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Harry PARTCH (1901 - 1974)
"Enclosure 1"
Four historic art films produced by Madeline Tourtelot, with music by Harry Partch
Rotate the Body in All Its Planes (1961) [9'00]
Music Studio - Harry Partch (1958) [17'48]
U.S. Highball (1958, completed 1968) [24'18]
Windsong (1958) [17'38]

Innova 400, VHS tape, NTSC format*, monaural sound.



* Copies in PAL format are available from (a) ReR Megacorp, 79 Beulah Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey, or (b) British Harry Partch Society, 45 Newman Road, Erdington, Birmingham (payment by UK cheque only). Alternatively, order via for payment by credit card.

BHPS provide additional documentation (while stocks last) with PAL format tapes.


So, I said to him, "Harry Partch was an amazing bloke, and what he did is amazing. I reckon that he is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the entire history of music", and he came straight back at me with, "OK, Mr. Clever-Clogs, so how come hardly anybody’s even heard of Harry Partch, then, eh?" I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Well, he does have a point. What’s more, it’s a point that’s a real conundrum. Look at it this way. The evidence to back up my claim is all there, bags of the stuff, so it should be an open-and-shut case. Yet, it’s like the proverbial water to which you can lead a horse: hardly anybody leads any horses to it, and those that are can’t be made to drink - as often as not they just turn up their noses. Why?

The "horse" is the ordinary, music-loving "man in the street", who has to be forgiven his ignorance because, as is ever the case, he depends on the specialists and experts - professional musicians, musicologists, educators, writers etc. - to "lead" him to the "water" and persuade him that to take it on board. The ignorance of the majority of those "leaders" is less easily forgiven, for it’s they who supposedly have a duty to accumulate, digest and disseminate knowledge of "important" things, ultimately for the enlightenment of Mr. Joseph Public.

Maybe I’m doing this majority an injustice. Perhaps they have all examined the evidence and argument. Perhaps they are all unwilling to accept it. Perhaps they have all mistaken Norman LeBrecht’s tongue-in-cheek dismissal of Harry Partch as a "crackpot inventor" as a serious conclusion. Yet, even if that is so, it doesn’t let them off the hook: they do not have a duty to suppress what they don’t go along with.

Yet, they can, and they do, dismiss the Partch phenomenon. It seems to defy logic, because there is involved so much that strikes right at the very foundation of this stuff we call "music". Possibly therein lies the answer to the conundrum - nobody likes things that strike at the very foundation of their livelihoods! However, for anyone who’s prepared to risk dipping his snout into this particular pool of knowledge, there’s no denying the insights to be gained. Moreover, the theoretical and practical, experimental studies emerging from Partch’s work would be immensely instructive - and probably revelatory - to pretty well all musicians and music students. Would it be such a bad thing if, as Partch implied, musicians joined the rest of the artistic fraternity, and acquired a real understanding of "the science of their art"?

However, with the World as it is, most of the experts remain in blissful ignorance and so, willy-nilly, must the ordinary, music-loving Mr. Joseph Public. Unless I’m preaching to the converted, then before we go any further, you at least should drink a drop or two of the said water. You might try, as a more or less useful starting-point, my Musicweb article: "A Just Cause" . A quick skim through should give you a working appreciation of this "most extraordinary phenomenon".

Wholesale public recognition, though, was never going to be on the cards as far as Partch’s music is concerned. The justly-intoned 43-note scale, which marries his music and instruments, occupies a universe utterly incompatible with that of the 12-tone equal-tempered musical mainstream. Partch’s music isn’t written for, and is not playable by conventional musical instruments. Admittedly, it is possible to arrange his music for certain "ordinary" instruments, generally those of continuous pitch, like the violin family and the human voice. However, to resolve the 43-note scale accurately may require instruments, possibly extremely valuable instruments, to be physically modified, which may seem a less than attractive option to their owners. In any case, the very act of performance of any such arrangements could do Partch’s cause more harm than good (see my review of U.S. Highball).

