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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
The Harry Partch Collection – Volume 2
The Wayward
(1943-1972)
I U.S. Highball – A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943, rev. 1955) [25:20]
II San Francisco--A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Foggy Night in the Twenties (1943, rev. 1955) [2:28]
III The Letter – A Depression Message from a Hobo Friend (1943, rev. 1972) [2:48]
IV Barstow - Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941, rev. 1968) [9:57]
And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1963-64, rev. 1966) [35:50]
Gate 5 Ensemble/Jack McKenzie [
Highball]
Harry Partch; Danlee Mitchell; Elizabeth Gentry [
San Francisco]
Harry Partch; David Dunn; Dennis Dunn; Randy Hoffman (with interludes dubbed from the 1950 recording by Harry Partch, Donald Pippin, Ben and Betty Johnston) [
Letter]
The Harry Partch Ensemble (Ron Caruso, Randy Hoffman, Gary Irvine, Alan Silverstein, Francis Thumm)/Danlee Mitchell (music director) [
Barstow]
Gate 5 Ensemble/
Harry Partch (director) [Petals]
rec. 1958, Evanston, Illinois [
Highball, San Francisco]; 1964, Petaluma, California [Petals]; 1972, Encinitas and San Diego, California [Letter]; 1982, Mills College, Oakland, California [Barstow]
Previously issued on Composers’ Recordings Inc. CRI CD 752
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80622-2 [76:23]

 

 


In 1987, Composers’ Recordings Inc. (CRI) earned a citation from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. It read, “Composers [sic] Recordings, Inc. has recorded more American music and for a longer period of time than any other record company in the world. Without this unique musical resource our musical life would be much the poorer.” In 1994, Michael Greene, the President and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences described CRI as “One of America's most precious cultural resources.” I believe that CRI’s catalogue of well over 600 recordings was unique, not least because it was company policy that every recording issued stayed in the catalogue for good – no quivering under the “performance management” axe for them, instead they enjoyed the security of “jobs for life.”

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not surprisingly – particularly if you’re an old cynic like me – that’s exactly what it is. In 2003 CRI, as they say, went to the wall. However, fortune has smiled – at least for the time being – on CRI’s unique musical resource. In 2006, the orphaned catalogue was adopted by New World Records.

NWR, just like practically every other record company you can name, keeps a handy deletions axe hanging behind its board-room door. However, NWR does promise that, if the CRI recording you want isn’t available they will, for the same price as a standard issue, run you off a fully packaged and documented CD-R. Now that sounds to me like both a reasonable compromise and a pretty fair deal. No doubt, one day soon, you’ll be able to download it straight to your iPod, and spend many happy hours wrestling with the DRM, in the quite unreasonable hope that you might continue to hear what you’ve bought and paid for – Candide was indeed prophetic!

CRI did have one particularly juicy feather in its cap – a licence to issue recordings, including those first released on the composer’s own Gate 5 label, that are held in the Harry Partch Foundation’s archive. Those original CRI issues are available from NWR on four single-CD volumes. It doesn’t sound like a right lot, does it? Indeed it doesn’t – until you remind yourself that, for more than 25 years, anyone gagging for a dose of Partch’s music had these four CDs’ worth and, more or less, that was it. With that in mind, it’s perhaps just as well CRI didn’t follow standard industry policy.

It may be entirely coincidental, but CRI’s decline seems to have proceeded in parallel with the ascendancy of Innova’s wide-ranging Enclosures series. It may seem equally coincidental that, although the two collections have works in common, the actual recordings are all distinct. However, I suspect that this is not simply down to good luck, but a bit of astute management on the part of Innova. On this CD, there are three items – U.S. Highball, San Francisco and Barstow – that qualify as “common” yet “distinct”. So, it seems, I have a rare opportunity to indulge in a comparative review of some Partch performances.

