A Review of "The Harry Partch Collection" And Other Recent Partch Releases
[ Editors Note: This article was originally published in the March/April 1998 issue of Fanfare Magazine - The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors. The author brought it to my intention and it is reprinted here courtesy of Fanfare's editor and publisher, Mr. Joel Flegler -- JMS ]
Adrian Corleonis
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Does anyone need to be told that there's a Partch revival in full swing? The Kronos Quartet's inclusion of Barstow in their recent Howl, U. S. A. (Nonesuch 79372-2) -- an atrocious, low voltage reading quite apart from its ill-conceived adaptation for conventional instruments -- will have signalled even surface-skimmers to Partch's emergence from the "alternative music" ghetto into the mainstream, while the present eagerly-anticipated collection proclaims him important, major, classic. Yet, this may be the least part of it, a mere harbinger. First, let's see what CRI hath wrought.

Collectors will already own The Bewitched -- A Dance Satire, a recording of the 1957 premiere at the University of Illinois's Champaign-Urbana campus, long available on LP, reissued on CD in 1990 (reviewed in Fanfare 14:5) and renumbered as is to become Volume 4 of the present collection. The albums are available separately, by the way. Likewise, these recordings of Castor & Pollux, And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, and Windsong have been available on CRI's Historic Recordings Series (CRI CD 7000, Fanfare 14:4), though Partch's 1950 recording of The Letter on that album has been replaced here by a revised 1972 version. Then, too, a number of these performances -- e.g., several of the Intrusions, Cloud Chamber Music, The Dreamer That Remains (see Fanfare 2:6) -- have turned up piecemeal over the years on LPs, quite apart from the original issues on Partch's legendary Gate 5 label (now extremely scarce and very expensive collectors items) which furnished the source material for most of what is offered here.

So what's new? Ring Around the Moon and Even Wild Horses added to Castor & Pollux to make the full set of Plectra & Percussion Dances. The complete set of Eleven Intrusions. These performances of Ulysses at the Edge and "hobo" works gathered as The Wayward -- U. S. Highball, San Francisco, The Letter, and Barstow. Rotate the Body in All Its Planes. Water! Water! And to the first three volumes of this collection, extensive and richly informed liner notes (albeit in eye-teasing 9 point type) by Bob Gilmore, whose biography of Partch is due from Yale University Press as you read this. Given that the earliest recording here, the Intrusions, dates from 1950, with the bulk of the material hailing from the 50s and 60s, that elements of the Partch sound defied even the best recording technology of those times (and that the best, often, was not available to Partch -- the Marimba Eroica, for instance, can dissolve in hum), that for Windsong Partch was forced to the expedient of overdubbing, playing all the parts himself (giving a new twist to the notion of authenticity) -- given the accidents of time and place, the sound is less problematic than we had any right to expect, with the lighter percussion only slightly distorted in earlier recordings, the mono tubbily oppressive only in Windsong, the vocals fully audible and often intimate, and the sharp particularity of the plucked/stroked strings singing through timelessly. In my review copy of Volume 3 track listings were scrambled, though CRI tells me that the print presentation is now in line with what's on disc. One may carp at the omission of King Oedipus and Revelation in the Courthouse Park, both offered long ago on Gate 5, though the former is said to be disproportionate in the ratio of speech to music (CDs of the 1952 Mills College premiere may be available by the time you see this), while the magnificent, splendidly recorded 1987 American Musical Theater production of Revelation is still in the catalog (Tomato 269552, Fanfare 14:1). In sum, CRI's Harry Partch Collection is a major offering of old friends new to CDs and several important discoveries, unavailable for decades, which confirm his growing reputation as a classic.

Meanwhile, produced by the indefatigable Dr. Philip Blackburn of the American Composers Forum, a series of "enclosures" is making available oddments and offscourings of the Partch legacy -- some mere curiosities, many of them of primary importance -- for various reasons rejected from CRI's collection. Enclosure 1 is a videocassette collection of films by Madeline Tourtelot with music by Partch -- Rotate the Body, U. S. Highball, and Windsong. For those who've never seen a Partch work, the splendor of the instruments and the kinetic vibrance of their performance will come as a revelation.

