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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
Enclosure 2 - Historic Speech-Music Recordings from the Harry Partch Archives
DISC A [67'46]:
1. I am Harry Partch [0'24]
2. By the Rivers of Babylon [3'25]
3. Texts and Music: A Wagnerian Wrestling Match [1'21]
Ten Li Po Lyrics [17'45]: (4. A Dream [4'33]; 5. An Encounter in the Field [0'48]; 6. On Hearing the Flute [0'59]; 7. The Intruder [1'09]; 8. I Am a Peach Tree [1'25]; 9. With a Man of Leisure [0'44]; 10. A Midnight Farewell [1'16]; 11. Before the Cask of Wine [2'10]; 12. On the Ship of Spicewood [2'31]; 13. By the Great Wall [1'55])
14. The Use of English in Serious Music [0’57]
15. Barstow - Eight Hitch-hikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California [8'26]
16. San Francisco – A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Street Corner on a Foggy Night in the Twenties [2'29]
17. Life is too Precious to Spend It with Important People [1'29]
18. US Highball - A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip [26'45]
19. While my Heart Keeps Beating Time [1'36]
20. San Francisco II [2'50]
DISC B [73'29]:
1. I’m going to start right off by giving you some sounds . . . [0'29]
Two Settings from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake [5'13] (2. Isobel [2'52]; 3. Annah the Allmaziful [2'21])
4. Dark Brother [7'41]
5-23. A Quarter-Saw Section of Motivations and Intonations [60'06]
DISC C [73'23]:
1-36. Extracts from "Bitter Music, A Hobo Journal"
DISC D [67'42]:
1. Yankee Doodle Birds [0'36]
2. Y. D. Fantasy - On the Words of an Early American Tune [3'54]
3. O Frabjous Day! [3'10]
4. You are charged with being guilty. Are you drunk or not drunk? [1'02]
5. Ring Around the Moon – A Dance Fantasm for Here and Now [9'00]
6. Bless This Home [3'21]
7. Harrys Wake [46'23]
Arun Chandra (guitar) [A/20], Christine Charnstrom (chromelodion) [A/2, A/15, A/16, A/18, B/4], Contributors: Harry Partch, Betty Freeman, Danlee Mitchell, Lou Harrison, Stephen Pouliot, Francis Crawford, Phil Keeney, Jack Larson, Lynn Ludlow, Bill Colvig, Jack and Patty Wright, Charles [?], unknown others [D/7], Danlee Mitchell (bass marimba) [D/3], Danlee Mitchell (harmonic canon) [D/6]
Danlee Mitchell (kithara) [D/6], Don Thompson (tin whistle, ob.) [D/2], Dorothy Holden (fl.) [B2-3], Fralia Hancock (double canon) [A/18], Fralia Hancock (Indian drum) [B/4], Gate 5 Ensemble cond. Horace Schwartz [D/5], Harry Partch (adapted viola) [A/2, A/4-13, A/16, A/18, B/4, D/6], Harry Partch (adapted guitar) [A/15], Harry Partch (chromelodion) [D/2], Harry Partch (harmonic canon) [D/3], Harry Partch (intoning voice) [A/4-13, A/15, A/16, A/18, D/3, D/6], Harry Partch (kithara) [B2-3], Harry Partch (speaker) [A/1, A/3, A/14, A/17, B/1, B/5-23, D/1, D/4], Hilmar Luckhardt (fl.) [B2-3], Hilmar Luckhardt (tin whistle) [D/2], John Garvey (cond.) [D/6], Joseph Varhula (mazda marimba) [D/6], Keith Johnson (guitar) [A/20], Lee Hoiby (flexatones) [D/2], Lee Hoiby (kithara) [A/2, A/15, A/16, A/18, B/4], Lesley Olson (fl.) [A/20], Liz Schmidt (pf.) [A/19], Lola Harding (sop.) [B2-3, D/2], Lynn Ludlow (intoning voice) [D/5], Mark Enslin (intoning voice) [A/20], Philip Blackburn (singer) [A/19], Rick Burkhardt (guitar) [A/20], Sarah Wiseman (vc.) [A/20], Sheila Guymer (pf.) [C], Vincenzo Prockelo (ob.) [D/6], Warren Burt (voice) [C], William Wendlandt (bar.) [A/2, A/18, B/4], William Wendlandt (intoning voice) [A/4-13, A/15]
Rec. Gualala, 1950-1 [A/1], loc. not known, 1945 [A/2, A/15, A/16, B/2-4, D/2], KPFA-Berkeley, 16/7/1954 [A/3], loc. not known, 1947 [A4-13], loc. not known, 30/5/1970 [A/14, A17, D/1], loc. not known, 1946 [A/18], loc. not known, 8/1995 [A/19], Sudwestfunk 3, Karlruhe, Germany, 24/1/1990 [A/20], UCLA, 8/5/1966 [B/1], loc. not known, 29/5/1967 [B5-23], Australian Broadcasting Corp. Melbourne, 23/1/1992 [C], Mill Valley Outdoor Club, 13/2/1954 [D/3], KPFA-Berkeley, 19/11/1953 [D/4-5], Univ. of Illinois, 1961 [D/6], Redwood City, California, 22/9/1974 and San Diego, 1966 [D7]
INNOVA 401 [4 CDs: 67:46 + 73:29 + 73:23 + 67:42]