Well, I would, if it weren’t that I’ve previously implied (for example, see reviews of Enclosure 2 and Enclosure 5) that comparative reviewing of Partch recordings is about as useful as comparisons of chalk with cheese – there’s a superficial similarity, but that’s about all there is. That certain sense of pioneering zeal, associated with performers and recordists grabbing “once in a lifetime” chances as if their very lives depended on it, tends to make each recording unique. Anyway, it isn’t as if the record catalogues are exactly stuffed with alternatives.

Broadly – very broadly – speaking, earlier recordings have a higher “pioneering zeal” quotient, and later ones greater technical assurance and better recording quality. So, where there’s a choice, the pilgrim in search of divine revelation should incline towards the earlier recording, and the seeker after sonic satisfaction should plump for the later.

Time to crack on, so let’s look at those “common” yet “distinct” items first. These are all part of The Wayward. This seems not to be a work in itself but, somewhat similarly to Ives’s Holidays Symphony, a convenient umbrella for an assembly of works which, although independently conceived, are loosely bound by a common thread. Partch’s first-hand experience of life as a hobo, with all the deprivation and humiliation that that implies, provide the expressive substance – a substance, moreover, which is expressed fairly and squarely in the American vernacular. We might well ask, “Is this also ‘similarly to Ives’?”

Well, to some extent, yes, but whereas Ives mined the American musical vernacular, Partch dug deep into a far dodgier seam – the verbal vernacular. As I said in my Enclosure 2 review: “In these works, Partch did something . . . utterly unprecedented. Folk like Puccini had viewed life in the raw through the rose-tinted glasses of a luxuriant symphony orchestra, and chaps like the Gershwins had dolled up the vernacular in sophisticated Broadway garb . . . somehow everything that Partch had developed – his radical approach to word-setting, his microtonal Monophony, his exotic instruments and his unique style – seemed to come together and ignite, catalysed by the unfiltered candour with which Partch had written down his hobo experience.” U.S. Highball and Barstow in particular are significant steps up the evolutionary ladder that led from his early speech-music to the later, full-blown corporeal dramas.

I gave a fairly detailed low-down on U.S. Highball in my review of Enclosure 1, so for now let’s just say that this seminal work stands head and shoulders over the other three components of The Wayward. Originally issued on Partch’s own Gate 5 label, the 1958 recording feels very reminiscent of the contemporary RCA “Living Stereo” in its wide spread and warm, yet clear, sound. Unfortunately, there’s also a gaping hole in the middle of the stereo image. At first, I wondered if this was anything to do with the old-fashioned misconception of “stereo”.

Happily, it isn’t – but don’t throw your caps in the air just yet. The performers might seem be in two spatially-separated groups, were it not that some instruments seem continually undecided as to which camp they belong. Occasionally, I’ve come across this same effect on other recordings. There are several possible causes, but it’s a particularly common pitfall of using a simple “divergent pair” of microphones to approximate a listener’s ears. For any given pair of microphones, the setting of the divergence angle is critical. Set it just a bit too narrow and the instruments get terribly chummy, cuddling up together in the middle. Set it even marginally too wide, and they take umbrage, splitting into two opposing factions.

I checked this possibility by loading the track into an audio editing program, and tweaking the stereo spread. The result of reducing the said spread by about 20% was astonishing. Not only had the hole been completely filled by the errant instruments – but also the reason for their “indecision” had become crystal clear. Because they were very large marimbas, their sounds were spatially separated, and had been hoicked over to whichever side was the nearest. Tweaking the spread had in effect “corrected” the divergence angle, and hence restored their integrity as individual instruments in stable locations near the centre. If this would bother you and you haven’t got the software, then avoid using headphones and be prepared to adjust your speakers.

One of the most striking things about U.S. Highball is its extraordinary onomatopoeia – Partch invokes the sounds of the railroads with gloriously rowdy realism. That much is blindingly obvious, because this music rivals or betters the best “train sounds” around. Perhaps less obvious, though, is the subtle import of his speech-music principles. Starting from the premise that emotional expression is inherent in speech, these dictate that the music grows directly out of the tonality of the words and their inflections: speech-music, you could say, acts as an emotional amplifier.

