Monday, November 3, 2014

Harry Partch by Oliver Daniel 1955

 The cloud-chamber bowls, struck by soft mallets, give the bell-like tones of a struck crystal goblet, but more powerful. Photos: Fred Lyon

Is YOUR Kithara in tune? Are your Cloud-Chamber Bowls all bright and shiny, and have you been practicing faithfully on your Chromelodeon? If this sounds enigmatic, then you are unaware of the latest developments by Harry Partch, who is adding to our music new sounds, new combinations of sounds, and fascinating new instruments to produce them. And along with the physical additions to our music he has supplied an impressive philosophy that has been seized upon by many who have become devoted to Partch's theories.

Like Cowell and Varese, who have used all kinds of sounds and noises as their materia musica, or like Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, who have incorporated all kinds of altered and distorted sounds to their tapesichord experiments,
and have finally added them to the symphony orchestra, Partch has added some of the most deliciously provocative new sounds that have come to the music world in a very long time. He has made the fabric of music become more varied; he has given new textural possibilities to soundstuff.

What will come of it we shall learn as more people have the opportunity of hearing his concerts and his records.

The audiophiles - the hi-fi addicts - are discovering Partch more rapidly than the musicians. It is perhaps because they are more open-minded toward experiment, and less bound by aesthetic rules. Partch has certainly veered quite far away from the academic tenets. Classicists and the dowdy opera sponsors might just as well spare themselves the annoyance of listening to Partch's creations.
They would certainly not approve, and they would undoubtedly devote much energy to being vocal about it.

Why, they would ask, should anyone make such whining sounds when Verdi sounds so pretty? And for the answer to "What Makes Harry Hum?" one must refer to the provocative 399-page book Genesis of a Music by Harry Partch.

In the subtitle of his book, Partch explains the scope of the work in part. It reads: "Monophony; the relation of its music to historic and contemporary trends; its philosophy, concepts, and principles; its relation to historic and proposed intonations; and its application to musical instruments." The foreword to the book is by Otto Luening. What he has to say is most important for he, himself, has realized how positive and sometimes violent the reaction to Partch's music can be; and he has
phrased well his own reactions both to the philosophy and the resultant music.

Harry Partch and his 10-string guitar, ranging from cello C to G e middle C.

"With new music itself as his goal," Luening writes, "Partch did not stop with solving theoretical problems on instruments. He has devised systems of notation, taught himself to play his instruments, and composed music for them. Imbued with a strong desire to utilize the new physical means in as direct and human a fashion as possible, he has applied himself to projecting more clearly the subtleties, refinements, and inflections of language itself. Partch became an intoner, a singer ...
Anyone who has heard Panch in a program of music or in a lecture recital knows how effective his message is. Musicians, both highly trained and less experienced, have listened soberly and reacted violently, for or against his music and arguments. A few have felt that his was the voice of their time and of the future; others have come to shocked resistance, in highly vocal opposition. Those who are interested in the future of music are under some obligation to listen to one about whom there is so great a diversity of opinion. It is time for Harry Partch to speak for himself." And through the records that are now available, Partch is able to do so.


In a recent letter which I received from him, Partch remarked that he has been isolated from the musical world for thirty years because he cannot, and could not as a youth, swallow the unscrutinizing acceptance of European musical forms and values by the music business, the music critics, and the music academicians. As early as 1923, he had begun to abandon the traditional scales,
instruments, and forms, and came to the realization that the spoken word was the distinctive expression his constitutional make-up was best fitted for, and also that to express himself he needed both new scales and instruments.

He then began to write music on the basis of harmonized spoken words, music for new instruments
that could play the new scales he felt he needed. He set to such music everything from the Bible and Li Po to a hobo's letter and some hitchhiker inscriptions copied from a highway railing. One of his earlier sets of five 78-rpm. records (available from Radio Recorders, 7090, Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Calif.) contains some of these, and on the introductory side Partch introduces himself, saying,

I am Harry Partch, a composer. My compositions, a few of which are here recorded, employ instruments: a scale, and manner of performance different from that of current practices. 
The scale provides, in pure intonation, 43 notes to the octave. 
Pure intonation is a mathematical and acoustical solution to tuning, scale, and harmonic problems.
With it the ear is final judge in the question of consonance and dissonance." 

He follows this with a demonstration of several of his instruments: the chromelodeon, the harmonic-canon, the adapted guitar, and the bass marimba. It is immediately exciting to imagine the possible subtleties and intricacies of a 43-note scale; and the delicate chromatic rise and fall that his instruments can produce is fascinating for any musician who is interested in the expansion of instrumental resources.

In the matter of setting his texts, as they are heard on records, I cannot feel any such excitement, for they sound unabashedly amateurish. Partch himself, having first evolved his theories and composed his music, then built the instruments to play it, trained his players, and lastly intoned and spoke many of his own lines. Should we even expect him to be equally convincing in each activity?

Unfortunately, I have directed too many radio and television dramas to award even an A for effort to
Partch for all his thought-out singsong intonings. But what is most interesting and, in fact, truly important, is the music itself, for it is an unending out-spinning of new sounds, deeply felt and filled with intended meaning.