Almost from the day he determined the path he’d tread, Partch was well aware that the Music he wished to create would stand a better than average chance of dying with him. With typical thoroughness, he set to and did something about it. Just look at the list in Philip Blackburn’s introduction to the present video-tape recording: "Harry Partch - composer, theorist, writer, dramaturg, visual artist, philosopher, flunky, musicologist, sound-sculptor, furniture-maker, dish-washer, copy editor, hobo, proof-reader, aesthete, man of letters, publisher, record producer, teacher, conductor, inventor, painter, critic, gardener, librettist, storyteller ..." There are a good half-dozen jobs which are concerned specifically with the documentation and preservation of his life’s work beyond his life’s span.

Indeed, Partch had commented that he regarded his life’s work as a sort of "letter to the world" and, pursuing the analogy, intended his final composition to be an "enclosure" - an afterthought, appendage, or "gift". Sadly, it turned out that his last composition had preceded this declared intention. As its title implies, Innova’s series of six Enclosures, comprising collected sounds, images and documents, is an honourable attempt to plug the gap. In fact these Enclosures, set alongside the recordings Partch made on his own Gate 5 label (now part of the CRI catalogue), pretty well comprise Partch’s entire recorded legacy - which, pretty well, makes them priceless.

Partch’s vision of "corporeality" is something akin to ancient Greek theatre, allying many diverse arts in such a way that each reinforced the messages of the others. Although this sounds similar in principle to opera and ballet, what sets it apart is a strong communal, ritualistic element - which implies that "live" performance is an essential ingredient. Whilst film, by its very nature, is obviously not "live", Partch nevertheless saw it as a medium capable of a degree of corporeal expression. Madeline Tourtelot, a photographer and film-maker of great distinction, was very much of a like mind. She collaborated with Partch on several projects, the bulk of which are the four short "art films" that comprise this Enclosure 1. By a happy chance, the films adopt differing approaches to corporeality.

First, though, let’s get the mundane matter of technical quality out of the way. These films show every sign of being produced on shoe-string budgets. Even allowing for my review copy being a PAL transfer from NTSC, which itself is a transcript of the original 16 mm. film, the quality isn’t exactly dazzling. Soundtracks reminiscent of the sort of sound (A.M. only, of course) that we used to get from portable "tinny trannies" in the 1960s are complemented by the sort of grainy, fuzzy images, with vaguely unstable colour, such as we tend to associate with those old 8 mm. "home movies". It’s worth noting that, in the introductory notes, both Philip Blackburn and Partch himself refer to the less than ideal quality of sound and vision, the latter in particular saying, ". . . I am concerned, as well as film quality and sound quality will permit me, with presenting ideas, with the help of, or in spite of, technical factors."

Ordinarily, of course, such dismal technical quality would rule a product right out of court, and the prospective buyer would be pointed firmly in the direction of more acceptable alternatives. Here, though, we are not dealing with the "ordinary". In one sense, these are video equivalents of 78 r.p.m. sound recordings of great performers of yesteryear, recordings whose wonder lies in the artistic inventiveness and imagination of the recorded substance. Yet, these films are more than that, for they are unique - there are no alternatives! Whilst our senses may regret the poor sound and vision, our hearts tell us that seeing such works of genius through a glass darkly is infinitely preferable to not seeing them at all.

To the uninitiated ear, Partch’s sound-world can be a bit of a culture-shock. This has nothing to do with just intonation which, when all’s said and done, is the natural mode of operation for any self-respecting pair of ears. It does have something to do with the "microtonality", but not as much as you might expect. The system of just intonation is like a tree, with musical intervals for branches. The further up the tree you go, the thinner the branches, that is, the finer the intervals. Some folks’ knee-jerk reaction, on first hearing a bit of Partch, is to call it "atonal". Nothing could be further from the truth: his music is infinitely more tonal than anything by even Mozart or Schubert!

Although Partch’s "microtonality" uses many more, much finer intervals than we are used to hearing, they are all made of the same "wood", all fashioned according to the identical natural laws. Consequently, given a half-decent chance - i.e. holding that jerky knee in check! - our ears quickly cotton on to them. By far the greatest contributors to the "shock" are Partch’s unique, exotic, other-worldly instruments allied to - how shall I put this? - his highly individual musical style. I think I can safely say that the only composers who sound even the remotest bit like Partch are to be found amongst those who followed him!