For instance, quite a lot of the “stream of consciousness” narrative expresses the hardships and indeed very real dangers of riding the freight trains, whilst the music ostensibly portrays the physical excitement of the train picking up speed. However, by virtue of the harmonically resonant words and music, the whole is permeated by the feelings – of discomfort, fear, and stoicism – that are the hoboes’ constant companions. Folk concerned for their sanity in the face of exposure to such raw emotional experiences may rest assured that the speech-music principles apply equally to any emotions – including humour.

The early versions (1940s) of U.S. Highball convinced Partch that he “badly needed some percussion”. Notwithstanding the fervency of the recorded performance (see Enclosure 2), the early version’s somewhat confined instrumentation tended to reduce Partch’s impulsive rhythms to the consistency of lumpy custard. Comparing it with this recording of the final version, you can see his point – the rhythmic edges are much harder, the dynamics more contrasted, and Partch’s palette now has purer tones to relieve the earlier version’s overtone overdose. Of course, it also helps that – judging by the sound of it – the somewhat “iffy” chromelodion mechanism seems to have been tightened up.

If I recall correctly, Partch originally conceived U.S. Highball for voice and adapted viola, in the manner of his earliest speech-music works. Presumably through force of habit, he had the same intention – of being able to perform it “all on his own-some”. However, this turned out to be very much a first draft because, almost immediately, he set about a re-draft, adding further instruments and dividing the voice into a “subjective voice” and an “objective voice”. This version is the one included in Enclosure 2.

The final version, as well as attending to the lack of percussion, further distributed the vocal rôle so that each instrumentalist had an individual “character”. This sequence of drafts is just a normal compositional process, like “sketch – piano score – full score”, isn’t it? No, not this time. Instead, what we see here is a philosophical process at work, Partch’s growing concept of corporeal drama made manifest. The clincher of the sequence is not another version, but the Madeline Tourtelot film of U.S. Highball. My Enclosure 1 review discusses how the visual complement elicits the extent of the work’s vivid corporeality.

Although, as yet, I haven’t found any documentary confirmation, there is circumstantial evidence that both film and recording featured the same performers. The film’s ensemble scenes were shot in the same year as the recording. Both were captured in the same place – Evanston, Illinois. The voices sound exactly the same, and just one of them is a woman’s – and here’s me, thinking that it was only the men-folk who were condemned by the American Depression to wander in the wilderness.

I’m inclined to go along with the evidence, not least because then I can conveniently reiterate this extract from my earlier review: “The playing and vocal exchanges have tremendous guts and enthusiasm: the performers . . . clearly getting right under the skin of the piece.” I might add, “And well they might, with a former hobo – no less than Partch himself – manning the Kithara.”

Yet, in some ways, this really does seem to be an even better performance than that of the film. The players engineer the locomotive dynamics more realistically, frequently building up truly nape-tingling heads of steam. Helped a bit by a superior sound quality, they also heighten the contrasts to illuminate the relatively thoughtful episodes. At the opposite pole to the excitement of moving, which gives at least the illusion of “getting somewhere”, there is bitter dejection in the realisation that they are “S-s-s-stuck! In Green River.”

In a couple of places the instrumental sound tends to blot out the words, though this is by no means a serious problem, and easily overcome by a quick glance at the libretto printed in the booklet. Grotty the sound may be, but I wouldn’t want to be without the historical recording of the “second draft” (Innova). Equally, in spite of its inadequate sound, I treasure the Tourtelot film for its imaginative approach to Partchian corporeality, an approach which is as near as most of us will ever get to that experience. However, the Gate 5 recording of the final version would have to be my “Desert Island Disc”: with by far the best sound, and the most confident and involving performance, it enters my ears and fills my mind’s eye with engrossing drama that belies its thoroughly mundane origins.

