Another hero, another hobo.
Harry Partch stands alone as the most creative, individual, and iconoclastic musician of the entire 20th century. He reinvented music, starting with it’s foundation: the scale. Tossing aside the familiar 12-tone octave familiar to western ears, Partch invented a 43-tone octave. Which meant, of course, that he had to build all his own instruments. And, of course, he had to teach people to play those instruments. In addition to this inventing, crafting, and teaching, Partch composed some of the most unique and compelling music I’ve ever heard. And, in his most-ambitious masterpiece, Delusion of the Fury (1969), he also wrote the libretto, choreographed dances and made costumes. If this begins to paint a picture of an obsessive control-freak, well, that is perhaps true; but while Harry Partch had to do everything his own way (it had never been done before), his work is never self-indulgent or pretentious — it is inclusive, relevant, and timeless.
“Harry Partch was born June 24, 1901, in Oakland, California, the third child of Presbyterian missionaries who had spent 10 years in China prior to his birth. His boyhood was spent near Tombstone, Arizona, where, despite the total lack of formal music training, he grew up surrounded by music. His mother, a woman of talent and determination, taught her children to read music and play several instruments. Young Harry, by the time he was 6, not only knew how to play the reed organ, but also the guitar, the clarinet, and the harmonica. He began to compose at 14. When the family moved to New Mexico and he received the first music lesson outside his home, he discovered in short order that he loathed formal music training as repressive and constricting. It was an antipathy that colored the rest of his life. He struck out on his own, and, in the years that followed, wrote a piano concerto, a symphonic poem, a string quartet, all in the conventional mode. To keep body and soul together, he became a proofreader, a sometime piano player, a grape picker, while he continued to compose and to search for a way to express his music. Then, at age 28, in New Orleans, he burned the whole body of his musical work of 14 years, determined to start anew, to develop for himself music that would trancend the conventions of musical composition. Its basis was the multi-tines he found in the space of the octave. It enabled him to make the first transitions ever from the human voice to the musical instrument. During the depression, Partch traveled throughout America by rail as a hobo, writing of his experiences in his music. Although he had received a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant in 1934, it wasn’t until 1943 that he received the first of the more substantial grants that made it possible for him to work and travel and to give the 1931-34 and 1943-45 performances that started to make his work known.
To this day, the difficulties surrounding a performance of Partch’s music — the complexities of training musicians to play his music on his instrumens and then to transport those large and delicate objects that cannot function properly without his personal attention — inhibit managers and impresarios.
Partch now lives quietly in Encinitas, California, in what he calls his first real home since his childhood, surrounded by the bizarre and wonderful array of instruments he has built, through which he has made, according to Jacque Barzun, “the most original and powerful contribution to dramatic music on this continent.” — Eugene Paul, from the liner notes of the original 1971 release.
His handmade instruments include some that are somewhat familiar (though adapted to play on his scales), such as modified marimbas, lap guitars, zithers, gongs, gourds, and violas. There are also some that are much less familiar: his Kitharas, based on ancient lyres; his Harmonic Canons, complex koto-like instruments, and his Chromelodeons, adapted reed organs. And there are some Partch instruments that are completely unlike any other, such as the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, made of “Pyrex chemical solution jars cut in half, suspended on a rack, and hit on sides and tops with soft mallets;” the Spoils of War, which “consists of artillery shell casings. Pyrex chemical solution jars, a high wood block and low marimba bar, spring steel flexitones (Whang Guns), and a gourd guiro”; and the Blo-Boy, a foot-pedal mechanism that acoustically reproduces the sound of a train whistle. The marvel of the Partch instruments’ sound is all-the-more marvelous when one realizes that many of them are made from common household or junkyard items.
Most innovators come from a tradition, and even if they expand that tradition, their work ultimately falls into that tradition’s evolutionary trajectory. They stand on a firmly established foundation, adding a brick to the top, or finding a place where two sides could be bridged. Partch started a whole new building. Which is not to say he did not have influences. Partch’s list of influences includes “Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes, Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among others,” (I would add to that list Japanese Kabuki and Noh theater, Southeast Asian gamelan music, ancient Greek theater, cinematography, carnivals and trains). His music is ur-world music; it is East-meets-West; it is avant-garde primitivism; it is mythic and autobiographical; it is non-generic, i.e. universal.
This music is weird. Frankly, it’s quite scary. On the first listen, pretty much everyone will be taken aback, confused, uncomfortable, even psychologically nauseous. The sounds are so alien-sounding to ears used to Western music; it is difficult to feel the tremendous amount of emotion in the music because we only hear its surface qualities. At first. Those who find this strange, out-of-comfort-zone music interesting enough to keep listening will be drawn into another world. The world of Harry Partch is complete and self-sufficient. Using Just Intonation, Partch’s instruments produce shimmering pure harmonies. And his microtonal intervals allow the music to acquire emotional shading that is simultaneously frightening and uplifting. And while Partch’s music is certainly otherworldly, it also has a quality of primeval familiarity to it — an ancient and unforgettable truth, an enchanting magic, rings through this music — which separates it from the bulk of avant-garde and experimental music.
Through all this, Harry Partch has succeeded in creating a truly moving, original art. Though it draws from many sources, it imitates none. With Delusion of the Fury, Partch synthesizes art, music, film, theater, and life into a new form of integrated musical theater. His aesthetic position is Corporeal, a music that is essentially “tactile.” And to see his intricately crafted instruments, or his musician-dancer’s outfits one realizes that Partch’s sense of beauty included all senses. And while the format of his productions was akin to musical theater, with narrative, characters, stage and all, the experience of them was more akin to a ritual — fully inclusive of the audience, and with a narrative understood to reflect everyone’s life. As Harry Partch said, “This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experienceritual.”
Delusion of the Fury | recorded 1969, released 1971 | cd; not my rip | 192 kbps mp3 | with cover
download it here. (re-re-posted Mar 26 ’08)
and please leave a comment, telling me what you thought.
The whole Enclosure series of Partch archives (8 parts: CDs, DVDs and a book) is available from innova Recordings: http://innova.mu/show_collection.aspx?collection=Harry%20Partch. This includes the CD of Delusion as well as the film of the frst performance. ~~anonymous
See the pictures of his instruments, as they appeared in the liner notes.
And find out more about just intonation here.