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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

"A Just Cause"

© Paul Serotsky 1998, 2004

Continued .... Part 3
Part 1
Part 2

 

6 Putting It into Practice

Armed with a scale and a notation, Partch only needed to write some music and get it performed. Writing the music was no more of a problem than for the average "ET composer", but performance? That was much easier said than done: on what could such music be performed? Certainly not by current instruments, which were geared to ET. And by whom? Certainly not by current performers, who would not understand a note of it.

Instruments

He had one or two instruments which he was using in his experimental work, including a modified viola and a simple "harmonic canon" which comprised a series of parallel strings stretched over a sounding-box. These strings could be tuned to the same pitch and then JI intervals (relatively) quickly tuned by carefully placing moveable wooden bridges. But to write only, say, "duos for modified viola and harmonic canon" was a bit limiting, and in any case there was only one performer - himself.

He was faced with an apparently insurmountable problem, for he was not content to remain a mere theoretician. His solution was again pragmatic, but also one with which he set himself a truly appalling task. Partch would build an entire orchestra of instruments of his own invention.

This task took him thirty years, a process of continual development, the results of which are shown in the table. Some of the instruments were adaptations of existing instruments, for instance viola, guitar, koto, and most notably the Chromolodeon, which was a re-tuned harmonium. A few are fairly straightforward redevelopments of conventional instruments - Bass Marimba, hand instruments, and Blo-Boy, which is an organ foot-bellow coupled to a few re-tuned organ pipes. Some are more radical redevelopments: the Diamond Marimba is neatly laid out in the geometry of the Incipient Tonality Diamond. Finally, some (a lot) are entirely original - weird and wonderful, and beautiful to behold. Partch, quite incidentally (and accidentally), won numerous prizes for some of his instruments, not for their musical qualities but as works of plastic art - sculptures.
Chromolodeon
Diamond Marimba

Some instruments exist in several versions (distinguished by roman numerals). These tended to have differences in quality, and thus newer versions did not supplant older ones. The Harmonic Canon III probably got its name, "Blue Rainbow", from its striking sonority, bolder and fuller than its predecessors, and capable of truly incredible, magical glissando effects. Where a newer version did replace its predecessor, it is suffixed "reconceived".
Harmonic Canon III
Quadrangularis Reversum

It would take a book to describe and explain all these instruments in detail, so I will limit myself to giving the flavour of a selected few. The Cloud-Chamber Bowls were inspired by the scientific apparatus invented by the physicist Charles Wilson for tracing subatomic particle interactions. Partch took large glass domes as used in the apparatus, tuned them and suspended them in a wooden frame. When struck, they produce a "bonging" sound somewhere between a bell and a bottle.

Speaking of bottles, the Zymo-Xyl had an amusing history. The "Xyl" part is basically a xylophone. The "Zymo" is taken from the Greek for "fermentation": beyond the wooden blocks is a row of inverted bottles. One of his more enjoyable researches involved locating bottles of the required resonance, which required that the contents be first disposed of. These fragile components tended to break (and require replacement) at intervals, though whether broken on purpose is not clear!

 

The Instruments - Chronology and Types

Date

Completion

Instrument

Type

1938

1945

Kithara

String

1945

1945

Adapted Viola

String (bowed)

1945

1945

Harmonic Canon I

String

1945

1945

Adapted Guitar

String

1945

1949

Chromelodeon I

Reed Organ

1946

1946

Diamond Marimba

Wooden Perc

1950

1951

Cloud-Chamber Bowls

Glass Perc

1950

1955

Spoils of War

Mixed Perc

1951

1951

Bass Marimba

Wooden Perc

1951

1955

Marimba Eroica

Wooden Perc

1953

1953

Harmonic Canon II

String

1953

1953

Surrogate Kithara

String

1953

1959

Chromolodeon II

Reed Organ

1954

1954

Kithara II

String

1955

1957

Boo

Wooden Perc

1956

1956

Koto

String

1958

1958

Blo-Boy

Wind (bellows)

1959

1959

Kithara (reconceived)

String

1959

1959

Harmonic Canon I (reconceived)