This CD also contains three items that have not previously been released. This can only mean that CRI, to coin a cock-eyed phrase, went down the pan with a few aces hidden up its sleeve – so thanks are due to NWR for exposing the sleight of hand. Anyway, this San Francisco, recorded at the same time as U.S. Highball, is one of them. Enclosure 2 contains two alternatives. One is Warren Gibson’s 1945 acetate recording of the original 1943 version, for intoning voice, adapted viola, kithara and chromelodion. The other is something of a curiosity, being a 1990 German recording of the 1955 revision, arranged by Mark Eslin – for voice, flute, three guitars and cello!

Almost by definition, Partch’s corporealism is a world away from impressionism. Yet, the highly evocative San Francisco, in doing “just what it says on the tin”, strikes me as distinctly impressionistic. Is this a paradox, or merely my misapprehension? I don’t know - I’ll have to have a think about it.

Originally, the two newsboy cries were intoned by just the one vocalist­, again suggesting a prototype for a single performer. However, this generated an accidental dramatic inconsistency, because it gives the impression that this newsboy has started off flogging the “Chronicull” (“Chronicle”), but then, quite unaccountably and right in the middle of his sales pitch, switched his allegiance to “Eggzaminay papay. Get yur papay. Here’s yur papay” (“Examiner paper. Get your paper. Here’s your paper.”). Those, by the way, are all the words. They aren’t printed in the booklet. However, you don’t need to make a note of them – because they are, unlike the words of most operatic arias and in spite of their gruffness, as clear as a mountain spring.

Partch’s 1955 revision was as ingenious as it was simple, and as necessary as it was far-reaching – which is some revision for such a brief work. He simply split the vocal part so that there are, on opposite corners of the street, two rival newsboys – who strike me as mildly reminiscent of the doleful duet between oboe and cor anglais in the Symphonie Fantastique. Musically, this allowed him to indulge in a spot of counterpoint. Corporeally, it set in its rightful place the dramatically vital element of competition between the vendors.

I wholeheartedly agree with Lou Harrison, quoted in the booklet as considering it “about the foggiest and dampest music I’ve ever heard.” Without a doubt, it is the most unmitigatedly mournful music that I’ve ever come across. Strange as it may seem, that is meant as a compliment – there is, after all, much more to Life than gambolling gaily amid buttercups and daisies. In a mere couple of minutes, the three performers paint to perfection this dreary little image, which will dredge up memories in the mind of anybody who’s ever trudged through the misty murk after a particularly wearying day’s work.

After all that stoicism and soggy dew, the third of our “common” yet “distinct” pieces comes as a bit of welcome light relief. As per Barstow’s full title, Partch had stumbled on some graffiti scrawled on a railing that doubled as an unofficial “bus-stop” and a forerunner of the internet “bulletin board”, passing hitch-hikers for the use of. This clutch of contributions, ranging from words of “advice” through frustrated exclamations to sheer wishful thinking, struck a particularly resonant chord. Although coarse, these were far removed from common-or-toilet-wall base obscenities, but a series of snapshots constituting a microcosm of hobo life.

Barstow is thus a “hobo” work that is not a product of direct personal experience, but more a child of opportunity. At this remove, Partch felt relatively free to let loose his imagination on the anonymous texts, and the result was a work with a fair bit of humour rattling around in the woodwork.

Genteel folk should be warned that, unlike the jokingly “self-bleeped” text of U.S. Highball (“You exclamation mark bum! Get your semicolon asterisk out of these yards”), this recording of Barstow includes the “f” word, complete and unexpurgated. It doesn’t feature in the 1945 Warren Gibson recording of the original 1943 version (see Enclosure 2). I’m not sure why, but my guess is that Partch was obliged to observe the extant obscenity laws. However, when he came to produce the final version, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial had rewritten the rude words rule book, and the Swinging Sixties were in full swing. So, it was “Heaven knows, anything goes”, and in it went, with or without Heaven’s full knowledge and consent. Matters of taste apart, I’d say “And so it should” because, as it happens, the unknown author had spun the naughty word into a rather neat little rhyme.

