Avant-garde geniuses of the USA
Original position in magazine: pp 58-66
‘What Avails to Lament?’: The Music of Harry Partch
By Bosco Hazard
Enclosure One: Four Historic Art Films by Madeleine Tourtelot with Music by Harry Partch
INNOVA 400 (Video)
Enclosure Two: Historic Speech-Music Recordings from the Harry Partch Archives
INNOVA 401 (4 x CD set)
For the better part of a decade, certain passages from an 8th century Chinese poet have been inscribed in my memory:
Rise and dance in the westering sun | while the urge of youthful years is yet unsubdued | What avails to lament | after one’s hair has turned white…like silken thread?
(‘Before the Cask of Wine’)
These are the last words of one of ‘Ten Lyrics by Li Po’. The setting, by musical theorist, composer and performer, Harry Partch, begins by imparting to its imagery (spring wind, falling blossoms, wine) an agitated, querulous urgency before its theme (the transience of youth) is announced – at which point the voice, wistful at first, begins wordlessly to dance and soar in a way that is not harsh, but has an edge of wildness, of fever. The words ‘rise and dance…’ then, are neither a cool observation nor proverbial wisdom, but conjure a sudden and living impulse, courageous in its defiance of time’s passing. With something between a sob and a wail the concluding question is posed, and the piece ends, suddenly quiet, with the image of hair turned white. Anguish exhausts itself, gives way to resignation.
Partch was barely in his thirties when he composed this piece, but throughout his work we find the evocation of a tragic catharsis amidst the bitter comedy of life. His setting of a short poem by Ella Young invests the image of rushing waters with its full resonance, and asks:
Why are you so eager to leave the sunlight | so eager for the pool of oblivion?
The question does not weary, because in Partch’s setting eagerness and oblivion are conjoined, and reflect one another. It is an image of life in Heraclitean flux; an eternal image of life plunging, heedless of extinction – and heedless of its own brief glory – towards darkness. And if Partch’s intonation of the final word has about it something of a ‘let’s scare the children’ theatricality, this hardly mars the authenticity of a vision which is personal, of a music which everywhere derives its impetus from Partch’s own voice, with its undertones of darkness and humour. In his last composition, intoning his own text and recalling the world of his childhood, Partch performed his own dance in the westering sun: the last chorus of his ‘corporeal’ music involves an astonishing, serious jest – the words of which I need only repeat to feel an ecstatic chill launch itself down my spine; words I will not record here, because the words alone are insufficient to evoke that excitement.
The bulk of Partch’s early work, from about 1930 until the early 1950s, consists of the setting of words to music: poems and prose, graffiti, newsboy cries – as well as accounts of his own travels across America during the Depression. These pieces are in no sense difficult, though they are often surprising, even startling. Words are framed, carried, accentuated and echoed by an accompaniment which provides more than merely the support for an expressive reading – which constitutes, in fact, an aural staging. The result is genuinely musical, but it is a music whose structure and content is in no way abstract and formal, but dramatic, flowing from the intonation and the meaning of the words. Mimicry is not infrequent: in one of the Li Po songs, the tremor of Partch’s adapted viola evokes momentarily the chirping and buzzing of insects in the background; in another, one of the two voices is assigned the role of the flute heard by the poet; in ‘U.S. Highball’, train whistles and the clattering of the freight cars are conjured by Partch’s instruments.
Beginning in 1953, Partch issued a series of recordings, which he sold through the mail, on his own Gate 5 label. In the 1960s, a handful of records were released by CRI (Composers’ Recordings Inc), and Columbia Masterworks. At least two of the CRI releases (The Music of Harry Partch and Petals Fell on Petaluma) are currently available on CD. The Innova set of four CDs, Enclosure Two, rescues and makes available a vital set of early Partch recordings from 1945-47, when Partch had a position at the University of Wisconsin. The set of Ten Li Po Lyrics, composed between 1930 and 1933, represent Partch’s earliest mature approach to the musical setting of words.
‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’ was also composed for voice and adapted viola, but was later revised to incorporate two of Partch’s other instruments – the chromelodeon and the kithara. The revised version is presented here. The chromelodeon, sounding at first like an out-of-tune harmonium, imposes itself also on ‘Dark Brother’ – an intense, melancholy setting of two paragraphs from a story by Thomas Wolfe.