Having developed his highly refined and finely-structured intonational system, you’d imagine that Partch would have devised instruments of sustained pitch (i.e. bowed, blown) on which to perform his music, so that the unaccustomed ear would have more time to focus on the "new" tonal relationships, to familiarise itself with this finer line spectrum. Maybe you’d imagine it - I know that I would - but that isn’t what happened! Inclined, as he generally was, to be cantankerous and contrary, Partch instead created mostly plucked string and percussion instruments! Moreover, his abiding fascination with the continuous nature of the sound-spectrum - with the curvaceous beauty of tones sliding and gliding between the fixed pitches - is also of inestimable help in muddying the aural waters for new-comers!

It starts to look as if Partch was going out of his way to make life difficult for us. However, just intonation, microtonality and instrumentation are merely the tools of his trade. Our faltering zest for adventure is restored by his performance ideal. In the films, the corporeal approach means that our appreciation of the unfamiliar music is helped by the familiar visual images, and thence the music, becoming familiar, in turn enhances our appreciation of the images.

For two reasons, then, Rotate the Body in All Its Planes is a wise choice of opening item. Firstly, the images of gymnasts plying their trade are unburdened by any dramatic overtones of ancient myth or urban legend. They are the most obvious and easiest to appreciate in their own right, and thus provide the longest lever with which to prise open the music. Secondly, in addition to his own instruments, Partch uses a vocal chorus and a ten-piece ensemble of conventional instruments - two piccolos, three trumpets, two trombones, a tuba and two percussionists - which together provide a bit of an anchor of familiarity in the sea of strange sonorities. Certainly, the "circus band" flavour he gives to the brass is both familiar, apposite and humourous. Mind you, other than to observe that "natural" brass are by definition justly intoned, I won’t even attempt to go into the details of how Partch squares these instruments with his intonational system!

The scenario of Rotate the Body is a straightforward display of modern gymnastics - "modern", that is, provided you ignore the now rather quaint-looking men’s drills and vests, and ladies’ "romper-suits" with integral software support! The filmed display was carefully structured, in the manner of a balletic divertimento or perhaps a baroque suite. Partch first observed the gymnasts, recording the sounds they made during their routines. This gave him a general sort of metrical reference for use whilst composing his score. Tourtelot filmed the same exercises, from various viewpoints, using both static and moving cameras. The "simple" matter of editing, of making the two meet in the middle, provided the spark that justified Partch’s - and Tourtelot’s - corporeal vision. In spite of the technological limitations, the images are very artfully presented, combining slow-motion, reverse-motion, still and even inverted images to dazzling effect - for example, trampolining becomes a real eye-opener when you see the rotating gymnast descend into the frame and curve back up out of it.

Music and movement are fused with considerable inventiveness. Partch’s music not only underpins the "pas d’action" in the expected manner, but also furnishes what he describes as "fanfares" and "applause" whilst the chorus, playing on the words of the title, conveys a feeling of "commentary". These conspire to evoke the feeling of "ritual" that Partch sees as a cornerstone of corporeality. Rotate the Body may be only nine murky minutes long, but in that short span Tourtelot and Partch seem to demonstrate that the ethos of ancient Greek theatre is alive and well, and living in latter-day sports arenas.

Placing Music Studio second on the tape was also a good idea, as it immediately helps to quench the curiosity aroused by the strange sounds that we’ve just heard in Rotate the Body. This film is doubly valuable because Partch’s own dark-brown, growly voice provides the narration. Tourtelot’s scene-setting is deceptively cunning. She establishes a mundane visual mood - Partch arriving at and entering his studio in Chicago, and settling down to the task of packing LPs of his music for posting to mail-order customers. This is set against an aural mood that is anything but mundane - Partch himself outlining his corporeal philosophy and the practicalities of his chosen path. It is startling, as well as fascinating, to hear him explaining the essentiality of the visual/aural interplay whilst watching this great man packing an LP that he says "lacks half the take". Like nothing else could, this crafty contrast underlines the truly exhaustive nature of Partch’s undertaking!