"I am Harry Partch, a composer. My compositions, a few of which are here recorded, employ a scale, instruments and manner of performance different from that of current musical practice." Thus, with what must be the Understatement of the Century, does Partch’s own dark-brown voice, sounding mildly uncomfortable in front of a microphone, introduce the original recording of Intrusions. Although he couldn’t have known it at the time, he also neatly introduces this Enclosure 2. The recording of the subsequent short snippet of the music is horribly distorted, forcefully reminding us that we are lucky to be able to hear much of this music at all. Yet, as we shall discover, the causing of aural discomfort is not the sole prerogative of dire recording quality.

Many of us might imagine that a "radical" is someone who wakes up one morning in a fit of inspired decisiveness and tells the World something like, "OK, I’m sick of the entire tradition of Western Music. Today I’m going to ditch the lot of it, and build a Music of my own – the whole shooting match, from scratch!" Well, Harry Partch was just such a radical, but, strange as it might seem, he didn’t just sit up and declare his "life-goal" quite so emphatically. Quite the contrary, in fact; he rather drifted into it, the hapless victim of circumstance.

Although most of us probably go through life like that, I’m sure that very few of us end up in such strange places with strange-sounding names. For that matter, neither do we find ourselves negotiating such twisted and tortuous trails en route. They do say that, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Well, in Partch’s case, it would seem to have been not wholly one or another, but a little bit of each.

This "Enclosure 2" illustrates the formative early stages of Partch’s curious career. In the substantial booklet (all in English, by the way) Philip Blackburn, producer of the series, contributes an absorbing six-page essay, illuminating the whys and wherefores that determined the road Partch was, because of his nature and fate, bound to follow. Let me try to give you something of the flavour of it.

As a lad, Partch played keyboards in a silent movie theatre band, which gave him a feeling for the many dramatic devices inherent in music. Even outside the "kinema", he was steeped in music-hall entertainment, including the then-popular melodramas (recitations with musical interludes and backgrounds). His childhood exposure to aspects of Chinese culture acquired by his parents, who’d been missionaries in China before Harry was born, probably explained why, in his early twenties, he gravitated towards the San Francisco Mandarin Theatre. There, the way the Chinese fitted their music to the rhythms and tonality of their speech, rather than the other way round, wormed its way into his mind.

Although he took a "normal" job (newspaper proof-reader), music saturated his soul. Other than mundane schooling and a few fitful, unfruitful terms of formal study, he was self-taught. Untrammelled by any curriculum, he just followed wherever his nose led him. This was far and wide, but he was hooked in particular on Greek mythology and the history of musical theory. It’s likely that his burgeoning expertise in the latter triggered his discontent with current musicology. Similarly, his experiences of other musical and dramatic cultures were fomenting in his mind his rebellion against the Western "concert tradition", whilst his growing awareness of the history of word-setting in music conspired with the Mandarin Theatre experience to turn him against both the way in which the West subordinates words to music, and indeed the very basis of Western music – the tonal system itself.

