More Partch…by Harry Himself

Partch cover

THE WORLD OF HARRY PARTCH / PARTCH: Daphne of the Dunes. Barstow: 8 Hitchhiker Transcriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. Castor & Pollux / Harry Partch, kithara/surrogate kithara/chromolodeon/cloud-chamber bowls/gourdtree/ marimba/boo/bass/voc; Dean Drummond, Emil Richards, Frank Berberich, Gary Coleman, John McAllister, Linda Schell, Michael Ranta, Richard Lapore, Michael McCormick, Todd Miller, adapted vla / Columbia MS 7207, available for download or free streaming on or for free download & streaming on YouTube

Partch Delusion of the Fury

PARTCH: Delusion of the Fury / Harry Partch, zither; Jonathan Glaser, fl/perc/dm/claves; Linda Schell, adapted gtr/kithara/zither/marimba/chromatic org/ugumbu/claves; John McAllister, chromatic org I & II/Bolivian fl/ugumbu/claves; Danlee Mitchell, cloud chamber bowls/marimba/boo/chromatic org/zither/xyl/Bolivian double fl/dm / Columbia M2 30576, LP, available for free streaming on YouTube

For most classical listeners, Harry Partch is still persona non grata and his music still a confused enigma. This is mostly because of its microtonal bias, which upsets and confuses most people, but in part because while he was creating his own microtonal keyboard instruments (pianos, harpsichords and organs) in the late 1920s he was also creating his own method of composition, which does not follow prescribed rules. In the comments section under the extraordinary video of his Noh drama Delusion of the Fury is this comment from one musical snob:

Nothing special compared to Varèse, Stockhausen, Ruzicka, Boulez, Schaeffer, Henry, Xenakis, Glass or Reich. He is just one contemporary composer amongst others. It seems to me that you have never heard any other contemporary musician.

Which completely misses the point. Most of these composers did not write in or play microtonal music, and the few that did—among them György Ligeti, which the poster does not include—were standing on his shoulders. More to the point, some of these composers he mentions, particularly Varèse and Stockhausen but also Penderecki, wrote purposely ugly music intended to shock the listener. Partch wrote music that followed the speech patterns of everyday American life, particularly reflecting his long stretches during which he lived among hobos and street people. Of course, his music didn’t appeal much to them any more than it appealed to the academics, so by the time he made these recordings in 1968 and 1970 he was a lost soul, bitter from lack of recognition and still struggling to find an audience. Ironically, his biggest fans during this period were the stoned-out Hippies who dropped acid or smoked pot and found his music great to listen to while stoned, but Partch’s music is a psychedelic high without one having to use psychedelic drugs.

I found the first album by searching for the later version of Barstow as mentioned in the new Bridge release of Harry playing his earlier version of the piece. Much to my surprise and delight, the album was uploaded complete on YouTube. But then, in the suggested videos next to it, I also discovered Delusion of the Fury, so I decided to review that one as well.

Partch violaListening to the opening selection on the first album, Daphne of the Dunes, I was struck by one other thing I hadn’t noticed before, and that was how much some of his music sounded, rhythmically, like that of Moondog (Louis Hardin), another American iconoclast but, for some reason, one who is more accepted and acceptable to most people. This is largely due to the fact that, as he himself admitted, Moondog was “rhythmically avant-garde but harmonically reactionary.” He also wrote perfect fugues and canons while Partch took those forms apart and put them back together again his own way, which still upsets the Acamademics (yes, I purposely misspelled that to irk them). There’s a certain in-your-face quality to Partch’s music that also drives them crazy, but in a sense Partch was a Space-Age musical pioneer at a time when people were still brutally upset over the innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky (and of course, many still are), so there wasn’t much chance that his music would find an audience until the Space Age.

