne LeBaron’s ‘ LSD: The Opera,’ a work in progress, makes for pow­er­ful theater.


On April 19, 1943, a Swiss chemist in Basel treated him­self to a small sam­ple of a fungi- based sub­stance, LSD- 25, and rode his bi­cy­cle home, tak­ing the f irst acid trip. A month ear­lier, a one­time hobo who had just built a 43- tone or­gan in Chicago and was bum­ming around the East Coast won a Guggen­heim grant, giv­ing in­sti­tu­tional cre­dence to his trip- py mu­si­cal ex­plo­rations.

Al­bert Hof­mann’s “Bi­cy­cle Day” and Harry Partch’s Carnegie Hall de­but a year later, when he demon­strated his fan­tas­ti­cal in­stru­ments and mi­cro­tonal scale to the main­stream New York mu­si­cal com­mu­nity, are two his­toric mo­ments in ex­per­i­men­tal mind- bending. All that makes Anne LeBaron’s “LSD: The Opera,” which uses Partch in­stru­ments and nat­u­rally opens with Bi­cy­cle Day, a match made in psychedelia.

To the ex­tent that one can trust per­cep­tion about any­thing that has to do with LSD, that does ap­pear to be the case with the five scenes from LeBaron’s opera in

progress per­formed Fri­day and Satur­day nights as part of the an­nual Partch con­cert at REDCAT in Los An­ge­les. But it is a match that could re­ally hap­pen only here and now, seven decades later and thou­sands of miles away.

We’ve needed time and dis­tance to get the per­spec­tive that both “LSD” and Partch, the Los An­ge­les­based ensem­ble that has been painstak­ingly, slowly build­ing a new set of Partch in­stru­ments over the last decade, bril­liantly il­lu­mi­nate.

The ensem­ble got its own in­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion when it won a Grammy this year for its star­tlingly vis­ceral first com­plete record­ing of “Plec­tra and Per­cus­sion Dances,” theater pieces from the early 1950s. For the REDCAT pro­gram, the play­ers set the scene for LeBaron’s opera scenes with four small, ap­pro­pri­ately bizarre Partch works writ­ten dur­ing LSD’s f irst decade and us­ing Partch in­stru- ments such as a gi­gan­tic marimba and cloud cham­ber bowls.

The ear­li­est, the “Yan­kee Doo­dle Fan­tasy,” for crazy col­oratura so­prano, tin whis­tles ( played mi­cro­ton­ally), oboe and Partch in­stru­ments, is a mad­cap re- con­struc­tion of Amer­i­cana that hap­pened to be pre­miered in that 1944 con­cert at Carnegie Cham­ber Mu­sic Hall and may well be the most psy­che­delic score that had yet been writ­ten. The New York au­di­ence de­manded it to be re­peated. Kris­ten Ash­ley Wi­est, the so­prano at REDCAT, demon­strated why.

It was a screw­ball f irst half. Dressed as a cop, gui­tarist John Sch­nei­der, the founder of Partch, put a stop to “Ulysses at the Edge of the World” by ar­rest­ing the per­form­ers, as the com­poser in­structed. Sch­nei­der also de­claimed “Two Set­tings From Lewis Car­roll,” a jit­tery Jab­ber­wocky. “Sonata De­men­tia,” with a cen­tral “Scherzo Schizophre­nia” and f inal “Al­le­gro Para­noia,” is an ex­cep­tional early es­say in clas­si­cal mu­sic flat­u­lence.

The Partch literature shows no in­di­ca­tion that Partch used LSD or needed it. But he cer­tainly inf lu­enced the acid gen­er­a­tion of the ’ 60s on the West Coast. ( He born in Oak­land and lived in Cal­i­for­nia from the early ’ 50s un­til his death in 1973.) His con­certs at Mills Col­lege in Oak­land and at UCLA, in par­tic­u­lar, were bea­cons for stoned au­di­ences.

The f ive scenes LeBaron has com­pleted, which she calls “LSD: The Opera” ( but which she says in the notes will take the less ef­fec­tive ti­tle of “Love, Sex and Death”), con­cern the pe­riod lead­ing to that acid gen­er­a­tion.

Af­ter Hof­mann’s bi­cy­cle trip, she deals with the CIA’s top- se­cret MK Ul­tra pro­gram to mar­shal LSD as a weapon of mind con­trol. There is a scene be­tween Ti­mothy Leary, who turned on Washington so­cialite Mary Pin­chot Meyer, who then al­legedly turned on Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

A cen­tral f ig­ure is nov­el­ist and es­say­ist Al­dous Hux­ley, an early ad­vo­cate of psy­che­delic drugs. Col­ors are what mat­ter, not masses, Hux­ley sings in a scene taken from his inf lu­en­tial 1954 book, “The Doors of Per­cep­tion,” while the Partch in­stru­ments turn color and mass into the same sonic thing. In the f inal, mov­ing scene, Hux­ley’s wife ad­min­is­ters the dose for his last trip, on his deathbed, Nov. 22, 1963, while a TV set in the dis­tance car­ries the news of JFK’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

LeBaron has been rolling out her own tabs of “LSD” grad­u­ally. The f irst and last of these scenes were given ear­lier this year, and two other scenes have since been tried out. She now has a third of the opera, an hour’s worth of mu­sic, which will need re­fin­ing.

Bal­ances be­tween singers, the Partch in­stru­ments, a string quin­tet and pi­ano seemed the big­gest prob­lem Satur­day, es­pe­cially with in­con­sis­tent am­pli­fi­ca­tion. REDCAT has a ver­sa­tile acous­tic, but few seem to take ad­van­tage of that. ( The am­pli­fi­ca­tion for a per­for­mance of Los An­ge­les Opera’s “Dog Days” last Mon­day was far worse.)

These are small things. Even this par­tial dose of “LSD” is al­ready pow­er­ful mu­sic theater. The li­bretto by Gerd Stern, Ed Rosen­feld and LeBaron has a sense of vivid au­then­tic­ity. The drug

is, more­over, given an in­trigu­ing fem­i­nist spirit. A trio of fe­male singers per­son­ify LSD and the ex­pe­ri­ence it pro­vides. Pin­chot Meyer and Laura Hux­ley serve as the true guid­ing spir­its to the needy, lech­er­ous Leary and Al­dous Hux­ley. The Partch in­stru­ments pro­vide the per­fect com­ple­ment for a sub­stance of mys­te­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal, psy­chic and so­cial power.

The f inal proof in this psy­che­delic pud­ding was a f irst- rate per­for­mance, which in­cluded Ash­ley Faa­toalia as Hof­mann, Timur Bek­bo­sunov as a CIA agent and Leary, Laura Bohn as Pin­chot Meyer and Lucy Shel­ton as Laura Hux­ley. And, of course, the es­sen­tial Partch.

Hal Wells Los An­ge­les Times

JAMES HAY­DEN, left, and Timur Bek­bo­sunov per­form in Anne LeBaron’s opera in progress.

THE LOS AN­GE­LES- BASED Partch ensem­ble has been painstak­ingly build­ing a new set of Partch in­stru­ments over the last decade.

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