Yet it was not cataclysmic, but a slow, gradual process. Even as he started experimenting with just intonation, he continued to write conventional music. Inevitably, it all came to a head: in 1933 his settings of Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola were the first major result of his researches and experiments into the proper way to mate words with music. That "proper way" necessarily required microtonal just intonation. The implications were far-reaching.

Almost incidentally, Partch had convinced himself that the European tradition’s abandonment of just intonation, in favour of the various mean-tone temperaments that finally congealed into the immutable "grey" of 12-tone equal temperament, was just plain wrong. In passing, it’s worth underlining the fact that, contrary to received wisdom (and quite a few learned references), "12ET" had not been king of the castle for all that long: in fact, it finally established its arm-lock on Western music only as recently as 1917. As luck would have it, this was around the time that the young Partch was at his most impressionable.

Now, what do we have on this four-CD set? It’s quite a mixture. Just like Partch himself, it tends to defeat simple categorisation. Even the titular "Historic Speech-Music Recordings" doesn’t cover the ground. For example, While My Heart Keeps Beating Time is a song, plain and simple; the extracts from Bitter Music, which fill the third disc, were recorded as recently as 1992; some of the tracks do not contain any speech, and some do not contain any music. So, what can we say? Well, I suppose, we can say that these are all "recordings"!

I agree with you entirely: that’s not at all helpful. Rather more usefully, though, we can observe that virtually the entire production revolves around Partch’s "speech-music", and as such it incorporates examples of the proof of this particular pudding. Most of the music is "chamber-sized", whilst some of the music – and, be warned, some of the speech for that matter! - is decidedly not for the faint-hearted. By comparison Partch’s large-scale theatre works, most notably Delusion of the Fury, are much easier meat to chew and swallow. Of course, this is nothing at all unusual, but simply another instance – the classic case being Bartók - of comfortable upholstery cushioning an unfamiliar idiom.

However, there is a second, parallel thread woven into the fabric of this Enclosure. It is concerned with not just the "speech-music" of Partch, but speech both by and about Partch. These parts are both fascinating and tantalising because, whilst they tell you interesting things about Partch, clearly they cannot – even if they had filled the entire set of CDs - tell you anything even remotely approaching the whole story. For something approaching that whole story, a good starting-point would be Bob Gilmore’s book, Harry Partch – A Biography (Yale Univ. Press, ISBN 0-300-06521-3), closely followed by as much as you can reasonably digest of Partch’s own Genesis of a Music (Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80106-X).

I could even argue for a third strand! There have been rich composers and poor composers, but I’ll bet there haven’t been many who were reduced to drifting the length and breadth of the land in a forlorn attempt to eke out some sort – any sort - of a living. Partch was. Caught in the jaws of the American Depression, he endured all the attendant, horrendous privations and indignities: homelessness, poverty, hunger, "begging" for work, State Relief Centres, and incarceration. For the most part, these were leavened only by the occasional comradeship of his fellow hobos and a certain solace courtesy of Mother Nature.

Yet, throughout, he remained a true artist, noting down his first-hand experiences of those terrible times, and absorbing them into his being. As is the way with such seminal influences, they inevitably "flavoured" his subsequent works, but significantly they also furnished actual materials. Partch’s "hobo products" introduced into art a red-raw vernacular that can take the skin off your ear-drums. Even today it can leave the most potent verismo, of whatever colour, gasping in its wake, and therein lies the meaning of my cryptic comment at the end of the opening paragraph of this review.

There is so darned much in this Enclosure that it’s difficult to know just where, or even how, to begin. So, as I’ve been advised that it’s a very good place to start, let’s start at the beginning! Seeing as the subject in hand is Partch’s "speech-music", let’s winkle out the pieces that could be said to trace the development of this style. In order of composition, these are: While My Heart Keeps Beating Time (1929), By the Rivers of Babylon (1931, rev. 1943), the Li Po Lyrics (1930-33), Dark Brother (1942-43), Barstow (1943, June 28), San Francisco (1943, July 1), U.S. Highball (1943, October), Y.D. Fantasy (1944, March), Finnegans Wake (1944, May), Ring Around the Moon (1949-53), O Frabjous Day! (1954), and Bless This Home (1961).

