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Enclosure 3: Harry Partch
Produced, compiled, designed and edited by Philip Blackburn
Pages: 524, Format: A4 Landscape, Weight: 2.21 Kg.
Hardback
Publisher: American Composers Forum., ISBN: 0-9656569-0-X
Innova 402
First published 1997, second printing 2005
Price: $75.00
Available directly from www.innova.mu

Before we start, there’s something we’d better get straight. If you’re looking for your way into the world of Harry Partch then, by its very nature, this book is not for you. For the uninitiated but mustard-keen, a much better place to start would be Bob Gilmore’s penetrating but eminently readable Harry Partch – A Biography (Yale University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-300-06521-3). However, if you’re wary about betting real money on a long-shot then, as an alternative, why not have a browse through some of my earlier "essays" on Partch? You never know, something might strike that vital spark! –

ArticleA Just Cause (this can get a bit technical, but that’s all part of the fun!)

Reviews – Enclosures 1, 4, 6, 2, 5, 7

If I’ve done that right, I should now be talking just to people who know something about Partch – plus those inevitable hardy souls who refuse to be put off by a few paltry "public warning" signs. Hence, here there’ll be no introductory spiel about Partch.

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Enclosure 3 is a beautifully-produced book - one that just sits up and begs to be browsed. In fact, quite a few folk must have done so already, because it was first published in 1997. That was a limited edition of only 800 copies. These are now commanding anything up to a jaw-dropping $900 (£500-ish) on the collectors’ market! This bubble is not likely to be deflated for long, because this reprint is similarly limited.

So, if you decide that you really can’t live without it, then grab it while you can – at the moment, you can buy a brand-new one for a mere $75. However, before we go even one step further, ask yourself this: "Why does it command such a high second-hand price?" The answer can only be "It must be a very, very desirable book." Again, you may come straight back with "Why?" Now, that's the question that we're here to answer.

Of course, one man’s "desirable" is another man’s "disagreeable" - so in any case, before you go throwing your hard-earned cash around, you need to have some idea what you’d be getting, don’t you? Let’s see. Just under the innocent-looking surface of that qualifying "by its very nature" lurks perhaps the all-important question: "And just what is the nature of this book?" Well, according to the contents page, it is "A Partch Bio-Scrapbook". If you look at the book’s entry on the Innova web-site, this is expanded slightly to "Harry Partch coffee table research bio-scrapbook".

"Coffee table book"? I had to look that one up! My Oxford dictionary defines it as a book that’s "large and lavishly illustrated". As far as Enclosure 3 is concerned, the "large" is obvious the moment you clap eyes on it – at 30 cms. wide, over 21 cms. high, 4 cms. thick, and weighing in at a wrist-cracking, lap-crushing 2.2 kg., you’ll certainly need something to rest it on as you read. A coffee table would seem to fit the bill nicely.

However, of itself sheer mass can be misleading. Books this sort of size can’t help but exude a semblance of substance. Yet, more often than not, on opening them their sparsely-populated pages or heavily-padded contents confirm that that’s all you’re getting - a "semblance". Ah, but not with this one, you’re not - not by a long chalk. Gradually, as you peruse, noting in passing the requisite "lavish illustrations", the mist surrounding the slightly gratuitous-looking word "research" starts to dissipate, because the bulk of the book is positively crammed with facsimiles of raw – some of them "red raw"! – original materials.

I can almost feel the chorus of protestations: "Yes, but come on, no matter how pretty a frock you dress it in, it is still only a ‘scrapbook’, isn’t it?" Well, yes, indeed it is, but I think that maybe we should adopt the "Treebeard" approach, and not be too hasty. Many of us have personal scrapbooks - collections of bits and pieces that we have gathered over the years – even if these are not formally assembled in volumes, bound or otherwise. Quite distinct from personal diaries or journals, scrapbooks are usually rather curious concoctions. Some scrapbooks are utterly involving, whilst others will bore the pants off you. My guess is that the latter will be true 99.9% of the time.

It’s worth bottoming this out. Three factors govern your level of interest in any given scrapbook: the closeness of your relationship to the owner, the significance – however we wish to define it – of the owner, and how much more than a tinker’s dam the owner has given for folk like thee and me. Generally speaking, these factors combine to make it relatively rare for a "significant stranger" to have accumulated scraps of anything approaching eye-popping interest to posterity. You don’t believe me? Go on, then, you tell me: how often have strangers’ scrapbooks gripped your attention by the throat?

