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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; the dry, brittle ping of tuned lengths of bamboo; Japanese bells muted inside hollowed gourds.

In the ten years since I saw that performance, interest in Partch has been growing, an interest largely owing to the efforts of a few Partch infatuates, music scholars of the postwar generation, and aging rock-and-rollers seeking new sources of cool. Virtually all of Partch’s recorded works have recently been issued on CD in The Harry Partch Collection, four volumes of material including most of his major compositions in performances originally supervised by Partch himself and released on his own private LP label (with the composer’s liner notes), as well as a pair of multi-CD sets called Enclosure 2 and Enclosure 5. Both are uneven collections of serious pieces and of lesser curiosities drawn from Partch’s recording archives,1 and compiled by Philip Blackburn, the enterprising young program director of the American Composers Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has also edited Enclosure 3, a fetishistic, glossy-cover scrapbook reproducing Partch’s notebook pages, drafts of music and prose pieces, doodles, and memorabilia.

Bitter Music, edited by the musicologist Thomas McGeary and published in 1991, is a more scholarly and representative anthology of Partch’s writings. It includes the title piece, a diary of an eight-month vagabond adventure on the Pacific Coast with snatches of overheard talk and graffiti set to musical notation, as well as the librettos of his six major vocal and theater works,2 essays, and his frequently self-aggrandizing lectures on his work, the evils of the musical establishment, and their mutual exclusion.

Partch’s own book Genesis of a Music, a quirky, prolix treatise on the history of musical intonation and his theories of pitch, acoustics, and instrumentation, initially published in 1949 and significantly expanded by the author for a revised edition in 1974, remains in print. The book is primarily written for musicians interested in playing the author’s music, and includes charts listing formulas for tuning the instruments and instructions for their proper maintenance. Much of the prose is pretentious and obtuse: “The shadows of music are bred in deceit—half enticing, half forbidding, with myriad degrees of light-dark infusion—true interpretation with misinterpretation.” But there’s never a lack of passion. Conductors and composers of mainstream music are “kidnappers” and “traitors,” and historical advocates of just intonation—that is, natural tones as opposed to those produced on a keyboard—are portrayed as fallen gods. Even the presentation of mathematical ratios in the charts feels reverential.

Finally two years ago, the first biography of Partch, a thorough survey of his life and work by Bob Gilmore, an English writer on music and lecturer at the Dartington College of Arts, appeared. (Still to come is a full-length documentary directed by Ray Davies, songwriter and singer for the 1960s rock band the Kinks, filmed while a group of avant-garde, jazz, and pop musicians, including Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello, used Partch’s instruments to perform music composed by the jazz bassist Charles Mingus.) What makes Partch’s life and work worthy of so much attention?

Partch clearly saw himself in much the same way as he saw his instruments. He projected an elegantly eccentric and exotic image, and he took pride in being self-made. He rethought and reconstructed his life and his past as often as he remade his most treasured musical construction, a microtonal pump organ he called the Chromelodeon, neither ever quite to his satisfaction. In his biography, however, Gilmore manages to extricate key facts of Partch’s life from his self-mythologizing.

Born in 1901 to former missionaries to China living in Oakland, Partch claimed for a time to have been a native of China, later amending the tale to claim that he had been conceived in a Boxer prison camp in Shantung Province (which was unlikely). He studied piano as a child and proved adept enough by adolescence to accompany silent films in Albuquerque, where he learned a youthful lesson in music’s power of salvation: though Partch was frail, the local toughs resisted their inclination to pick fights with him so as to preserve his fingers and good music at the movies.

After moving to Los Angeles on his own at age eighteen, Partch briefly attended the University of Southern California, picked up work on and off as a newspaper proofreader, and began composing conventional classical-style pieces for piano and symphony orchestra. He promptly rejected conventional composition—driven, no doubt, by his failure in classical music as well as, he insisted, by an impulse to make a different sort of music. “Call it intuitive,” he wrote in Genesis of a Music, “for it was not the result of any intellectual desire to pick up lost or obscure historical threads. For better or for worse, it was an emotional decision.”

