Fascinatin’ Rhythm

Harry Partch

by Bob Gilmore
Yale University Press, 468 pp., $35.00

Indigent and homeless for many years, the American composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch, who died in 1974 at age seventy-three, made resourceful use of refuse. He patched together an odd musical style of his own from materials others had discarded. From the figurative dustbin of music history, Partch dug out arcane theories of tonality abandoned in the mid-seventeenth century—ideas outmoded when Bach established the “tempered” scale of twelve semitones—and he used them to develop idiosyncratic compositional systems based upon microtones, resulting in a range of tones much larger (and more attuned to nature) than the conventional scale allows. From literal garbage heaps, meantime, he took objects such as used laboratory bowls, beams from a dismantled bridge, empty liquor bottles, and surplus aircraft nose cones, and constructed instruments out of them that would produce notes on the scales he invented. Partch’s peculiar junkyard art has more serious aims than the popular trash aesthetic, a celebration of rubbish as kitsch. It was not that he took ironic pleasure in bad ideas and vulgar sounds; he saw merit and beauty in musical systems and in objects others had rejected, and he couldn’t bear to let them go to waste.

The experience of seeing and hearing Harry Partch’s work performed on his instruments is a singular one. More than a decade after I first saw a performance of a Partch composition, a production of the composer’s forty-minute Revelation in the Courthouse Park (conducted by Danlee Mitchell, one of the composer’s young protégés), at Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall in November 1989, I can still replay “Revelation” in my mind as if it were a primal childhood memory. A theatrical spectacle, the piece draws on two parallel stories in words and music: one, Euripides’ The Bacchae, the other an update of the same tale, this time set in postwar America, in which Dionysus is transformed into the teen idol Dion Isus. Partch’s instruments, fancifully designed concoctions built to be seen as well as heard, dominated the stage, upstaging the cast of some three dozen costumed singers, dancers, musicians, drum majorettes, and tumblers.

Several of the devices were monstrous, the size of four-cylinder cars; to play Partch’s bass marimba, a wood-scrap construction seven feet across and five feet high, a percussionist scurried back and forth, rapping its boards with his fists. Following the composer’s instructions, the musicians swayed or twirled their bodies in time and manipulated their instruments in melodramatic gestures—“I always urge my performers to either caress or rape an instrument, never to merely use it,” Partch said. Impressively, the work at the heart of all this proved worth the Herculean effort. The vocal music, which hewed closely to the inflections of spoken language, was delicate and gracefully nuanced, and the accompaniment and instrumental interludes swept around the words, buoying them up in a sea of exotic tones—the ring of glass bottles; the wavering hum of a pump organ tuned to microtones …

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