The other interesting aspect of Partch’s music is how some of it falls gratefully on the ear despite its way-out sonorities and highly syncopated rhythms. This was because he was, early on, an avid student of early (pre-Renaissance) music and knew almost as much about it as its more legitimate practitioners such as the Dolmetsch family or Ben Stad and his early music group (sadly, now completely forgotten except by record collectors). In a sense, then, Partch was both a pioneer and a reactionary who dismissed the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras as too much involved with harmony and complex classical form and not enough involved with more primal musical instincts. There are elements of belly dance and other Eastern influences in this music, which again was far ahead of its time, particularly for an American composer.

Partch was also highly concerned with sonority, not as an adjunct to his style of composition but as a major component of it. The actual sound of those gongs, bells, chromatic keyboards, kitharas, cloud chamber bowls, boos and chromatically sliding violas was as much a part of the music as the notes and rhythms being played. Of course, there were some pioneer classical composers who experimented successfully in creating a 3-D sound even within the formal classical tradition, among them Spontini, Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler, but Partch went several steps further, and this, too, upsets both the casual listeners and acamademics.

Even by comparison with the wonder chamber group of chromatic musicians known as Partch, Harry’s own performances have a certain insouciance and swagger that’s difficult to duplicate. The difference comes from, you might say, outsiders trying to replicate what he did and an original for whom this was as natural as breathing. By the same token, only a few modern musicians, among them pianist Joanne MacGregor, have had much success in channeling the weird energy that one hears in original Moondog compositions. Those who took the time to read my brief appreciation of The Beatles will get what I mean. It’s the same reason why almost no one else’s arrangements of Beatles songs sound nearly as good as the originals. It wasn’t just the specific timbre of the Beatles’ instruments and voices that made their recordings so wonderful to hear but also the arrangements themselves—sometimes simple, sometimes complex—all judiciously edited by Lennon and/or McCartney to fit their very specific style that made their recordings sound better and more interesting than any remakes. But an original like Harry Partch could take his own earlier material, expand on it, and create something that was different but equally interesting. This certainly applies to Barstow, which is richer in texture and more complex in form (particularly the echoing of the spoken lines in song) than the original.

The second side of the Columbia LP, and the second half of this little Partch concert, is taken up with Castor & Pollux which is divided into eight sections as follows:

a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

a – Leda and the Swan
b – Conception
c – Incubation
d – Chorus of Delivery From the Egg

A description is given in the original LP liner notes by Danlee Mitchell:

CASTOR & POLLUX is a dance-theater work with a beguiling program. It is structured in two large sections, each section comprised of three duets and a tutti. The first section is entitled CASTOR, the second, POLLUX. The first duet of each section is titled Leda and the Swan (insemination); the second, Conception; the third, Incubation; and the tutti, Chorus of Delivery From the Egg. By its contrapuntal texture, CASTOR & POLLUX shows well the melodic capabilities of the instruments, and the two tutti section grand finales to the glory of birth. In the liner notes to PLECTRA & PERCUSSION DANCES, first issued by Partch on his own GATE 5 record label, he relates the story:

“It begins with the encounter of Zeus, the male swan, with the beautiful Leda, and ends with the hatching of the fertilized eggs–first Castor, then Pollux. From the moment of insemination, each egg uses exactly 234 beats in cracking. All of the right heavenly houses are in conjunction, and misfortune is impossible. Pairs of instruments tell the story in characteristic ways.”

The notes also provide us with an excellent technical description of Partch’s compositional methods by the composer himself:

The major contribution of Monophony [Partch’s name for his system] as an intonational system is its realization of a subtle and acoustically precise interrelation of tonalities, all stemming or expanding from unity, 1/1. This interrelation is not capable of manifold modulations to “dominants” or to any other common scale degrees; it is not capable of parallel transpositions of intricate musical structures; it does not present any tone as any specific tonality identity. Conversely, it is capable of both ordinary and hitherto unheard modulations to the natural limits imposed by Just Intonation and the arbitrary limit of 11; it is capable of an expanded sense of tonality, from Identities 1-3-5 to Identities 1-3-5-7-9-11. It is capable of great variety in that expanded sense; it does offer twenty-eight possible tonalities, more than are inherent in Equal Temperament, and therefore a greater total of tonality identities; or assumable senses, that does Equal Temperament.