The contrast between the first two is nothing short of alarming! My Heart is a pretty but penny-plain popular song for voice and piano, one of a dozen or so Partch wrote for the simple purpose of raising cash. It’s hardly Earth-shattering, but of interest because it illustrates Partch’s incipient concern for word-setting – and also because it is sung by Philip Blackburn himself, who I’m sure won’t mind when I say that, pleasantly as he sings, he isn’t likely to adversely affect Frank Sinatra’s standing as a singer!

But, turn to Babylon and be prepared for a shock, especially if you’re familiar only with settings of the words by the likes of (say) William Walton or Boney M. Like so much that was to follow, it is gritty and uncompromising, and for that reason alone constitutes a dramatic response more truthful than most to the desperation of the Biblical text. Partch, whose 43-tone Monophony was as yet still work in progress, "tracked" the speech inflections using a justly-intoned diatonic scale. Even thus constrained, there are still some 17 notes to the octave, and by definition most of these are not present on the pianoforte keyboard. Consequently, there is indeed a "strange sound" to complement Psalm 137’s "strange land".

Although the sounds of Partch’s Chromelodeon, Kithara and Adapted Viola are remarkable, more remarkable still is his use of the voice: he meticulously segregates the vocal functions of words and melody. Real words are always spoken (or "intoned"), the music emerging from the natural pitches and rhythms of the words, which in this piece follow the speech-patterns of a cantor whom Partch once heard reciting the Psalm. I should emphasise that Partch’s speech-music has nothing in common with Schoenberg’s sprechgesäng. This latter is simply a method of accommodating speech in music, which is a far cry from drawing out the music inherent in speech. In contrast, where Partch requires the voice to "sing", it always does so wordlessly, quite properly operating as a purely musical instrument. Guess what? Partch is dead right: by comparison, the words in a conventional aria are as clear as mud.

Moving on to the Li Po Lyrics we find another step-change: the emergence of his microtonal Monophony. By its very design, this enables the music to interpret speech inflections with optimal fidelity. However - I suspect by accident rather than design! – to most of us listeners, certainly those not blessed with tonally razor-sharp hearing, it poses a problem. This problem happens to be crucial, so please bear with me whilst I digress in order to mull it over.

Apart from any who were born well before 1917, most of us in the West have grown up accustomed to hearing music only in 12-tone equal temperament, or at best we have been dimly aware of the justly-intoned diatonicism of strings-only ensembles and a cappella choirs. So, how are we to apprehend, let alone comprehend, the subtleties of Partch’s microtonal Monophony? Whilst I have been listening my wife, whose tastes in music (shall we say?) differ from mine, has occasionally overheard bits of this Enclosure. Her typical comment has been something on the lines of, "How can you call that ‘music’?" Gradually, I’ve learnt that it’s best to not even attempt an answer, especially since the time I replied, perhaps rashly, "Look, I just open my mouth and tell it, ‘You’re Music, OK?’"

But, it’s a very fair question. It could be answered in two ways - neither of which, by the way, appears to be satisfactory to an impatient and unsympathetic spouse. The first is the "scientific" approach, to demonstrate that the sounds being created actually conform to all the criteria that distinguish "music" from "noise". Can we take that one as read? The second is the "practical" approach, which hinges on the fact that our ears are physically and inescapably geared to just intonation. Regardless of the microtonality involved, Partch’s Monophony is to our ears what water is to a duck. I can vouch for this. My own ears are not so much "razor-sharp" as just plain "blunt" yet, the more I listen, the more "natural" does Monophony sound to my ears. In a sense, it’s simply a matter of re-awakening the ear’s "racial memory". Like me, you may feel that you will never lift that seventh veil, but the simple act of listening will surely shift at a good three or four of them, and from my experience that’s enough to give you a fair sight of the wood through the intervening trees.

The settings of the Li Po Lyrics adhere rigorously to the precepts of ancient cultures: the inherent musicality of the poetic voice is sacrosanct, whilst the accompanying instrument, here the Adapted Viola, provides complementary harmonisations and commentaries, serving to underline and expand the poetic meaning. However, this is no mere reverential act of "reconstruction" in the manner of "authentic performance practice" – the music and its manners are entirely Partch’s own, taking in "new" elements of, amongst others, rhythmic violence, humour both bluff and sly, and even the odd vulgar ditty. Partch’s treatment lifts the lyrics from ancient China and deposits them, with a resounding "bump", right into the USA of the mid-Twentieth Century.

