Perfect Sound Forever

Harry Partch
and the Sociology of Composition

photo by Danlee Mitchell
Article by Tom Rodwell (May 1999)

We all know the story: hobo, instrument builder, recluse, drinker, theoretician, vital composer. We all also know the music: dense, broad, playful, serious. But Partch was, and remains, a confusing figure. Many people like Partch (as is often the case with John Cage) as an idea more than they like his music. I would like to suggest that Partch's music is important, but his status as an 'idea' is also significant, and indeed useful. He functions as an ideal, whose life throws the careers of other composers into stark relief. His life continues to deride composers who enclosed themselves in 'real jobs,' in the self-serving factory lines of both the entertainment industry and academia.

Composers have become reference points: entities that we use to describe our tastes and thoughts. Many of us become the musical 'hardman' in conversation, or at parties: "Aphex Twin? Ambient music? Sound sculpting? You should try listening to some Edgar Varese or Stockhausen, mate!" And Partch too is an increasingly referenced figure, especially when searching for an easy figure to cover a dense topic (microtonalism). But Partch was and remains more complex than that. His work was once compared to stone-age cave paintings: this art contains memories and events and symbols that resist classification. Many of the references are impenetrable, confusing, mysterious, but then there are vaguely familiar shapes, or 'moods.' And the more one listens to Partch, the less easy it is to describe him. After listening to the music, seeing the instruments, hearing the stories, it is increasingly hard to refer to him in any limited or enframing way. But, like the cave-paintings, there are glimpses, quiet reverberations.

Partch's music has a strange quality. Some initially relate his compositions to his lifestyle, and label his music "quirky." This does a disservice to the man's work, which I think contains more sheer effort than any other's oeuvre. The way deeply understood cultural traditions, (Asian, African, Native American, Jazz, classical, philosophical et al) are woven into his personal tradition is astonishing. His influences were drunk deeply, and fully subsumed into his method and essential tone. His music sounds ancient, and his instruments look like relics. But the music is not a collection of oddities and symbols, but instead an individualised coagulation. He called his work 'corporeal.'

Partch's deployment of, say, Chinese scales, marimba-boogies, brass-band marches, or quasi-serial flurries is not the simplistic referentialism of post-modern composers. Partch in some ways is anti-historical, anti-cultural, anti-theoretical, anti-social. The music speaks of his personal musical activities. It is not a product of a 'scene' or a 'school,' or even a theory. The music is, rather, the story of Harry's own interests, preoccupations, and favourite noises. It is intensely personal. Through living outside of 'normal' musical and social spheres, Partch developed a work-ethic of remarkable intensity. This work was at a level incomprehensible to most.

Partch's music is based on intense understanding of his resources through living with them. By hand-building his instruments, he forced a greater closeness. His works are very 'musical': since he played all of the 25 or so instruments he built, the compositional deployment of events is based on a musician's relationship with her / his instrument. Few others have had a similar attention to instrumental weight.

And Partch knew about weight. There is a story that while moving into an isolated farmhouse, his truck broke down on the long driveway. He single-handedly carried all his massive instruments into the house, (instruments that were not only delicate, but often extremely heavy and awkward).

Does good composition require a complex relationship with one's musical resources? Perhaps not necessarily, but Partch was able to attain a unique personality in his music. And this personality extends beyond the instrumental nature, or microtonal theories implicit in them, but to his general artistic aesthetic. Most of his works are large-scale dramas, music-theatre. In a way he was creating sociology, creating unusual events, (well before and distinct from the 'happenings' of the '60's).

'Corporeality' extends to the entire pieces, (elaborate stages, costumes, actor- musicians), and crucially to their tone and subject-matter. Perhaps because he was so sidelined by conventional society, Partch seemed to have invented his own cultural pantheon. Revelation in the Courthouse Park is a good example, in that it features the Hollywood pinup idol 'Dion' and assorted Greek characters borrowed from Euripides, plus the standard instrumental variety and invention. The long, evening-long event alternates between mid-west USA and ancient Greece, a bizarre, but revealing dialogue. This is strongly informed by an absurdist attention to the unexpected connections of different cultures and arts. This is Partch's strength: his inclusive and transformative / inventive method. He draws in references and methods that are meaningful and enjoyable for him and the audience, but pitches them into new lights. Revelation draws in a small brass band, which fits bizarrely well into both the conceptual and orchestrational aesthetic. This is a real 'American-composer' act, that of disjointing and illuminating. This combination of 'revelatory' referentialism and artistic spectacle turns Partch's works into Dionysian revels (at least on the stage).

The physicality of his performance-pieces is obvious, and his connection to ritual, (hedonistic, intellectual, spiritual) is deep. He described his work The Bewitched thus: "... it is a satyr-play. It is a seeking for release - through satire, whimsy, magic, ribaldry - from the catharsis of tragedy. It is an essay toward a miraculous abeyance of civilised rigidity, in the feeling that the modern spirit might thereby find some ancient and magical sense of rebirth." Partch sets up his ritualistic, anti-highbrow performances in opposition to the perverse conservatism of academia: "rampant formality, huge impersonal assemblies with closely placed, hard, stiff-backed seats, black and white 'tails', brisk robots on stage. Time was -in another and Continental age- when means were provided for drinking at concerts... Can we take no pride in a human gathering of smaller proportions than would fill a stadium? And will someone tell us the name of the presumptuous god who ordained that the respective appetites of spirit and flesh must forever remain strangers? And if there is none such, will the Arbiters of Pure Beauty please close their eyes on this sordid world and then inform us what is wrong with having tables strewn with glasses of beer and chocolate malteds along with music, at least in some situation more intimate than the concert hall?"

Partch brings his old freewheeling hobo self into 'serious intellectual music circles,' and drinks booze in the corner, occasionally shouting obscenities at the career-musicians and trendy concert-goers: the cranky anarchist. There exists on film a long and serious discussion by Partch on the different resonant qualities of assorted brands of whiskey bottles. And that, to me, is a perfect expression of his Corporeal aesthetic.

Partch's music is as it is because of the connexion with his life. There is a spirit of the individualist inventor. And that of a whiskey-slugging anarchist. But most of all a quietly creative and inquisitive man, true to himself. His life-work is movingly honest.

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