Harry Partch worked as a dish washer and labourer, lived as a hobo and wrote some of the greatest American music of the century. Since his death in 1975 his work has been forgotten and neglected. Now that's all about to change. Joel Lewis reports from New York. This article was originally published in The Wire 123 (May 1994).
The residents of Brooklyn Heights, New York take pride in the community's literary and intellectual tradition. Walt Whitman grew up on Cranberry Street. Arthur Miller wrote Death Of A Salesman at 31 Grace Court. And, for a short time in the 1940s, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers and WH Auden lived in a boarding house at 7 Middagh Street. Auden, according to one story, used to sit at the head of the house's dinner table and announce the nightly menu: "We have a roast, two veg, a salad and a savoury. There will be no political discussion."
The arrival in Brooklyn in March of the music and instruments of Harry Partch, as part of a series of music and performance art concerts at St Ann's Church on Clinton Street, made for a wonderfully out of time experience. St Ann's was the church that Whitman's family attended. On stage were Partch's amazing and beautiful 'home made' instruments – so striking that they have been exhibited in museums as art works. Bearing names such as Chromelodeon, Diamond Marimba and Cloud Chamber Bowls, they were created by Partch in order to realise his unique, 43 tones to the octave, microtonal music.
Partch once described himself on a Guggenheim Foundation application: "If my personal history were to be frozen in space, it would appear as a finely detailed mosaic made up of an incredible number of dirty dishes, nameless faces in WPA jobs and almost nameless faces in hobo jungles." Despite this rather desultory description, Partch is one of the most important and least known of American composers. "He was one of the greatest composers of this century and his works [make up] the most challenging and rewarding body of music in the 20th century repertoire," claims Dean Drummond, composer, percussionist and leader of Newband, the chamber group that presented the evening of Partch's music at St Ann's.
As a young musician, Drummond worked with Partch on the two albums of the composer's music recorded for CBS Masterworks in the late 60s and early 70s. "He was absolutely one of the most brilliant musical minds I have ever encountered and was very demanding when it came to the performance of his music. He could be very difficult but he could also be a very sweet individual" says Drummond. "But he was shunned by his contemporaries. In my college days, things were almost absolutely split between the Stravinskians and the Schoenbergians. Partch did not fit into either camp's 'rules' and, thus, he was snubbed by the academics all his life."
Partch was born in 1901 and grew up near Tombstone, Arizona. Essentially a self taught musician and composer, he played piano and organ in local theatres accompanying silent films, and began composing in the conventional manner aged 14.
In 1929, in a room in New Orleans, Partch burned 14 years worth of compositions in a pot belly stove and started his artistic life anew. He found a new basis for his music in the multitones that float around in the spaces between the 12 notes that make up the standard octave. He spent the bulk of the great Depression living as a hobo and working out his microtonal theories of music. It was also in the 30s that he began creating instruments which would be capable of realising performances of his unique compositions. Of his influences he once listed "Yaqui Indians, Chinese lullabies, Hebrew chants for the dead, Christian hymns, Congo puberty rituals, the Chinese music hall, lumber yards, junk shops and Boris Godunov."
His theory of music is outlined in Genesis Of A Music (Da Capo Press, 1974). One of his major impulses was the creation of a corporeal music which attempted to return music back to its ritual and social origins. Large pieces such as The Bewitched (1955) and Delusion Of Fury (1963-69) call for the musicians to be dressed in costume and might also involve singers, mimes and dancers. It has been claimed that his interest in microtonal music was less influenced by Asian music systems than the desire to capture accurately the nuances of American speech. This desire was certainly evident in Newband's St Ann's performance of US Highball: A Musical Account Of A Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943). With the ensemble wearing the tattered jackets and dirt smeared faces associated with the hobo's life, the church ambience was transported back to a hobo camp sometime in the mid-30s I have rarely heard composed music so direct and so lacking in artifice.
From the 40s until his death in 1975, Partch received enough financial support to live modestly, build new instruments and to stage occasional performances of his work. Many of his recordings were issued on his private Gate 5 label. Despite his vision of an all encompassing American music that would reach out to a large public, the nature of the music set up serious barriers to its dissemination. Learning Partch's music is difficult and takes much more rehearsal time than the average contemporary piece. "Nothing prepares musicians to play Partch's string instruments," says Drummond "It is extremely challenging" Also, most of Partch's instruments are one of a kind, and, since his death, the executor of his estate has consistently refused to loan them out for performance.
Recently, however, Newband received the entire Partch collection on permanent loan after their acclaimed performance of The Wayward at the 1991 Bang On A Can festival. A grant from the Mellon Foundation has allowed the group to replicate several Partch instruments and to continue restoring and maintaining the entire collection. Drummond notes that several of the nearly 50 year old instruments have never been rewired and that other instruments are too fragile to be used in performance.
Drummond plans to perform and record the total body of Partch's music, including his demanding, evening long "total theatre pieces". Partch's supporters, and Partch himself, often worried about the fate of his music after the composer was no longer alive to teach musicians how to perform and play his work. It appears that Dean Drummond and Newband have taken the first step in assuring that this remarkable music will be heard by a new generation of ears.
The two discs that Partch recorded, The World Of Harry Partch and Delusion Of The Fury are unfortunately no longer available. The latter recording is of particular interest because it contains a bonus disc of Partch demonstrating his instruments and talking about his musical philosophy. Two of his CRI recordings have been transferred onto CD: The Bewitched is taken from the original Gate 5 recordings; Music By Harry Partch is a miscellany of Gate 5 recordings made in the 50s. Partch shares half a CD of a New World recording entitled Music Of John Cage And Harry Partch. Most of the tracks are short pieces of Partch performing his settings for poems that were made in the late 40s and early 50s. A recent recording of Revelation In The Court House (Tomato) is rather disappointing – the ensemble sounds uncomfortable and under rehearsed. Newband have recorded Two Studies On Ancient Greek Scales for Mode (Mode 18), which features microtonal works by Cage, Joan LaBarbara and Drummond. A Newband recording of Partch's Daphne Of The Dunes will be released on Mode later this year.