The 1945 recording is a fascinating historical document but, because the sound reclaimed from the original acetate is fairly dire, listening to it is hard work. However, that’s a reflection not on Warren Gibson but on the innately fairly dire acetate medium. Hence, given the quality of the competition, it must be considered one for pilgrims in search of divine revelation only. The present recording, another first release, was made at a live performance in Partch’s home town as recently as 1982.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as if it was, and the main reason is as plain as the nose on your face – the voices are coming out of P.A. loudspeakers. In mitigation, maybe they were trying to overcome some acoustical difficulty with the Mills College hall. Nevertheless, their relatively boomy and muffled quality seems all the worse for the instrumental sounds being well “up front” and sharply defined. I don’t know quite what Partch, who was fastidious to a fault on matters of performance, would have made of it, but I bet that “throw a dicky fit” would have come into it somewhere.

The performance itself, I’m glad to say, shoves the overall score way back up over the “respectable” line. The audience clearly enjoyed it, judging by the ripples of mirth that keep flickering through their ranks. is Far from obtruding, their amusement enhances the atmosphere, casting what Partch might have called “a shadow of corporeality” over the recording. The vocalists act their parts with relish, exaggerating their characters but stopping just nicely short of out-and-out caricature. Barstow is appropriately cast in a basic rondo form: each “inscription” is an episode introduced by a ritornello. On each appearance, this sassy little marimba tune accompanies an announcement – of “Number One”, “Number Two” etc. – by a voice of such gritty, gravelly gruffness that I felt an urge to loosen my holster, just in case.

For accuracy of vocal intonation, essential to realise the microtonally-inflected booziness Partch built into his work, the present performers must take second place to those in the recording on “The World of Harry Partch” (CBS Masterworks MS7207), which was a stunning LP, now long overdue for issue on CD. The swing to that roundabout is that the present ensemble takes more risks. By cranking up the contrasts – both dramatic and musical – they must be given pride of place on the “fun factor” front. 

The Wayward’s second “inner movement” is the third of this CD’s debutants. The Letter is vaguely like Tatiana’s Letter Song from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, because both involve someone “reading a letter”. But there all similarity between Partch and Tchaikovsky ends! It’s a dangerous piece to come at “cold” – believe me, I know, because on my first hearing I thought, somewhat bemusedly, “What a load of rubbish!” To be honest, I opted for a bit of self-censorship there. Hopefully, by the time I’ve filled you in, you’ll understand why I made what amounts to a fairly major boo-boo.

This piece is a setting of a letter Partch received, in 1935, from a friend he’d met “on the road”. Partch said, “[It] is stylized, partly to underline the perverse humor and the obviously warm regard, but mostly to convey – through sound and rhythm – the delight of reading [for the first time] a very unexpected letter from an old companion.” The letter itself is reproduced in the booklet. Almost devoid of punctuation – though still a composition far finer than most latter-day Web message-board posts – it’s a breathless flurry, reading like a ’phone call made in a hurry.

Moreover – once you’ve deciphered the phrasing – the letter has a very natural feel, so its excitedly gabbled vernacular was just sitting up and begging to be set as speech-music. Partch’s treatment – based on his memories of his hobo pal’s voice – preserves the inherent lurches, waverings and sudden spurts. This is where I got caught napping: I had tried to hear it as music, whereas it is in fact not music at all, but a dramatic vignette. We live and learn.