Most folk I know would say "Never", but then, if I glared at them hard enough, they’d probably backtrack a bit, mimic the brave, brave captain of the Pinafore, and admit, "Well, hardly ever." Of course, this is partly because few "strangers" of any significance have collected scrapbooks. So, is Harry Partch’s scrapbook one to prove the rule? Without doubt he was a very significant figure in the history of music – and to answer the obvious question, "obscure" is not in the least synonymous with "insignificant"! If you’re at all intrigued by Partch’s curious condition, please have a read of my review of Enclosure 1. Anyway, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that Partch is significant.

Throughout his life, Partch studiously tucked away pretty well everything of note. Obviously, all such source materials are grist to a biographer’s mill. But, because the biographer’s job involves boiling things down and hanging only the essentials on the line, inevitably a lot of raw material gets swilled out with the wash-water. That usually isn’t a problem, because this is what a biography is supposed to do. If the biographer has done his job properly then - as near as makes no difference – the rest doesn’t matter, does it?

But, what if it does matter - what if the left-overs comprise a pile of extremely useful and interesting material that, through no fault of its own, simply does not sit comfortably within the confines of a formal biography? In that case, the source scrapbook itself becomes a desirable adjunct to the pre-digested biography. Okey-dokey, so what about the contents of Partch’s particular scrapbook?

Amongst oodles of other stuff, there are copies of correspondence; notes and articles; newspaper reviews and features; concert and lecture announcements; drawings, design diagrams, musical notations and photographs. By and large, and with the same thoroughness he brought to all his life’s work, he’d filed away everything that interested him and, keeping his habitual weather-eye on posterity, might conceivably be of interest to us. Around it all there’s an intermittent halo of jottings - Partch’s own comments, which are often wry, or sarcastic, or sometimes just plain foot-stampingly furious. It all adds up to umpteen and one insights, both large and small, into what made the Great Man tick. Considering what an exceedingly complicated character he was, you tend to be glad of every insight you can lay your hands on. Let’s mull over just a couple of general examples.

Firstly, I’ve often wondered why, when so many highly influential people had recognised the immense value of Partch’s work, he remained so obstinately obscure. It’s common enough knowledge that Partch was quite contrary and cantankerous. However, perusing some of the stuff herein brought it home to me, with far more clout than any biography could, that there was much more to it. Numerous exchanges dotted around Enclosure 3 show us that Partch must have had an itchy finger hovering over the self-destruct button, because he sometimes went out of his way to bite the hands that fed him.

I’ll risk stating the obvious: that must have lost him a fair few valuable friends. I suppose it’s part of the psychology of a man so completely obsessed by his mission - although tucked away in the book’s pages there is another contributory factor. Nevertheless, it does make me wonder: if "only" Partch could have exercised a little tact when it really mattered, would he now have been anything like so "obscure"? I think the answer is probably "no". Yet, I can think of no-one who was more aware of the intrinsic value of what he was doing, or who struggled more gamely to gain recognition for it, or who worked harder to preserve his life’s work beyond his life’s span. In "biting the hands that fed him", he seemed to be "cutting off his nose to spite his face", and giving posterity much "food for thought".

Secondly, there are the numerous press cuttings. Whoever said, "There’s no such thing as bad publicity" should study these - and then recant! The subject-matter was exceedingly complex, so responsible reportage required bags of both "understanding" and "eloquence". Almost inevitably, on too many occasions Partch seemed to get everything but. Perhaps surprisingly, given the "far out" nature of his activities, wholesale condemnations were remarkably thin on the ground. Not that it matters, because - as is borne out by the current reputations of many composers condemned by harsh critics - these did the least damage.

Reports that were eloquent but uncomprehending, or just inadequately expressed, were about as helpful as the superficial effusions of the "Gee whiz, fellas – get a load a this!" variety. Reading them it becomes clear that, regardless of the location of the reporter’s heart, far too many of these reports left Partch looking like some sort of musical "mad professor" - well-meaning and earnest perhaps, but definitely a bit dotty.

Then I looked at some of his marginal comments, and at certain articles which, although clearly intended to be of academic substance, became infected by bitter diatribes, apparently born of sheer frustration. I started to realise the full extent of Partch’s continual struggle to be properly understood, and to sympathise with his outburst of sarcasm-soaked fury in the Rose Petal Jam out-take (Enclosure 7). This clearly demonstrates that he would take a lot of time and trouble to explain things carefully to any reporter who showed interest but, perhaps not surprisingly, was not best pleased when he found he’d been wasting his time – yet again!

