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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.