Even this recording of The Letter has a strange provenance. Partch prepared this 1972 version to perform himself, in Stephen Pouliot’s film The Dreamer that Remains: A Portrait of Harry Partch (see Enclosure 7). Presumably for reasons of economy, the brief instrumental breaks were to be replayed from a recording of the work made in 1950 (this recording is included on a compilation, The Composer-Performer, NWCR 670). In the event, only an extract of The Letter was used in the film and, as nobody actually made a complete “final mix” at the time, John Szanto later took on the task of forging the bits together.

Do I seem to be making an awful lot of fuss and palaver over what is, after all, only a minor piece of under three minutes’ duration? If it didn’t even rate a complete performance in the film, then why bother even to resurrect it? Couldn’t we make do with the 1950 recording, bits of which are “in the mix” anyway? The answer is simple. This is one of the very last recordings of Partch performing. There are three options: prepare and publish it, leave the bits festering in the vaults, or bin it. Which would you choose? Minor it may be, but I find a special frisson in hearing the ageing and ailing Partch, admittedly struggling a bit, but still full of fire and red-knuckled energy.

The final work on the CD is anything but minor! Over some 35 years, Partch had obsessively pursued a single ultimate goal. In the 1930s, he developed the principles and practice of speech-music, of necessity both justly-intoned and microtonal. From this, in the 1940s, evolved his concept of “corporeality”. In the 1950s, he applied this concept to the creation of fully-fledged corporeal dramas. In 1966 his supreme masterpiece, Delusion of the Fury, marked the achievement of his goal. Because it grew out of Partch’s wholesale rejection of the intonationally-tempered Western musical tradition, corporeality was – and is – the very antithesis of classical instrumental “absolute music”.

Why, then, just when he was entering the finishing straight, did he suddenly produce a piece of “absolute music”? Here, you understand, we are talking of not just a sneaky little bit on the side, but a socking great lump on the scale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Luckily, this looming paradox is soon resolved. Partch was, amongst many other things, a thoroughly “serious” composer. His music may have defied convention, but his creative methodology was no different from anyone else’s. Contemplating what he must have known was to be his greatest challenge, he set to and produced a set of studies – in effect, a big boy’s playground in which he could freely experiment in preparation for the projected “ritual of dream and delusion”.

Although there was a focus on technical innovation – including stretching and testing the capabilities of his unique instruments, and exercising previously untried polyrhythms and polymetres – Partch’s principles wouldn’t allow him to produce anything altogether dry and dusty. This much is borne out by the work’s sumptuous, tongue-tickling title. On the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma is an autobiographical motif, relating to his return to California in the autumn of 1962 after a second absence of six years – hence at the dawn of a seventh year - and a resonant memory of the petal-strewn path leading to his prospective new premises in Petaluma.

Intriguingly, this work is “absolute” in the same way that certain Mahler symphonies are “absolute”. Early on in his composing career Mahler, as we know, would invoke programmes as a sort of philosophical “scaffolding”, to prop up his structures during building work, removing them when the job was finished. In Petals, Partch did something very similar, partly because the scenario of Delusion was in his mind, but also because he associated each “verse” with some aspect of daily life in Petaluma.

The structures that Mahler obtained through this ruse were innovative, but the structure of Petals is unique. To quote a bit of British vernacular, “cop a load o’ this”: it consists of 34 verses, each having the same duration, nominally of one minute. Verses 1-23 are duets and trios for varying instrumental combinations. Verses 24-33 are quartets and quintets, formed by superimposing pairs of verses: 1+2, 3+4, etc. Finally, verse 34 is a septet formed from the superimposition 21+22+23. That might seem like a purely mathematical conception, yet its purpose – or perhaps even its origin – is poetic. It had struck Partch that those fallen petals were like his blossoming, but still fragmentary ideas being blown around by the winds of his mind, and the gathering of those petals was like the assembling of those ideas into meaningful patterns. From this union was born the “accumulative” structure of Petals.

It seems that everything about Petals smacks of the unusual – even the making of this recording. We often hear of recording sessions interrupted by noises off, though generally these come from pigeons in the rafters and what-have-you. Not so with Petals, where the noises off were those of the bulldozer preparing to demolish the premises where the recording was in progress. Apparently, the bulldozer won, because the recording was completed elsewhere, some two years later.