Enclosure 2 is a four-CD collection featuring some of Partch's first recordings, often in distorted, noisy sound but still listenable and of the greatest interest, thrown together with snippets of Partch himself discussing his music and demonstrating his instruments, an informal tape of Partch chez Danlee Mitchell joking and playing the piano, and a longish, somewhat self-conscious cut from a memorial meeting just after Partch's death in which Mitchell, Partch's benefactor Betty Freeman (who commissioned his last work, The Dreamer That Remains), Lou Harrison, film maker Stephen Pouliot, and others close to Partch, reminisce. We even have Dr. Blackburn in Partch's one conventionally published pop song, While My Heart Keeps Beating Time from 1929! Within days of CRI's release, Enclosure 3 came hot off the press, a deluxe, limited edition artbook of imposing dimensions and over 500 pages, a frank scrapbook offering many photographs from all periods of Partch's life, essays, correspondence -- handwritten and typed -- to and from Partch, doodles and drawings by the composer, reproduced without editing but with annotations and a series of exploratory aperçus and brief essays by Blackburn at the back. A jumble, a rich, if undigested, chronicle which no one who cares for Partch will want to be without! Enclosure 5 is the aforementioned three-CD set of the Mills College King Oedipus, a 1980 Cologne concert performance of The Bewitched, and Jack Logan's sassy go at Ulysses, once available on LP Orion ORS 7294.

Amid this cornucopia, pride of place is taken by Enclosure 4, a videocassette of Madeline Tourtelot's color film of Partch's crowning masterwork, Delusion of the Fury, following its 1969 UCLA premiere, with mimed action and choreography staged against the full panoply of Partch's instruments hieratically played by costumed musicians -- the great ritual drama which his music and aesthetic seemed to have in sight from the first -- fitted to the 1971 Columbia recording: if music and gesture are occasionally out of sync (though not distractingly so) this is a small, easily tolerable blemish on the greatest, most revealingly compelling Partch document of all. Collectors will know that the early-70s Music of Harry Partch (Columbia MS 7207 -- Castor & Pollux, Barstow, and Daphne of the Dunes [aka Windsong]) and Delusion (M2 30576, whose initial issue included a bonus disc, nearly an hour of Partch discussing and demonstrating his instruments) are hands-down the finest recordings ever made of his music, not only in terms of lavish presentation, sound spectacular in its day and still of demonstration quality in ours (the more so because of unusual demands made by several of the instruments), but in a palpable sense of arrival, in ensemble, and freewheeling pizzazz.

Whatever one may think of the Partch legend -- and of recent moves to debunk it or at least bring it into perspective (e.g., Dr. Blackburn's afterword to Enclosure 3) -- the fact remains that Partch's achievement is the stuff of legend. Preparing The Music of Harry Partch: A Descriptive Catalog (Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1991), Thomas McGeary came across a microfilm of a journal Partch kept from June 11, 1935 to February 1, 1936, and destroyed in its original form. It begins on the road, with Partch moving through a series of transient shelters and work camps just after his return from Europe and a cordial meeting with Yeats -- whose views on speech music both anticipated and inspired his own -- and ends with a job as a newspaper proofreader. Here are the poverty, the cold, the hunger, the insolence, the crushing nullity Vasari cited as the lot of the true artist, observed in close detail, including snatches of song and notated speech, often with piano accompaniment, worked here and there into something like compositions making musical counterpoint to a wry, resourceful, sometimes desperate interior monologue.

Called Bitter Music, and sardonically listed by Partch among his compositions, it is to McGeary's credit that he salvaged and published it with End Littoral, a happier account of a 1947 hiking trip along the northern California coast. Together they make an American classic which belongs with Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Twain's Roughing It, Crane's The Bridge, or Henry Miller's Black Spring. Readers with no piano or no music will be grateful to Dr. Blackburn for including a full disc, over 70 minutes, of excerpts from Bitter Music, read, sung, and intoned to the piano as written, as part of Enclosure 2. The remaining two/thirds of McGeary's book offer a welcome anthology of Partch's essays, lectures, introductions, prefaces, liner notes (in full -- e.g., those to The Bewitched were drastically abridged for CRI's issue), scenarios, and librettos conceived as a companion to the one book Partch published in his lifetime, Genesis of a Music (which, by the way, has just been reissued in paperback by Da Capo Press, but with the color plates of Da Capo's comprehensive, magnificent 1974 edition done in black-&-white). Partch is as fresh, pungent, fun, piquant, acerbic, clairvoyant, compassionate, and sage in his prose as in his music and one cannot do better than to take them together.

"It seems absurd to me to live in an age of flying and yet not be able to execute tonal glides and curves -- just as absurd as it would be to paint a portrait in little squares (as in the case of mosaic) and not be able to use every type of curved line."

Partch? No, Percy Grainger writing, somewhat belatedly in 1938, about an ideal "Free Music." Grainger, who probably never heard of Partch and spent his last years obsessively constructing machines to fulfill his auditory intuition, nevertheless spoke for the most prescient among his generation, those who wished to leave Western art music -- which could only repeat itself ever more sumptuously, cleverly, or parodistically -- decisively behind and strike out for new auditory terrain and a new aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic. One thinks of Varèse, Nancarrow, McPhee, Cage, and preeminently of Partch, whose work looms as the wider, richer, more fecund, and more fully realized now that we are privileged to have so much of it before us.