String

1960

1961

Crychord

String

1963

1963

Zymo-Xyl

Mixed Perc

1963

1963

Mazda Marimba

Glass Perc

1964

1964

Gourd Tree

Wooden Perc

1964

1967

Eucal Blossom

Wooden Perc

1965

1965

Cone Gong

Metal Perc

1965

1965

Quadrangularis Reversum

Wooden Perc

1965

1965

Harmonic Canon III (Blue Rainbow)

String

1965

1967

[assorted hand instruments]

Mixed


The Marimba Eroica is a remarkable construction, comprising just four wooden elements, the largest of which is about eight feet long, and requiring adjustable tuning. The sound is incredible, deep and black, like tuned bass drums, only firmer and rounder. The Cone Gongs were made from the nose cones of large artillery shells, and the Spoils of War include elements made from cartridge-cases.
Marimba Eroica
Cone Gongs

The Mazda Marimba is not a true marimba because its elements are not made of wood, but the glass envelopes of various light bulbs. Problems of finding one of the required resonance were similar to those encountered with the Zymo-Xyl, only considerably less fun to resolve. More so than the Zymo-Xyl or Cloud-Chamber Bowls, this instrument is extremely fragile. Its sound is a gentle "plopping", so quiet that this is the only one of Partch's instruments allowed a small degree of electronic amplification.
Zymo-Xyl
Cloud-Chamber Bowls

Performers

Having developed the scale, notation(s) and instruments, one final task remained: to get the music he had written performed. Again, Partch had to meet a problem head-on, though for once the description is simple to the point of curtness! He made himself proficient in each and every instrument, then cultivated a band of sympathetic musicians and trained them all. Judging by the performances available on record, training was carried out to a very high standard, at once demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt not only that instruments could be devised to cope with a high resolution JI, but also that music in 43-tone JI is far from impossible to perform.

7 Partch's Performance Philosophy

Harry Partch had fairly radical ideas on the place and purpose of music in human activity. He saw music as a "servant", rather than a "master", as something which does not exist in isolation but interacts with and enriches a dramatic experience. This viewpoint, with its origins in ancient history, clearly derives from his strong objections to ritualised, quasi-religious concert-giving. In Genesis of a Music, he considers this in great detail, re-appraising in its light the work of many great composers. In particular, he observed that Wagner had come closer than any to this philosophy, but then spoilt it by what Partch, and quite a few others for that matter, considered a gross over-inflation. In Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, he thought that Mahler had scaled heights privileged to few.

Part and parcel of this servant/master perspective was his idea of the relationship between music and words. He found it intensely annoying that the words in opera, which have the supremely important role of conveying the essential drama, are ruthlessly pulled about and distorted to "fit" the music. He was not slow to deduce that this is why the words are generally unintelligible: words are recognisable equally by their rhythmic pattern, their "temporal structure", as they are by the quality of their sound. Opera composers destroyed intelligibility by distorting the "speech-rhythms" of words just as effectively as if they had substituted the wrong syllables! (of course, as always, there are notable exceptions.) Music, in Partch's philosophy, if it did not serve the words, did not serve its purpose in the vocal context.

He encapsulated his philosophy in the term corporeal music, music that exists physically, in the "here and now", and not in some abstract, intellectual vacuum. Music was seen as "part of the action" of a "total theatrical experience". That this was not just some clever-dick pronouncement was demonstrated by pointing to the place allotted to music in "natural" environments, such as can be witnessed in "tribal" surroundings the world over. Partch's musicians, far from being placed in some secure, distinct reservation (such as an orchestra pit), formed part of the actual scene. Musicians had to wear costumes like the rest of the "cast". The form and disposition of instruments was determined by dramatic considerations. Special lighting for the musical printed parts was not necessary - Partch expected his musicians to learn their parts, just as the singers and actors had to learn theirs - and "why not?" one immediately asks.

8 For Posterity

Partch must have been acutely aware of the volatile nature of his practical work. Performances of his music would be unlikely after his death, as his music could only be played on his instruments. These, extremely delicate, temperamental, and requiring hours (even days) of careful setting up for a performance, would in all likelihood become museum pieces without his personal ministrations. So, ever pragmatic, he provided a chance of survival, at least historically, for his music by starting up his own recording company, "Gate 5", named after the inauspicious premises in which it operated. A number of recordings were made, which have since entered the catalogue of the Composers' Recordings Incorporated (CRI) label produced in the USA.