Then again, “multi-tracking”, which is routine in these digital days, was very much in its “over-dubbing” infancy back in 1964-6. In those days, pop singers occasionally made mountains out of the mole-hills of double-tracking, by which I mean recording one part of a duet, then recording the other whilst listening to the first through headphones. In comparison, the multi-tracking of Petals – apparently necessitated by a simple lack of capable players – was a real, live mountain that had to be climbed, if they were to record the work at all. Why so? Good question. I’m glad that I asked it.

Partch’s “exercising” had produced some really “far out” results. In the uncombined verses (1-20) he’d made use of seven metres, ranging from a simple three in a bar, through an ear-crunching four quintuplets per bar, to a couple of complicated cyclic patterns of lengthening metre. The uncombined verses were deliberately constructed so that their combinations, in verses 21-34, generated some mind-bogglingly complex polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns. In his illuminating note, Bob Gilmore points out a coincidental parallel with the player-piano experiments of Conlon Nancarrow. The difference, which he omitted to spell out, is that Partch’s devilish rhythmic complexities were not programmed into a machine, but destined to stretch the playing abilities of mere mortals fairly close to breaking-point.

Thus the first step in the recording was to set down the even-numbered verses, whilst trying to keep just this side of breaking-point. Much as it might seem like it, that isn’t the “mountain”, but merely its “foothills”. To set down the odd-numbered ones the players then had to do the best they could to double-track their way through Partch’s rhythmic maze. It didn’t end there. After endless hours of painstaking labour, with the unstinting help of the inventive audio engineer Cecil Charles Spiller, Partch synthesised the latter, combined verses. Although not ideal, Partch admitted it was the best that they could manage with the technology to hand. Hearing the “less-than-ideal” results obliges me to raise my hat, for it gives every impression of being as precisely performed as many a live recording of Partch’s music.

In fact, recalling my own wrestling matches with tape recorders and splicing kits, just thinking about what they’d taken on brings me out in a cold sweat. I am mildly surprised, though, that Spiller’s armoury apparently didn’t include even a rudimentary mixing console. All the sounds come from either the left channel or the right – unlike the U.S. Highball recording, there is no “Mister In Between” with whom to mess. Brimming with confidence after my little experiment with U.S. Highball, I am seriously considering using my editing application to re-mix the combined verses from the uncombined ones, “pan-potting” the sound sources to spread them out a bit. That should be fun.

Whilst this 100% stereo separation maximally distinguishes the instrumental parts of the duets, it is no help at all with the more populous ensembles, particularly for those listeners taking advantage of the work’s “practical demonstration” angle to gain familiarity with the components of Partch’s sound-world. In fact, the booklet isn’t much help on that front either, because, whilst it provides a very neat one-page tabulation of the instrumentation versus the verses, the table doesn’t consistently list the left-channel instruments on the left, and vice versa. This isn’t a problem in such as Verse 4, where the instruments are Chromelodion II (reed organ) and Koto (plucked strings), but newcomers certainly will struggle to differentiate between, say, Verse 3’s Harmonic Canon I and Blue Rainbow – the latter being Partch’s poetic name for his Harmonic Canon III!

The circumstances under which it was made should have assured us of a rough and ready recording. Admittedly, the sound is a bit on the dry side, with the bass having all the profundity of a management seminar and, inevitably, the Marimba Eroica comes off worst. According to Partch, the Eroica’s seismic sound “[sets] chandeliers rattling, window frames rattling, even coffee cups [rattling]”, but here it’s hardly likely to rattle even your Grandma out of her afternoon cat-nap. Otherwise, the sound is very reasonable, bold, clear, and free from distracting distortion. Checking the CD against my copy of the original CRI LP confirmed that the two are virtually indistinguishable, right down to the remarkably unobtrusive tape hiss.