A further ten years down the line, the all-important "hobo" angle surfaces, represented here by Dark Brother, Barstow and U.S. Highball. In these works, Partch did something which strikes me as 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. Don’t ask me what arcane artistic chemistry was at work, because I haven’t yet figured it out, but 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.

This is not to say that the texts are all original. In Dark Brother Partch set the singularly resonant words of Thomas Wolfe, words taken from a sort of paean to loneliness first published during Partch’s own wanderings. The entire text of Barstow comprises quotations, whilst U.S. Highball combines quotations with Partch’s own musings. What is original is that Partch had hit on a means not just to incorporate, or perhaps elevate, the vernacular into "high" art, but to make "high" art out of the lowliest vernacular. This might sound picky, but a moment’s reflection will confirm that the difference between the two is actually enormous. I’m sure that, if Partch’s words had been cast into conventional operatic or cantata moulds, they wouldn’t have had anything like the same searing dramatic impact. They might even, through no fault of theirs, have sounded ridiculous.

In setting the San Francisco Newsboy Cries, Partch has applied the identical compositional method to the thoroughly mundane. This is actually quite a neat idea. Come to think of it, it’s not that long ago that street news-vendors and their cries used to be commonplace. Certainly, I can remember several from my youthful forays into my local towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and it’s still impressed on my memory how each one had a cry as individual as his face, and that these cries, whilst savagely mutilating the words they contained, always had the ring of a musical motive about them.

Partch’s original version, for intoning voice, Adapted Viola, Chromelodion and Kithara, gives a surreal impression of the cries, along with sundry trams and other traffic, emerging from the soggy, foggy, street-lit night. Unfortunately this is one of the grottiest of the recordings, sounding like a particularly badly cared-for acetate. However, a few tracks further on comes San Francisco II – the same piece arranged by Mark Eslin for guitars, cello and flute. This is a double blessing. Firstly, it was recorded in thoroughly modern sound in 1990, so you don’t have to listen to it through clenched ears. Secondly, being arranged for conventional instruments, albeit unconventionally played, it gives us the chance to assess the contribution of Partch’s instruments to his musical landscapes. The difference is, to say the least, illuminating.

O Frabjous Day! is another bit of surrealism, this time with a bizarre edge to it. Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, The Jabberwocky, could almost have been written specially for Partch: in his gleeful, half-menacing, half-comical march-like setting, the "far out" sounds of the Harmonic Canon and Bass Marimba fit the fantastical verse like a glove does a hand. I do just wonder what the audience made of it at the 1954 première, given at a Mill Valley Outdoor Club young people’s concert! From my experience of "young people", in all likelihood they lapped it up without so much as batting an eyelid.

The two settings from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the Y.D. (i.e. "Yankee Doodle") Fantasy were both written not long after the "hobo" works. Both show significant stylistic departures. Firstly, Partch admits conventional instruments. In view of his venomous antipathy to conventional musical culture, that might seem surprising. I’m not sure why – maybe he felt some twinge of sympathy for the instruments, as "innocent victims" of the atrocity? – but clearly he had no practical problem integrating them into his musical universe. This of course provides folk with all the justification they need to attempt arrangements of his music for conventional instruments – as in San Francisco II, or the Ben Johnson version of U.S. Highball (see my review). Secondly, Partch seemed to be relaxing his rigorous speech-music "rules" as, presumably, he probed the possibilities and boundaries of the form.

To my mind, the Y.D. Fantasy isn’t really speech-music at all, but hovers in the grey area between speech and song, now dropping into speech, now veering into song, occasionally lapsing into out-and-out, high-spirited vocal gymnastics. The reason for all this is simple: written for an imaginatively outlandish combination of soprano, two Tin Whistles, Oboe, Flexatone and Chromelodion, it is a zany skit, something of a musical Monty Python sketch, or what some of us these days might describe as a "fun" piece. In the previous track (Yankee Doodle Birds) its amusing inspiration appears to be described, with an almost audibly wry smile, by Partch himself. That this description actually refers to another use of the Y.D. theme - some years later in Water! Water! - does not detract one iota from the aptness of the sentiment.