‘Barstow’ – Partch’s wonderful framing of eight hitch-hiker inscriptions collected from a railing outside Barstow, California – is altogether lighter and more varied, bringing to life out of these fragments the wanderers who passed by, leaving their mark. A later recording, on The World of Harry Partch (CBS), would dispense with the adapted guitar, adding diamond marimba and bamboo marimba, giving the music a punchier, percussive sound. Otherwise, the most significant difference is that, in the later version, the final question ‘Why in hell did you come, anyway?’ is used as a punchline, where the earlier version is more thoughtful, and the music trails off, as though the reader of these inscriptions has walked away, perhaps turning over the question in his mind, perhaps already thinking of something else.
In a similar vein, the restless, high-spirited, ironic ‘US Highball: A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip’ uses snatches of conversation, complaints, observations, advice and anecdotes in order to evoke a journey by rail and road from California to Chicago. It’s a long piece, and fairly shapeless, but studded with episodes which grow more distinct with repeated listening.
The ‘Two Settings from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake’ and ‘Y.D. [Yankee Doodle] Fantasy’, with their female soprano, and flutes and whistles, are something of a surprise – and sound like nothing so much as the soundtracks to a couple of lost (alas!) ‘Columbia Favourite’ cartoons from the 1950s. There are also several later pieces, the best of which is the eerily insistent, incantatory ‘Bless This Home’. ‘Ring Around the Moon’ is musically appealing, but the deeply whimsical vocal intrusions suggest that something else is going on, and for once the well-designed and informative 32pp booklet is not forthcoming. There is also a setting of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, which sounds a little perfunctory.
The authentic Partch recordings add up to about an hour and a half – and for this precious and rewarding 90 minutes, you pays your money and you are grateful. What you get, in addition, is 75 minutes of a 1992 performance of Partch’s hobo journal with parts for piano, ‘Bitter Music’; a recent recording of an early song by Partch, and a version of ‘San Francisco – Newsboy Cries’ for conventional instruments; as well as an hour-long lecture/demonstration by Partch of his system of music.
The Partch video has been made available in the UK by the British Harry Partch Society. These are historic films – which is to say they are valuable as history – but they have their limitations. ‘Windsong’, for which Partch composed the soundtrack, is probably the most successful of the four pieces here, in its marriage of music and film. Parts of the same musical soundtrack are utilised in ‘Music Studio’ which gives a fascinating glimpse of Partch at home with his instruments. ‘U.S. Highball’ is valuable for its preservation of performance footage, but the sound – to quote an introductory note – is ‘lamentable’. The revised version of ‘U.S. Highball’, adding extra voices and new instruments, while abridging the text, is possibly not an improvement. In ‘Rotate the Body in all its Planes’ the sound is not lamentable, but execrable; and yet, with a little detirmination, even this can be viewed with some degree of indulgence. Not for the neophyte, but Partch enthusiasts are bound to appreciate the opportunity to get a look at these films.
If Partch remains widely unknown, this is neither much of a surprise, nor is it a reflection on the quality of his music. One is simply not led by any broad thoroughfare to his door. As a composer, he occupied a margin of his own devising: by adapting and building his own instruments, and by using novel forms of notation suited to music written for those instruments, he erected a barrier against the performance of his work – or at least against the proliferation of such performances.
He may never be ‘popular’ – not because, as a pioneer, a maverick, an eccentric (all part of the Partch myth, or mystique) he is somehow unapproachable, but because it’s almost unimaginable he might be taken up by a crowd – precisely because he is approachable only as an individual. He is not a musical or cultural fact; he is not an example of something, or one thing among many: he is a unique presence. Nowhere is that unique presence better preserved than on these CDs (which faithfully reproduce the crackle and pop of acetate, the hiss of tape) and these recordings, now half a century old.