I would have expected at least some noises-off to have leaked onto the tape – the distant sound of fingers drumming on the controls of a bulldozer, perhaps? – but other than a few performing incidentals it’s as clean as a whistle. Overall on the sound quality front there is precious little cause for complaint. However, it’s as well to remember that this is both a historical document and the one and only recording of Petals, so let’s just be glad it’s as good as it is – after all, it could have been a whole lot worse.

Strangely enough, if you approach Petals purely as a set of independent epigrams, it actually can seem dry and dusty! The first time I listened, I knew that it was a set of studies written in preparation for Delusion, but of the latter itself I was completely ignorant. This is not the right amount of background information. You need either more information, or none at all. Yes, I know that if you’ve read this far, the latter is no longer an option, but it’s one to bear in mind if ever you play Petals to a friend. Punch your way through this paper bag, though, and Petals really starts to open up.

I’d say that at least a passing familiarity with Delusion itself (Enclosure 6) is not only helpful, but essential. Then, many of the materials in the uncombined verses immediately feel familiar. More importantly, like pieces in a jigsaw-puzzle they form a family. Already, Petals feels less “bitty”. When the combined verses come along, they bring with them the light of dawning day – these two fit together, those two fit together . . . ah! Now this starts to make sense!

The thing is, unlike many others who have trodden similar paths, Partch has not written these studies just for his own benefit. On the contrary, he has devoted much care and attention to make them as valuable to us as they were to him – this is not just a suite of studies, but a demonstration, an aid to appreciation, a window into the layered complexity of rhythms and sonorities that underlies, and gives such a wealth of dramatic power to Delusion of the Fury.

A word or two about the wrappings is in order. This issue effectively combines two original LP issues, so one cover picture has to “go”. The rather quaint “flower-power” cover of the Petals LP lost out to the photograph, taken by Partch himself, of some hoboes looking for a ride – presumably “Goin’ East, mister?” I don’t mind – after all, I still have the Petals LP! – and it is a superbly evocative photograph, evidence of yet another of Partch’s many talents.

The 24-page booklet, which is in English only, includes a further six (!) photographs, Bob Gilmore’s essay about Partch and the music, which is exemplary in both content, clarity and readability, all the texts apart from (as I said) those of San Francisco, listings of selected recordings and books, and a fair amount– though not quite all – of the usual production and performer information.

I do have one practical grumble. The works are presented one to a track. Whilst this is obviously alright for San Francisco, The Letter and Barstow, I’m not so sure about the two major pieces. Partch himself described U.S. Highball as “[falling] naturally into three parts: first, a long and jerky passage by drags to Little America, Wyoming; second, a slow dishwashing movement at Little America; third, a rhythmic allegro by highway to Chicago.” Really, this shouts “Put me into three tracks!” although I can live with just the one. Not so for Petals which, with 35 “movements”, really needs splitting up a bit – or even a lot. Imagine if, for example, you wanted to compare verses 9 and 10 with their combination, verse 28. Maybe, while I’m busy re-mixing, I might . . .

NWR are doing an invaluable job, keeping these recordings in circulation. This particular collection should appeal to all grades of interest, from absolute newcomers to die-hard Partch fans looking to upgrade their old CRI LPs – assuming that they haven’t done so already. However, drawing another parallel with Ives, to absolute newcomers I would suggest that having ears eager, or even desperate for new experiences, although not essential is nevertheless advisable.

One of the virtues of this CD is its balance, roughly a 50-50 split between the rough and the smooth. In the rough – the stuff of the streets and railroads – Partch presents an entirely new view of the vernacular, one that elicits art from the abject. In the smooth – the aesthetic and experimental – Partch provides an insight into the intricacies of his invention. Here you are shown both sides of the coin: one excites your imagination, the other intrigues your intellect – and both are likely to drop your jaw in awe.

Paul Serotsky


 


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