Oddly enough, his masterpiece, the 70-minute long Delusion of the Fury which formed the climax of his life's work, was recorded not by his own Gate 5 company, but by CBS (now Sony) Records. This came as a 2-LP set with a generously illustrated booklet, and an additional LP of demonstrations of each of his instruments, though this last was sadly missing from sets imported into the UK (it was never, as far as I am aware, formally released in the UK).

Finally, towards the end of a long and arduous road, Partch completed and had published a book, of biblical proportions, summarising all he had done. This covers, in some detail, an autobiographical background, a philosophical appraisal of Western Music (in composition and performance) from the standpoint of corporeality, his theoretical and experimental work, the invention and construction of his instruments, the development of effective notations, the bringing of it all together in performance, and a comprehensive set of appendices and references.

I suppose we should expect nothing less from such a man, but it is gratifying to find that, although very tough going in parts - to a non-professional like me, at any rate! - it is engagingly written, cogently argued, not without humour amidst its profundities, thoroughly absorbing, and shamefully ignored by the musical establishment who, sadly, seem hell-bent on perpetuating myths.

9 Epilogue

What would the musical world of today have been like if, a few hundred years ago, practical solutions to those keyboard problems had been found and ET had consequently never been invented? That is of course impossible to answer, though we can while away many an idle hour dreaming about it. However, the crucial question is this: if ET is really such an irredeemably Bad Thing, should we now reject all the music written in it? The answer is, of course, an extremely emphatic NO! The music of the last couple of hundred years is, like the Tower of Pisa, no less beautiful for having been built on shaky foundations.

The point of this exercise is simply to try to bring some understanding of certain aspects of music as we know it, and to appeal for proper recognition of the genius and achievement of a "loner" quite unjustifiably dismissed as a "crank". Harry Partch was not alone in researching the deeper implications of JI, but he was the first to put those researches into practise, especially in such an exhaustive manner. It is a truly staggering achievement.

Partch was once asked why he hadn't devised any wind instruments. His reply, with which I can sympathise, was (if I recall the words correctly), "Good God! How much do you expect a man to do in only one lifetime!" This highlights the extreme difficulty of Partch's chosen path, a difficulty which at the time effectively prevented others from following his lead: he was to all intents and purposes "marginalised".

However, believe it or not, the "margin" is slowly diminishing! Three developments have emerged. Firstly, so-called "new technology: computers and sophisticated electronic synthesisers have made access to JI far easier for anyone and everyone who has the inclination. Secondly, there are some proponents of Partch's "just cause" creeping out of the woodwork of his despised "Western European tradition", most notably the Kronos Quartet. Thirdly, and most gratifyingly, Partch’s wonderful "instrumentarium" is not gathering dust in some murky musical coffin, but cherished by Dean Drummond’s NewBand, who are not only caring for these priceless artefacts but also taking them out and giving performances all over the place. Whether these little acorns grow into great oak trees, we will "just" have to wait and see.

Recommended Further Reading:

Harry Partch - A Biography
Bob Gilmore
Yale University Press
ISBN 0-300-06521-3

Genesis of a Music (Second Edition, enlarged)
Harry Partch
Da Capo Press, New York
ISBN 0-306-80106-X

Pictures of Partch instruments, taken from the booklet of the original CBS LP issue of "Delusion of the Fury".

See also review

Harry PARTCH (1901 - 1974) arr. Ben Johnston "U.S. Highball" - A Musical Account of Slim's Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943) Kronos Quartet (David Harrington vn, John Sherba vn, Hank Dutt va, Jennifer Culp vc) David Barron voice
Rec. Skywalker Sound, Nicasio CA, 25-26 August 2000 NONESUCH 7559-79697-2 [28'47] [PSe]
Brilliantly executed, movingly expressed, and a great - but dangerously misleading - service for a truly original genius. … Paul Serotsky

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