In the Finnegans Wake settings, Partch seems to be experimenting in earnest. He varies the speech-pitch rule by letting the voice sing some of the words, but without violating the natural word-rhythms rule. Isobel, the first of the two settings, appears to approach dangerously close to the conventional in reflecting its subject in the waters of a whimsical waltz – or maybe it’s a ländler?

Although only nine minutes long, Ring Around the Moon feels like a large-scale work, largely, in the context of this Enclosure, on account of its large instrumental forces: Adapted Guitar II, Kithara, Harmonic Canon, Chromelodion I, Chromelodion Sub-bass, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Diamond Marimba, Bass Marimba and Marimba Eroica. Actually, there’s more. It may not be listed in the booklet, but my ears insist that they can hear a cymbal! According to Partch, this piece is supposed to be, amongst other things, "a satire on the world of singers and singing, music and dance; on concerts and concert audiences, where the perception of an understandable American word is an odd kind of shock".

As such, it doesn’t come across all that strongly, presumably because this is more of a theatre piece, depending rather more on Partch’s concept of "corporeality" than do the more intimate, chamber-scale speech-music pieces. It earns its place here because, amongst all the instrumental shenanigans there is an intoning voice providing the "odd kinds of shock". It follows that the final section must have caused a few major palpitations, featuring as it does a dizzying patter-song of rhyming word-pairs like "mumbo-jumbo", "hoity-toity", and "harum-scarum". At one point, it all winds down onto a muted "teeny-weeny", then a sly "itsy-bitsy", causing a ripple of mild mirth to run around the audience. Lacking the visual aspect, I am left wondering: was the comic song Itsy-bitsy, Teeny-weeny, Yellow Polka-dot Bikini doing the rounds in the USA as early as 1953?

The text of Bless This Home was written by Vincenzo Prockelo for a couple who were expecting their first child. Although, because Prockelo is one of the performers, we may suspect it, the notes do not make it clear whether Partch’s speech-music setting was part of the gift. For, in truth, this is a very strange piece. Partch’s obbligato oboe elaborately decorates a dark processional, made all the darker by the composer’s own bass voice. It strikes me as a deliberate emulation of the style of a Handelian lament. Having said that, the second time I listened, I found it much more warmly attractive, though I still can’t figure out what the Mazda Marimba thinks it’s doing in such surroundings, other than emulating a sore thumb.

Although the whole of disc C is given over to extracts from Bitter Music, for several reasons I haven’t included it in the above discussion of the "hobo" speech-music works. It’s a complicated business, requiring a whole booklet page of explanation. Basically, Partch had created a lengthy performance work out of his hobo journals, but for one or more of several reasons – ranging from matters of principle through artistic to personal - at first just kept it to himself, then later tried to destroy it altogether. Yet, even the finality of this act was indecisive: a microfilm copy of the entire text survived, along with some manuscript materials in his archive that he could have burnt, but didn’t. A huge question mark hangs over Bitter Music: did Partch want us to hear it, or not? According to Philip Blackburn, in a 1970 interview with Jean Cutler Partch made it clear that he did, saying that, "At that time I thought it didn’t represent me. Now, I’m sorry - it does represent me, or at least part of me." A case of "the follies of youth becoming the wisdom of old age", perhaps?

The abridged version in this Enclosure was put together by Warren Burt, who is also the vocalist in this recording. Vast tracts of Bitter Music are plain, straightforward recitation. At first, the piano – one of Partch’s possible reasons for withholding the work! – joins in only sporadically. As the piece progresses, the proportion of speech-music increases and, correspondingly, the voice gradually moves from objective detachment to subjective involvement, the whole thing culminating in what is described in the booklet - with considerable justification - as a "mad-song".

In the early stages, the discourse is sufficiently mundane for the listener to get bored and switch off. This would be a grave mistake. Almost imperceptibly, first your attention is captured then, inexorably, you are drawn into the world of those wandering in the Depression wilderness, until finally your mind becomes embroiled by the experiences and feelings expressed. It may not be quite what the old slogan of the News of the World boasted, "All human life is here", but this one small corner of human life is all there, its humour and hope, its bitterness and hopelessness. Here more than anywhere it’s significant that Partch considered his speech-music works to be "as much literary explorations as musical ones" because, even taken as a purely literary achievement, Bitter Music is extremely moving. However, the power of speech-music to amplify emotional expression is undeniable, because its progressive invasion renders Bitter Music nothing short of devastating.

