By John Schneider, Music Director, PARTCH Ensemble
Harry Partch was surely one of America’s most colorful composers. Though trained as a concert pianist, his dissatisfaction with the scales and instruments of Western Music inspired him to design and build an orchestra of over two dozen handcrafted “microtonal” instruments that were tuned to his notorious “monophonic” scale of 43-Tones per octave. He composed dozens of vibrantly singular works of music of all sizes, and create a major theoretical work Genesis of a Music (1949/1972) describing the process. In today’s parlance, Partch is known as an “American Maverick”, a loner whose itinerant wanderings as a hobo and “railroad bum” during the Great Depression are the stuff of legend. He was also a great innovator, being one of the first concert composers to use overdubbing as a composition tool, creating his own “indie” label in the 1950s, & training his own eponymous ensemble decades before Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He was also the first to use the “electric” guitar in concert music, and the first to use a fretless instrument. Between 1929 and 1970 Partch first adapted, and then created from scratch over two dozen unique musical instruments.
It was long believed that once Partch died, so would his music. After all, what better way to absolutely guarantee a music’s obsolescence than compose for a single set of completely unique instruments in an opaque notation, mostly tablatures, that takes ages to learn, and has no precedence? And yet, against all odds, quite the opposite has happened: Partch’s reputation has only grown since his passing in 1974, becoming what could only be termed as legendary. His work is consistently listed as inspiration for ensuing generations of musicians of all styles, from Rock & Roll, to Punk, to Classical. Luckily, he painstakingly documented his musical development in a volume called Genesis of a Music.
But WHY? During his lifetime, the composer felt compelled to convince other musicians that his vision of a music, that was emotionally compelling and acoustically in tune, would offer new sounds, new means of expression and a new possibilities for the future. To his bitter disappointment, most couldn’t care less. But in the end, it was his performances, films, and the handful of recordings that he so carefully produced and distributed in his own lifetime that won the case for Partch. What a surprise: in what was an era of increasingly Abstract music, here was modern music that was corporeal, and actually “spoke” to people! With rare exception, the audiences were far more receptive to the music than the professional musicians of his time. Luckily, those films and recordings are now almost completely available, only increasing the hunger for this unusual music.
But what of performances? Live performances? Nothing, I repeat, nothing replaces being in the room with these wonderful instruments. The music is meant to be experienced, and not just by the ears: “In the right room acoustically, the Marimba Eroica is felt through the feet, against the belly, and, if one sits on the floor, it ripples through his bottom.” But with only one set of instruments, currently residing on the east coast of North America, the chances of having one’s bottom rippled are rather remote.
To fall in love with a piece of music is to want to possess it – to feel it under one’s fingers, to breathe life into it with one’s own breath, or bow, or mallet…that is the musician’s way. I made the mistake of falling in love with Partch’s music, with no possible way of consummating my affection. There was nowhere to go to rent or buy the appropriate instruments, no teachers from whom to learn the scales, techniques and repertoire, nowhere to touch and feel the music except through the loudspeakers of my stereo. It was as if I had heard a recording the Goldberg Variations of Bach and, having sworn to learn it, had to build my own harpsichord, teach myself the rules of notation, the keyboard technique to perform it and the interpretational skills to bring it to life. And so I turned to the book of Genesis…
It turns out that Partch’s only published volume is not only a history book (telling of the development of intonation and scales since the times of the ancient Greeks), a music theory book (explaining the notation & structure of finely tuned intervals), and an autobiography…it is also a Cook Book! When read closely, Partch’s descriptions of his wonderful instruments include dimensions, materials and tunings…almost enough information to reproduce them exactly. And so, I began with the piece I loved most, on the instrument I knew best: Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions (1941) for Baritone and Adapted Guitar. But that was in 1991…
In 1978, I was working on a book that would become The Contemporary Guitar (University of California Press: 1985), a survey of 20th century guitar music. I had known about Partch’s guitars from the 2nd edition of his Genesis of a Music (DaCapo Press: 1974), and soon discovered that the instruments were in San Diego under the stewardship of Partch’s longtime assistant Danlee Mitchell. I paid a visit, and photographed the two guitars found in the 2nd edition of Genesis of a Music, as well as making photocopies of the scores that used them. As I handed the scores back to Danlee, I lamented that I would never be able to play Partch’s famous “Hobo Concerto”—what the composer jokingly called Barstow: 8 Hitchhiker Inscriptions From A Highway Railing At Barstow, California—because there was no guitar part in it. Mitchell blinked and said, “What do you mean…? there’s a version for guitar and voice,” went into another room and returned with a most unusual object. There were pages of music, of course, but they were sandwiched between two pieces of plywood that were colorfully decorated with Cigar decals and loosely bound at the edge with shoe string. I leafed through the pages that looked mostly like algebra problems, as the familiar words were surrounded with nothing but ratios! I asked him how it was played, and he shrugged his shoulders saying, “I have no idea – you figure it out!” Still excited, I made a copy and took it home, and did a lot of head scratching, but not much else.
It wasn’t until 1991 that two books changed my reluctant indifference into action: Tom McGeary’s Harry Partch - BITTER MUSIC: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, an Librettos, and his indispensable THE MUSIC OF HARRY PARTCH – A Descriptive Catalogue.
For the first time I truly grasped the depth and breadth of Partch’s genius and decided it was time to act. Out came Barstow as well as Genesis – it was time to solve the puzzle.
Next: “Seduced into Carpentry”…..
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