The balance of the film is devoted to two related demonstrations. Firstly, Partch goes from instrument to instrument, describing and illustrating something of the sounds and capabilities of each. The warm ease of his voice is in possibly inadvertent contrast to the self-conscious stiffness of his "on-screen" manner, but this is a minor embarrassment when set against the fascination of what we are witnessing - my only real problem with this sequence is that I was left wanting more of it, a lot more!

The demonstration of the Harmonic Canon, an instrument derived from the "Monochord" used by the ancient Greeks to investigate and formalise their musical scales, is particularly striking. Partch first shows how it can play single, related notes. Then, having rearranged the moveable bridges under its multitude of strings, with a few deft strokes he produces a truly astonishing sonic miasma!

Perhaps, if you will forgive the pun, even more striking is the Marimba Eroica. Partch explains that its fundamental tone, a subterranean 22 Hz., lies beyond the capabilities of the film’s soundtrack - for that matter, he could have added a prophetic "and all but the most esoteric of Twenty-First Century audio equipment"! Thus, when he strikes the massive resonator, "what you hear [is] chandeliers rattling, window frames rattling, even coffee cups in the kitchen, everything but the Eroica." Luckily for us, Enclosure 6 enshrines the top-notch CBS recording of Delusion of the Fury, produced in 1969 by no less than John McClure, a recording which conveys a very respectable impression of this awe-inspiring sound.

Partch’s second demonstration is something of a "practical application", in which he shows how he prepared the soundtrack for the film Windsong. Here we start to get some idea of the difficulties he faced. Having no suitably-trained players available, he had to play all the parts himself. Hence he had to record the music using a form of "multi-tracking". However, his tape recorder’s primitive (analogue) over-dubbing facility expired in a haze of multiplicative noise if pushed beyond three dubbing cycles. Thus he had to write the score in such a way that all the parts lay within his technical capabilities, and that no more than four instruments were required at any one time.

For the visuals of this film, he had to mime to his recording: as Partch said, "It couldn’t be [recorded again], since I was playing all the parts." As he also pointed out that the "synching" of sound and visuals, undertaken by himself and the cameraman, is often obviously approximate, it would perhaps be churlish of me to carp about it, so I won’t. Instead, I will drool over the - admittedly fuzzy - colour photography, which gives a fair impression of the striking appearances of those astonishing sonic sculptures that are Partch’s instruments, for example the burnished wood of the marimbas, or the light-glancing glass of the Cloud Chamber Bowls.

In any case, it’s worth any amount of the said "approximation" to see Partch playing his Adapted Viola, one of the very earliest products of his "seduction into carpentry". But why, oh why, when virtually all the interest lies in the left hand that’s carefully negotiating a multitude of closely-spaced studs - the visible manifestation of Partch’s 43-tone scale - does the camera home in on the bowing hand, which is doing nothing more than any other, common or garden bowing hand? A missed opportunity this may be, but the melody that he is playing certainly is not. In Windsong, he gave to this instrument a haunting, achingly soulful melody that penetratingly illustrates his justly-intoned microtonality, affording us a spine-tingling glimpse of the system’s expressive potential, exploring a musical realm that lies forever beyond the reach of the fossilised scale of 12-tone equal temperament.

Partch considers that the corporeality of this film hinges on the instruments themselves: they are the subject-matter, "characters" dramatised through the ritual of performance and the mutually reinforcing aspects of seeing and hearing them. Now, this seems a bit curious, coming as it does from one who railed against the "concert cult" of Western European classical music culture, for the two do not seem all that far apart. Just to confuse matters a bit further, Partch also said that he had no problem with "concert performance" of music as such. As far as I can fathom, the resolution of the paradox lies in the attitude, both of performers and audience: Partch objected, certainly not to the ritual of performance and listening as such, but to those who regarded mere technique and technicality as the be-all and end-all of musical performance - a bit like the "hi-fi buff" whose philosophy seems to be "never mind the music, just listen to the sound quality". In this film, there’s no danger of that: it is a triumph of substance over surface gloss!