His scope is Wagnerian for, though he is a profound musical thinker, his initial impulse is dramatic -- a drama of clairvoyant insight, at once novel and ancient, issuing in a theater of direct spiritual prehension. Other musics -- e.g., McPhee's or that of Partch's friend, Lou Harrison -- may incorporate alluring, exotic oddments to beguiling effect: with Partch, they're used to evoke the often gritty particulars of American life, as in the "hobo" works collected as The Wayward. One is reminded over and again of Hart Crane's attempt to come to artistic terms with American life in The Bridge, whose narrator may be a hobo, a type of the artist-outcast, the poète maudit -- to Partch add Nelson Algren and the naturalist-essayist-poet Loren Eiseley among those who rode the Depression rails -- who alone, Crane suggests, can truly know this country as one knows the body of the beloved, in its squalor and its splendor... Who is the woman with us in the dawn... whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon? San Francisco, a setting of newsboy calls, captures the particular aura of time and place in the way that The Cries of London seems to spirit up the street action of Shakespeare's day. Water! Water! is a fun, farcical sendup of the social-climbing High Culture aspirations of small town boomers who not only know the immemorial magic, "the real thing," when they see or, rather, hear it, but know enough to loathe and attempt to extirpate it. Revelation in the Courthouse Park, adapted from The Bacchae of Euripides, touches on pop culture where it touches us most closely and shapingly -- and tragically.

This visionary comprehensiveness can make those who follow Partch seem partial, mere microtonal specialists, experimental where he is finished, small. One turns, for instance to recent Newband recordings led by Dean Drummond, who was among the last musicians to work with Partch and who has held the Partch instruments on permanent loan since 1991. With a token Partch work leading off (Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales adapted for flute and the Drummond-invented zoomoozophone on Mode 18 -- which one may compare, now, with the originals, the first two of the Eleven Intrusions on CRI 751 -- and a straight reading of Daphne of the Dunes on Mode 33), one is offered estimable, engaging microtonal works by such as Cage and Joan La Barbara (whose review of Enclosure 2 prefacing the Spring 1997 Schwann/Opus catalog may be said to be the opening salvo of the Partch revival), and such younger composers as Drummond, James Pugliese, and Mathew Rosenblum, rounded off on Mode 33 with Drummond's enchanting arrangement of Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight. Promising, promising (especially Rosenblum's Circadian Rhythms) -- one will be listening for promises kept. But Drummond's Partch adaptations, as with the Kronos Barstow, serve only to show how specific Partch's imagination was, how disastrously it translates. And Newband's go at Daphne, it must be said, sounds cautious and tired.

Partch's early speech intonation works, on the other hand, have the assurance, detail, and evocativeness of classic Japanese prints. However bizarre they may seem on first hearing, they cultivate an impulse to lend measure and melos, hence heightened expression, to words -- "impressing the intangible beauty of tone into the vital power of the spoken word, without impairing either" as Partch put it -- which is as old as Homeric minstrelsy, at the heart of the mysterious awesomeness of the chorus in Greek tragedy (mysterious, too, in the literal sense that we simply do not know how it was done), and which for Partch culminates in his setting of the Yeats translation of Sophocles's King Oedipus.Yet so long as these works are discussed in the rarefied context of Partch's visit to Yeats we are apt to forget that the vitality of this impulse is as rawly contemporary as rap (delete a couple of expletives, though, and these "artists" lose 98% of their jive) and still has manifold possibilities.

Keen to these, of the many artists at work today who have been touched by Partch's example, perhaps the most comprehensively inspired by it, and the most richly equipped, is the distinguished poet, translator, dramatist, and composer Alan Shaw, whose play The Ghost Dancers rises uniquely to Partch's challenge, not to replicate Greek tragedy (impossible in any case) but to fashion a contemporary equivalent for its effects, which Shaw has managed through a mastery of choral lyric wedded to music for five conventional instruments, coventionally tuned, and chorus -- simple in means but disarmingly sui generis and rich in effect. Which is to say that as Partch vanishes from living memory into the conflicting claims of inheritance, history, and legend, one vibrant current of his legacy is alive among us.

And that's only to hit a few of the highlights. To keep abreast of the Partch revival check in at Corporeal Meadows: the online home of Harry Partch, created and maintained -- generously, superbly -- by Jonathan M. Szanto, an old Partch hand who had a lot to do with getting CRI's Partch Collection together and, by the way, made most of the digital transfers for it. If you've read this far you'll want it all.