That covers all the speech-music in the Enclosure. However, the Enclosure also encloses a few other items. As Bitter Music gives us one insight into what made Harry Partch tick, so Harrys Wake gives us another angle. Intended as an "audio bio-drama", this is compounded from two tape recordings. One, which gives the track its title, was made at a memorial meeting in 1974. The other, made covertly in 1966 by Danlee Mitchell, features Partch himself both in conversation and playing the piano. As Philip Blackburn’s notes point out, "Much of his public life was devoted to condemning the piano and all it stood for, yet here he is, in a fit of nostalgia, revisiting the scene of the crime" – and moreover conspiring, quite off the top of his head, with known criminals like Brahms and Chopin!

This is fascinating stuff, but it makes vaguely uncomfortable listening, largely because you feel like an eavesdropper. As I see it, the problem is one of presentation - or rather lack of it. At any one moment it’s hard to know just who out of a "cast" of over a dozen is talking, or even sometimes which tape you’re hearing. I can’t help feeling that with a little more effort it could have been done so much better: the two events could have been on separate CD tracks, and then some sort of "compere" could have helped us to keep tabs on what we are hearing. Hopefully, though, with further hearings things will start dropping nicely into place.

Of particular interest to those with tonally razor-sharp hearing, there is A Quarter-Saw Section of Motivations and Intonations, a presentation done in 1967 by Partch himself. It’s a rather dry and dusty, "bare-bones" style of delivery, but even so there’s nothing quite like getting it straight from the horse’s mouth, is there?! So, if you’ve ever wondered how justly-intoned scales - such as the Scale of Olympos, the Pythagorean, the Ptolemaic Intense Diatonic or Terpander’s Hexatonic – sound, then this will be right up your street. I find a real sense of wonder in hearing these ancient scales. To think that, strange as most of them sound to our modern ears, these were the very foundations of the earliest of all tonal music, and then, by virtue of the physics of JI, they are all contained within Partch’s thoroughly modern 43-tone Monophony. However, there’s much more to go at: examples are also given of JI resolutions, tonal fluxes, multiple tonal senses and instrumental tunings. Especially fascinating is Partch’s illustrated account of the famous objection raised to JI by Fox-Strangways, along with Partch’s practical refutation - an invaluable appendix to the discussion in Genesis of a Music.

Another interjection! I believe that it was Partch himself who warned folk against getting too hung up on the "43 tones" thing, so it’s only fair that I should mention it here. He was equally interested in the expressive capabilities of continuously varying pitch. For Partch, slurs went way beyond the mere, fashion-conscious use of portamento or, for that matter, Varèse’s wailing sirens. It’s not simply the curvaceous journey, but the departing and the arriving: there is something special about a huge, soupy glide from one precisely-determined pitch to another, just as precisely-determined but remote pitch.

There are also interjections on the CDs – disc C apart, the main events are punctuated by short (extracts from) recorded introductions and interviews. These provide fascinating and sometimes amusing snapshots. A couple I’ve already mentioned, but the one entitled Texts and Music: A Wagnerian Wrestling Match is an absolute classic, in which Partch slyly describes a Wagner opera as a bout between, in the red corner, Wagner’s symphony orchestra and, in the blue corner, Wagner’s idea of music-drama.

Others are more purely thought-provoking, for example The Use of English in Serious Music, which has a crucial bearing on the whole concept of speech-music. Partch’s delivery varies, apparently according to whether he is reading from a script (when he sounds awkward) or caught on the wing (when he sounds enthused and emphatic). But, even when it’s the former, there is always a special frisson in hearing the voice of one of the great musical minds of the Twentieth Century speaking, as it were, directly to us.

It is almost unnecessary to say anything about the quality of the performances and recordings, because virtually all of these items are unique. That’s only "virtually", though, not "all". Here’s a brief summary of the available alternatives of which I’m aware:

By the Rivers of Babylon:

1955 revised version, recorded 1961 (monaural), originally released on Partch’s own Gate 5 label. Currently available on Enclosure 5 (Innova 405).