I might suggest there has never been a better time to introduce yourself to Harry Partch, but perhaps this is not strictly true: any time is a good time for that. But Partch’s music is not always available – is not all currently available – and these are treasures rescued from neglect and obscurity, treasures whose value is accurately expressed in another of the Li Po lyrics (‘On the Ship of Spicewood’):
My poem is done, I laugh and my delight is vaster than the sea. | Oh, deathless poetry! The songs of Chu-Ping are ever glorious as the sun and moon | while the palaces and towers of the Chu kings have vanished from the hills…
Additional notes by Ed Pinsent
Initial caveat to the curious listener: there’s a LOT of spoken-word material on this item. Some of it, for example the lecture about tunings and intonation, goes on for some time, and even the most hard-bitten Partch fan would find it tough going. So, if you’re a beginner, don’t start with this or it might just put you off. Get Delusion of the Fury if you can find it. Delusion tells a hobo story as a dramatic song cycle, elevating the subject to the level of an American Myth. I have always loved that record but have long been simultaneously challenged and delighted by the sheer density of the sound, and the complexity of Partch’s musical language, which by then had become highly developed. Only since playing Enclosure Two have I discovered another dimension to Delusion. Two tracks in particular are missing links – and suggest how Partch arrived at one point from the other. The first, ‘US Highball’, attempts to recreate train sounds, as noted above. The second, ‘San Francisco Newsboy Cries’, is songs, using as a text the cries of Street Vendors selling newspapers. There is nothing patronising about it – not a whiff of Henry Higgins-like condescension, the safe middle-class observing the ‘quaintness’ of working class dialect. Partch lived on the street, knew those cries, and genuinely heard them as music. This song transcribes and notates them and reproduces them, and besides serving as a tiny snapshot of a lost piece of social oral history, it is a honest and valuable musical statement.
Now, these works between them served as a prism through which to view Delusion of the Fury, for its better interpretation. Mind! They didn’t explain it away – the mystery remains intact. But where once it had seemed a nigh-impenetrable fantasy, I see now how the fabric of it comes from pieces like the two above. So at bedrock, Delusion is another honest account of that 1930s hobo and street life – but with extra abstract, artistic and interpretative dimensions layered throughout. To me, it’s like Kandinsky’s abstractions. In his paintings he started out making legible statements: the clear image of a horse rider was there from the start. As his visual language developed, the horse rider became pure streaks of white paint. To him this was a very clear shorthand visual statement. That is his artistic development. His visual language became more and more private, and richer and deeper as a result. So it is with Partch.
‘Bitter Music, Extracts from a Hobo Journal’, is another significant work. This performance is a recent recording made for Australian radio, not by Partch but by Warren Burt (vocalist) and Sheila Guyner (piano). The compilers hesitated before issuing this work. The use of piano was something of a compromise for Partch, using those fixed twelve-tones was to kow-tow to classical music, at odds with his fierce determination to construct and work his own instruments, his own scales, his own sounds. Partch made every effort to prevent ‘Bitter Music’s survival, and yet here it is. The work combines straightforward reading from a text with sudden exclamations into musical phrasing – a sung speech. You have only to compare the slightly mannered vocal work of Warren Burt with Partch’s own naturalistic intoning voice, on other recordings here. This musical parlando was second nature to him – he could virtually speak in music. With Burt, it has had to be learned. But this is a rather captious observation, as the emotional weight is all here. You should be stunned by the rush of images in the ending moments – Partch found impending apocalypse in the passing cars in the rain, trying to hitch a ride, and all seemed hopeless.
Also of interest to the Partch collector, is Hal Willner’s compilation record Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, COLUMBIA 472467 2, 1992. As he has done on previous ‘tribute’ LP projects, Willner assembled a dazzling collection of contemporary musicians to perform their versions and visions of Charles Mingus compositions; on many tracks, original Harry Partch instruments were used. Francis Thumm, a musician based in San Diego, has played in Partch’s ensembles; he loaned ‘about a dozen’ of the instruments to Willner for the sessions. I don’t have the full story on why Thumm has wound up as official curator of the instrument collection, but it is valued highly as an exceptional example of American history. – so at least someone is looking after these unique items. I had an idea that copies for concert performances and touring purposes were being made, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. As to the ethics, or the aesthetic achievements of Weird Nightmare, the jury’s still out on that; for some, the mere presence of Elvis Costello on the record is sufficient to keep it at arm’s length. Would Partch have approved of his creations being deployed alongside conventional instruments, simply for the sake of their unusual sound? The sleeve notes avoid this dilemma, and instead muse gently on whether Mingus and Partch (who were contemporaries) ever met, but concludes by celebrating that they have finally met on this record, thanks to ‘the inspired alchemy of Hal Willner’. Quite. . .