So there you go. Straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Interestingly, Partch’s use of the simplest rhythmic cell, 1/1, is exactly the same used by that of avant-garde jazz composer Henry Threadgill, whom one must also cite as a descendant of Partch’s extraordinary musical aesthetic.

As for Delusion of the Fury, subtitled A Ritual of Dream and Delusion, this was in part designed as a way of striking back at the musical academics for their decades of ignoring or demeaning him. In the opening part of the film, we see close-ups of his various instruments including a percussion contraption which he called Spoils of War. At about the 3:10 mark in the film we hear a definite Middle Eastern belly-dance sort of rhythm. The music grows increasingly more complex rhythmically while the film version shows stills of performers wearing Japanese Noh-styled masks and costumes interspliced with the performance itself. Ironically, the soundtrack of the film is pristine and clear as a bell, but the video portion is blurry and muddy. Once again, the original LP liner notes are helpful in understanding Partch’s intentions:

Partch’s own words, prefacing his elaborate and complicated score, help to establish what he has called “all the information that I thought might be necessary to a performance:”

“STATEMENT: Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing – of seeing and hearing. The concept of this work inheres in the presence of the instruments on stage, the movements of musicians and chorus, the sounds they produce, the actuality of actors, of singers, of mimes, of lights; in fine, the actuality of truly integrated theater. These introductory pages consist largely of technical data. They contain no argument, no exposition. I feel that the only investigation that has genuine integrity is the seen and heard performance.

“SYNOPSIS: It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The ‘Exordium’ is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end – with the supplication ‘Pray for me!’ – he finds reconciliation.

“There is nowhere, from the beginning of the ‘Exordium’ to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but – due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness – a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, ‘fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.”

“Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, ‘Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?,’ and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.”

One can easily infer from this scenario Partch’s own anger at the judgments of his music by the academic establishment, who he considered “both deaf and nearsighted.” Some of the mime actors in the video are excellent; Partch made it clear that if they were also musicians, they must find a way to move without bumping into any of the larger contraptions onstage, but several roles are for Noh actors/dancers who do not play at all.

As the music becomes faster and more complex, all attempts at entertaining the listener disappear. This is Partch’s edgiest, longest and most dramatic score; there is no room in it for entertainment except on a higher plane. At the 56-minute mark, when black dancers are involved, the music sounds more African. Partch also splices in some scenic views of the ocean, ostensibly shown on a screen during the performance.

Partch LP labelThe entire work, which runs 72 minutes in the film but a little over 74 minutes in the commercial recording, was issued by Columbia on four LP sides which divided it up to roughly 18 ½ minutes per side—a waste of vinyl. They then compounded their error by issuing another LP on which Partch explained and played his individual instruments. This made it a three-LP set and, to make matters worse, they put it out on their more expensive (and prestigious) Masterworks label, which made it a pretty expensive investment, particularly for those who may have wanted to sample Partch’s piece but weren’t willing to shell out close to $20 in 1970 dollars for it. And, of course, neither of these Partch albums have been re-released on CD; the first is only available as MP3 downloads through Yet another reason to hate record companies.

One of the more fascinating aspects of watching the video of Delusion of the Fury is that Partch was a pioneer in the merging of modern music with dance and mime elements, an aspect of his work that goes back at least to Oedipus from 1952 and his dance satire, The Bewitched, from 1955. Benjamin Britten took this concept a step further in the 1970s with his opera Death in Venice, the production of which combined not only operatic singing and acting but also mimed characters, projections on a screen behind the performers, and the piped-in voice of Apollo from above. But once again, Harry Partch was the pioneer. By the 50-minute mark, Delusion of the Fury has almost become a modern microtonal ballet scene similar to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps. Well, what the hell, there are still thousands of people who detest Sacre.

For me, these are indispensable recordings of Partch’s music. If you enjoy him, I urge you to listen and/or watch these performances.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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