The latter two films are both in the "proper" corporeal form, of enacted dramas wherein music is a contributor to the artistic end, rather than an end in itself. US Highball is by some margin the most substantial work on this tape. To quote from my Kronos review (and save you the trouble of looking it up!):

"Its text comes from jottings Partch made in a little notebook as he worked his way from California to Chicago late in 1941. Why, in the midst of depression, would he have done that? . . . basically Partch felt isolated, and having been invited by someone interested in his work, he set off almost on a whim: ‘[After] more than six years of California depression, I jumped at the chance of seeing some Midwest depression.’ Considering his journey took only about a fortnight, Partch assimilated the hobo subculture to a remarkable degree, and expressed it eloquently and - be warned! - idiomatically, through both his words and his music. Originally, Partch scored the music for Adapted Guitar, so that he could perform it himself, entirely independently. A year or two later, having acquired a couple of cohorts, he added Kithara and Chromelodeon to the instrumentation. Finally, in the mid-fifties he more fully re-worked it, in the light of his developing art, for a much larger ensemble of nine instruments whose players also shared the vocal line. Clearly, Partch cared a lot for this work, which he developed in these stages from a simple personal expression to [encompass] a more universal statement about the good old ‘human condition’".

Through its incarnations, it remained essentially a vocal drama, enacted by the musicians which, I suppose, makes it a formal forerunner, though on an altogether "higher" artistic plane, of the rock ‘n’ roll groups that emerged at around the time of its last incarnation! It also remains, in spite of its enlargement, a work of singularly intimate expression, and hence something that should be committed to film with circumspection. Tourtelot is nothing if not circumspect. She makes no attempt to "enact" the scenes implicit in the words, her film simply inter-cutting between, on the one hand, the instruments and the faces of the players as they act out their parts, and on the other, images of trains, tracks, yards, and seemingly endless tracts of mid-west countryside rolling by. There are no fancy effects; the film is lightly and simply spiced by occasional bits of animated art-work and colour filtering.

According to Partch, each hobo is represented by one instrument and the voice of its player. This is supposed to lend "identity" to the characters but, truth to tell, knowing exactly who says what doesn’t really make all that much difference to the narrative. Anyway, the scenario is not entirely self-explanatory, being not so much a "story" as a sequence of fleeting impressions and incidents en route. In the pursuit of corporeality, music, words and images are closely interwoven, consistently reflecting and reinforcing one another as the hobos gripe and grumble, bicker and cajole, trade experiences, advice - and warnings. It is a very moving portrayal, all the more valuable for its "insider insights", of these forlorn folk, forced into living as stoic and cynical wanderers by powers beyond their (and probably anybody else’s) comprehension.

The sound is sometimes confused, although this is almost inevitable when there is so much to be contained within very limited confines. However, the voices, which are a bit too closely miked, occasionally overload - and there is a persistent sawtooth buzz. This last is not itself a problem when the soundtrack is loud, but does tend to cause some intermodulation distortion. Again, you need to set these discomforts against the considerable intrinsic value of the substance. Happily, in this film the image quality has the advantage of enhancing the "period feel".

The playing and vocal exchanges have tremendous guts and enthusiasm: the performers, including Partch himself (on Kithara), clearly getting right under the skin of the piece. US Highball is a work that really "blows away" the popular misconception of just intonation as "all sweetness and light". Partch makes much use of highly dissonant intervals in his chuggingly, chuffingly onomatopoeic "train noises". By their very astringency, these throw the moments of poignant quiet, like lyrical islands in a sea of motor-rhythms, into sharp relief. The final arrival in Chicago, desperately anticipated all through the "Leavings" of various townships along the way, is ominously brief, muted and unfulfilling.

The final film of the four is the self-same Windsong for which we saw Partch preparing - or, rather, re-enacting the preparations - in Music Studio. That "re-enactment" came about because it was the making of Windsong that prompted - though "inspired" might be a better word! - Tourtelot to suggest the idea of a documentary about Partch’s instruments and the process of preparing Windsong’s soundtrack.