The instrumental parts are all intriguing. A piece played on the poetically-named cloud-chamber bowls is a carillonlike prelude that is a truly satisfying vignette. Cloud-chamber bowls are the sawed-off tops and bottoms of Pyrex carboys suspended from a beam. His other instruments are equally unorthodox: the marimba eroica has three large redwood blocks and resonators, the
largest sounding the lowest note on the piano (but sounds like the lowest sounds of a cello); the kithara has 72 strings of equal length, arranged chordally in groups of 6; and the harmonic canon, an elaboration of the Greek monochord of 44 strings and movable parts.

One of Partch's major and most impressive efforts is the setting of Oedipus, in the version of William Butler Yeats. Partch had visited the poet in 1934 while he was conducting research on unusual instruments in England. Yeats became absorbed in his musical plans and was eager to hear the union of dialogue and music as Partch conceived it. But not until seventeen years after their first meeting did the work finally appear. The actual composition of the music was begun in March, 1951 and completed in July of the same year. The orchestra for which the score of Oedipus is written is composed of a marimba eroica, bass marimba, kithara. harmonic canon, chromelodeon sub-bass, chromelodeon, diamond marimba, cloud-chamber bowls, microtonal string bass, bicrotonal cello, clarinet, soprano saxophone, and adapted guitars.

Nearly all of the performers were jazz-band musicians. While the Greeks had intoned their dramas, Partch did not attempt to recreate any ancient Greek concepts other than a synthesis of language, music, and dance as a dramatic unity. Partch stated that he had not consciously linked the ancient Greece of Sophocles and this conception of his drama -twenty-four hundred years later. Instead, he wanted to present it as a "human value, necessarily pinned to a time and place, necessarily involving the oracular gods and Greek proper and place names; but still oat necessarily Greek."

Partch further stated in his program notes that the music is

...conceived as emotional saturation, or transcendence. That is the particular province of dramatic music to achieve. My idea has been to present the drama expressed by language, not to obscure it either by operatic aria or symphonic instrumentatian. Hence, in critical dialogue, music enters almost insidiously, as tensions enter. The words of the players continue as before, spoken , nOt sung, but are a harmonic part of the music. In these settings the inflected words are little or no different from ordinary speech, except as emotional tensions make them different. Assertive words and assertive music do not collide. Tone of spoken word and tone of instrument are intended ta combine in a compact emotional or dramatic expression, each providing its singular ingredient. My intention is to bring human drama, made of words, movement, and music to a level thac a mind with average capacity for sensitivity and logic can understand and therefore evaluate.

While one can wholehearted follow Partch in his endeavor, one sometimes finds the final result puzzling. This is probably due co the fact that the problem seems co lie more in the dramatic reading than in the music itself.

I doubt whether a similar group of performers would have made a performance of Caccini, Wagner, or Gluck any more convincing, but that Partch has something significant co say and is trying to say it is evident in his work. It would be fascinating to hear background music in his medium with a Greek play produced according to the presently accepted standards of the theatre. This very suggestion would probably be anathema to Partch. Still I believe that his music might have the power to enhance such a production greatly.

The instruments Partch has created are too massive to be moved in and out of concert halls. We need more recordings of his music that it can be widely evaluated.
And if Harry Partch, through his experiments and efforts, can succeed in expanding our instrumental resources, and even more importantly expand our musical horizons, he will have fulfilled a significant task as a creative musician.

In a recent letter to me he wrote,

...I think it would be fine and wonderful for a few cracks to appear in the specialized walls of serious and too serious music; that is, in the walls of the exoteric and sometimes precious modern idioms respectively. I hope I do not sound arrogant; I am convinced that there will be no real musical reward for us, there will be nothing really significant to us or to any future generations through us, unless our sights broaden...


While Partch may not yet have achieved all that he has projected with considerable vision, he does succeed in making us realize the inhibiting limitations of many of our currently accepted practices. Perhaps Partch may lead us into new tonal territories just as Varese, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and Messrs. Luening and  Ussachevsky have done.

If you do not find Panch records on the shelves of your local music stores, information can be obtained from the Harry Partch Trust Fund, P. O. Box 387, Marin City, California. Whatever your reactions may be, these records will give you new sounds co challenge the performance of your audio equipment, an experience in listening such as you have never had before, and subject material for unending discussions with your friends.

Harry Partch Records

A letter just received from Harry Partch contains this information about his records:

The two available now are Plectra and Percussion Dances, a 12-in. LP, at $7.50, and
Oedipus, a set of two 12-in. LP's, at $12.50 postpaid.

They can be ordered by mail from The Gate 5 Ensemble, Box 387, Marin City, Calif., or from:
The Book Clearing House, 423 Boylston Street,  Boston, Mass.
The Record Shop, 14 Tillmann Place,  San Francisco, Calif.
Custom Sound, 3687 Atlantic Avenue, Long Beach, Calif.

Two other pressings were made. They were U. S. Highball, and settings of Poems by Li Po, which were available from Gilson Medical Electronics Co., 14 Market Place, Madison, Wise.

Mr. Partch thinks that the supply of these records has been exhausted although, presumably, more copies can be pressed if the master is still intact. Mr. Partch added: "Regarding the Intrusions, there are about 25 sets of these left, but since the text copyrights were released only for records on a non-profit subscription basis, I question whether it would be advisable to stress their availability."

Our comment: Any of the Partch records is a collector's item, not only to hear but to keep because it will appreciate in value. We suggest, however, that rather than playing the record repeatedly, you play it Just once to make a tape, so as to keep the disc in mine condition.

MUSIC AT HOME, January February 1955