Partch proceeded, nonetheless, to poke around for those threads, studying the history of intonation in Los Angeles libraries. He discovered the early proponents of just intonation: the Roman philosopher and mathematician Archytas, a friend of Plato; Euclid, whose formulas served as the foundation of Partch’s scales; King Fang, a Chinese thinker of the second century BC; and Ptolemy, the Alexandrine after whom Partch would name one of his most beloved instruments. (As he makes clear in Genesis of a Music, Partch was also conversant with the work of later theorists and experimenters who explored the possibilities of microtones within equal temperament—that is, tones within the twelve semitones—such as R.H.M. Bosanquet and Colin Brown, both of whom predated Partch in the early twentieth century.) In later years, he would describe this process (shifting the time frame back a bit) with the characteristic arrogance of an autodidact:

In 1919, as I recall, I had virtually given up on both music schools and private teachers, and had begun to ransack public libraries, doing suggested exercises and writing music free from the infantilisms and inanities of professors as I had experienced them…. Before I was twenty, I had tentatively rejected both the intonational system of modern Europe and its concert system.

Partch had a flair for characterization, especially his own, and an affection for the dramatic gesture. Following his “musical discovery” in the Los Angeles libraries, as he would recall in subsequent decades, he gathered every composition he had written to that point (including an unfinished piano concerto, a symphonic poem rejected by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and some attempts at writing popular songs) and conducted a ritual burning on his apartment stove.

His missionary-turned-Christian-Scientist mother may have instilled his sense of sacrifice as an ennobling force; though Gilmore never addresses this theme directly, it is key to understanding Partch. Once he began work in his own systems of intonation, which employ mathematical ratios to divide one octave into as many as forty-three almost imperceptibly distinct tones, Partch found the musical establishment slow to accept his ideas, and he wore his outsider status as a badge of honor. He collected newspaper reviews of the few performances he gave at small recitals, and retyped the critical passages to which he added meticulous citations, leaving out the praise. Although he could proofread or type whenever he needed money, he took up menial labor and lived in and out of indigence, as if to dramatize his victimization. “I lay on Imperial Beach [near the Mexican border in San Diego] without food—because I was determined to have surcease from continual begging for my music,” Gilmore quotes Partch as recalling. For nearly eight years beginning in 1935 (and occasionally later in his life), Partch was homeless. He hitchhiked and rode rails around the West and Midwest, worked in fields with other itinerants, and slept in transient shelters and work camps, all with his eye trained toward posterity.

Partch kept fastidious notes on his daily experiences, which he would presently use as source material for two major projects. The prose diary “Bitter Music” was the first of these (it includes some musical notation, hence Partch’s inclusion of the work in some of his lists of compositions), a conventionally self-righteous, though often coarsely funny, Depression-era complaint against the period’s social ills. (“Today I have bitter thoughts as I wander from one line of red tape waiting to another,” Partch wrote. And, “Considering the constitution of our society, I feel that an artist might as well give up who isn’t blessed either with a substantial dependable income or a substantial dependable ring dang doo.”)

  1. 1

    The serious pieces include two suites for voice and instruments, Barstow: Eight Hitch-hikers’ inscriptions from a highway Railing in Barstow, California, and U.S. Highball, and the scores to his theater extravaganzas Revelation in the Courthouse Park and The Bewitched. The lesser curiosities include weak exercises such as Dark Brother, two paragraphs of text from Thomas Wolfe’s short story “God’s Lonely Man” set to music for intoned voice and small ensemble, and missteps such as “While My Heart Keeps Beating Time,” a sentimental popular song Partch wrote under the pseudonym Paul Pirate in 1929.

  2. 2

    U.S. Highball: A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip, Oedipus, The Bewitched, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, Water! Water!, and Delusion of the Fury.

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