In Windsong we find the fullest flowering, in these four films, of Partch’s idea of corporeality. Partch himself saw it as an "example of adapting ancient myth to contemporary American psychology". The Greek legend of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne is transplanted to a Michigan sand-dune, whereupon the love-struck Apollo and the less-than-compliant Daphne are clearly children of the James Dean era. Unlike US Highball, Windsong is a fully-enacted visual drama, a "silent movie" whose scenario is suffused with ritualistic overtones, in both the subject-matter, its enactment, and the interweaving of symbolic natural imagery.

Although their subjects are apparently very different, Windsong and Rotate the Body have two points of strong commonality: they are both based on themes originating in ancient Greece and, more importantly, they both involve ritual, which Partch regarded as possibly the essential ingredient of corporeality. Perhaps, then, I should not be surprised to find that, of the four films, these two provide the most aesthetically satisfying experiences?

We also need to note that in Windsong the visuals preceded, and indeed prompted, the music. Partch devised the musical segments expressly to reflect the various scenes, both to underpin the somewhat implicative drama, and interact with the symbolic themes - birds in flight, rippling water, side-winder snakes, shifting sands, trees and leaves. For the most part, Partch reinforces "moods", which makes the relatively few moments of almost balletic synchronisation all the more telling. A straightforward example is the precise punctuation, by musical beats, of Apollo’s heavy footsteps as he sets out.

However, when Apollo, in his rowing boat, tilts back his head, cups his mouth and calls out, what you hear fair rocks you back on your heels, for it’s not a voice, but a cascade of Harmonic Canon. This extraordinary sonic miasma was eyebrow-lifting enough when dispassionately demonstrated in Music Studio; coming, seemingly, from the throat of a young man, it is a killer punch that dispels all doubt - regardless of his appearance or intentions, this is indeed no mere mortal! By such means, in the proper corporeal manner, the "loop" is closed. Partch’s unique music is an astonishingly inventive response to, and symbiosis with, the visual element. It lends to the real images an aura of unreality, to which a more conventional music could only aspire. Even the title shot is a wonder to behold: sunlight glinting off water to the singular strains of wood and glass.

There is one curious thing worth a mention. According to Danlee Mitchell’s statement of the scenario, "Desiring no part of Apollo’s intentions, Daphne wills herself into [becoming] a tree." In the film it looks, implicitly, as if Apollo had had his wicked way, and the distraught Daphne then metamorphosed herself, causing the guilty god to, in Mitchell’s words, "get the heck out". Not that it matters much: either way, it works. Hang on a mo’: make that two curious things: the credits say that Tourtelot herself plays the part of Daphne, with Rudolph Seno ... (that’s as much as is visible!) taking the part of Apollo. That Daphne and Apollo are never on-screen at the same time is explained by the "photography" credits - "Daphne and Apollo"! How’s that for back-scratching team-work?

As I’ve suggested, the poor, and occasionally dire, technical quality of these films betokens limitations that are merely budgetary. Similarly, the often rough-and-ready editing can be put down to inadequacies of the machinery available - and hence, again, comes down to cash (or, rather, lack of it). Ah! If only Tourtelot had had the resources of such as MGM behind her! Yet, in one sense, it is better as it is, because by simple contrast the transcendent artistry, pioneering vision and original ideas shine all the brighter through the dog-eared "packaging". The knock-back taken by Partch’s music is less of a problem than it might seem, because most of that is preserved elsewhere in rather better sound, if not in quite the same form.

With perhaps the exception of the relatively "straight" documentary of Music Studio, which nevertheless has its own inestimable value, these films provide an all-but-unique insight, a window into Partch’s world of corporeality. More than that, they afford us the rare privilege of observing, however briefly, the workings of a Music that is, in the words of the legendary Monty Python, "something completely different". If you’ve never even heard of Harry Partch, then, my friend, go forth and banish thine ignorance!

Paul Serotsky

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