1968 revised version (by which time the voluntarily censored "f" word and its containing phrase had been reinstated!), recorded 1982 (stereo, live performance, some audience noise). Available on New World Records (80662-2).

U.S. Highball:

(1) 1955 revised version, filmed by Madeline Tourtelot (1958, completed 1968, b/w, monaural). Available on Enclosure 1 (Innova 400, VHS tape, see review)

(2) 1955 revised version, recorded 1958 (stereo). Available on New World Records (80662-2).

(3) Arr. Ben Johnson, for Voice and String Quartet, recorded 2000 (stereo). Available on Nonesuch (7559-79697-2, see review).

San Francisco:

1955 revised version, recorded 1958 (stereo). Available on New World Records (80662-2).

Tourtelot’s film, which includes the visual element that was always an essential part of Partch’s corporeal philosophy, hardly constitutes a comparative recording, but should be acquired in its own right by anyone with an interest in this particular work. With the exception of Babylon the revised versions of 1955 are generally re-scorings to take advantage of the larger instrumental palette that Partch had developed.

Because Partch recordings have always been relatively rare events, you don’t tend to get contemporaneous alternatives. Hence, generally speaking, the more recent the recording the better it sounds, regardless of whether it’s in this Enclosure or one of the listed comparisons.

The earliest recordings in Enclosure 2, of Babylon, Li Po, Barstow, San Francisco, U.S. Highball, Finnegan, Dark Brother, and Y.D. Fantasy, were all made by Warren Gilson between 1945 and 1947. Sadly, the originals must be in a bit of a state – the remastered tracks all sound dog-rough, rather like 78s that have seen extended service as beer-mats in a dockside pub. Apparently, in the archive there are only two sets of the original acetates, both incomplete. Using the "better" set and all the digital reprocessing technology as was available in 1996, Innova’s engineers have rescued them as best they can. In a sense, it seems that these recordings have made it onto this Enclosure, and into the welcoming arms of maternal Posterity, by the skin of their teeth.

Moreover, they sound to have been informally recorded using a single microphone, because the balance is often less than ideal, with some parts recessed, and others over-prominent. Although it was recorded more recently (1954), O Frabjous Day! also sounds on the ropey side – but with very good reason: it was an opportunistic effort by Danlee Mitchell, who used a Silvertone toy tape recorder! With that in mind, I suppose it’s really quite good. Then again, both San Francisco II and Bitter Music sound wholly admirable – and so they should, being modern stereo recordings.

Performances? I hope that you’ll forgive me for not commenting on these individually; there are so many that I could easily double the length of this review if I tried to cover them all. It would in any case be less than useful where so many of the recordings are unique, so I must perforce restrict myself to generality. So, what "generality" can I suggest? Well, the performances tend to obey the same rule: the more recent the recording, the more technically accomplished the performance.

That might sound surprising, but only if you think about it with the "mind-set" of the conventional Western European tradition. When instruments and performance skills have been continually refined over a span of centuries, performances twenty or thirty years apart can be compared as if they were contemporary. Contrariwise, Partch’s entire "Music" - principles, scale, notation, instruments and practitioners - didn’t even exist before the 1930s. Consequently, the period covered by these recordings is entirely within the steep, initial "learning curve" for all concerned.

It follows that, if you’re interested just in Partch’s music, then simply give precedence to the later recordings. By way of considerable compensation, Enclosure 2’s grotty early recordings do have a certain, often intense feeling of "pioneering zeal" and, most importantly, all feature the composer himself as performer, either vocalist, or instrumentalist, or both. So, if you’re a seeker after pioneering zeal and interested in Partch, then first and foremost make a beeline for the earlier recordings, then grit your teeth - and prepare to be amazed.

I must say, this is one incredible set of CDs. Innova, and their driving force Philip Blackburn, deserve our everlasting gratitude for putting this together, and for wrapping it up so attractively – even the individual CD label designs are delightful. A mixed bag it may be but, as I hope I’ve shown, it is also very well designed and executed. It gives us an historical overview of Partch’s development that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Yet, there is even more to it than that: it is also a celebration - of Partch, his remarkable life, and his even more remarkable achievements. Let the party begin.

Paul Serotsky

see also Harry Partch - A Just Cause by Paul Serotsky






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