Very briefly, the history of Enclosure 3 is as follows. Originally, Partch had accumulated his "scraps" in a growing collection of storage boxes. Eventually, with his customary style and craftsmanship, he meticulously organised it all into two hefty home-made volumes. It was Kenneth Gaburo who first recognised the potential value of these scrapbooks, and who in 1978 started to prepare a published edition. This was worked on by David Dunn, then Allen Skei.

Philip Blackburn [PB], who became involved in 1985, took over full responsibility for the project in 1990. Sadly, Gaburo died (1993) before the project came to fruition in 1998. Enclosure 3, as finally published, omitted certain things – for example, stacks of lumber orders were, thankfully, deemed to be of minimal interest to posterity in general. I am aware of only one substantial omission, and that is Bitter Music, which had already been published in 1991 Hence, Enclosure 3 is confined to extracts that go specifically with the evocative drawings Partch made at the time. By way of compensation, other material – for example, correspondence which Partch hadn’t been able to carbon copy - was rooted out and added in.

As can be inferred from it long gestation, Enclosure 3 has been invested with a great deal of thoughtful preparation, and produced to a correspondingly high standard. If he’d chosen to emulate Partch, PB would have pursued his guiding principle - broadly, to preserve the "look and feel" of the originals - with something approaching red-eyed fundamentalist zeal. Fortunately for us, instead he chose the path of enlightened moderation, manipulating the source materials as dictated by technical demands or as required by artistic considerations.

On the technical front, PB was concerned about mundane matters such as legibility and ensuring that the final product wouldn’t crush that titular coffee table flat onto the floor. Inevitably, some original documents had suffered the rigours of time and chemistry. These PB has restored by "tuning" the scanned images. Then again, some documents had to be edited down, and cutting out the required chunks – of a scanned copy, that is! – wasn’t always practicable. PB’s solution, which preceded the hindsight that makes it seem obvious, is really very nifty: he created computer fonts that mimicked Partch’s handwriting and typewriter, so that the required transcripts could be blended in as sweet as nuts. Yes, of course you can tell the difference, but the point is that these fonts are not alien, but in harmony with their surroundings.

The "artistic" angle is entirely a matter of taste, with "good taste" dictating that PB stop well short of knocking that guiding principle into a cocked hat. PB was very much like a painter confronted with a blank canvas, only his tools were not paint and brushes, but keyboard and mouse. Nevertheless, these technological tools were guided by the very same artistic sensibilities, teasing the source materials into many aesthetically-pleasing patterns and montages. Yet, discounting some discreet little footnotes giving dates, addressees of letters and so forth, there’s nothing added, and nothing taken away. Those all-important original materials are the source of everything, including every least little bit of decoration and the book’s cover design – which is, incidentally, the only bit that’s in colour.

As is the way with scrapbooks, the materials are presented in chronological order. Other than that, and in keeping with the guiding principle, PB has made no attempt to integrate the contents. However, PB has to some extent compensated for the lack of any binding narrative by appending some 50 pages of "Notes and Comments". Indexed to the page numbers of the scrapbook, these go a long way towards filling in backgrounds and contexts. In a short essay, "Harry Partch Returns from the Edge of the World", PB describes the origin and purpose of the Enclosures series, and elaborates on Enclosure 3 in particular. There’s also a rather more substantial essay (six pages), with the self-explanatory title "Some Old and New Thoughts After and Before Enclosure 3". Finally, there are a few odds and ends – editorial principles, acknowledgements, listings of books, web-sites, recordings, and of course a word or two about the author. I suspect that this last, judging by the closing "He lives in St. Paul with his [partner] and two other animals", is also by the author!

Now for the crunch! None of the foregoing can really prepare you for the extraordinary experience of opening this book. I have this sneaking suspicion that, had it been technically and financially feasible, Enclosure 3 would have responded automatically to the command, "Open, Sesame!" For within its cover lies an Aladdin’s Cave, a cornucopia of treasure beyond measure, a mesmerising museum in which you could lose yourself for hours. Be warned! If you buy this book, this is exactly what’s going to happen. Heck, even the "uninitiated", in spite of having not the slightest inkling of what the heck it’s all about, would be fascinated, if only by the sheer wealth of exquisitely-presented and captivating imagery.

If you have at least some vestige of "initiation" about you, it’s a fair bet that you’ll wander, not "lonely as a cloud" but in the company of some rather strange feelings. I imagine that these must be the self-same feelings that regularly assault biographers, who either find them stimulating or just learn to live with them. However, these feelings are not the same as I get when I read a biography (no matter how salacious!) or, for that matter, even a published compilation of someone’s personal letters. No – these are something altogether much more intimate and immediate.

What makes the difference? I think the answer lies in "facsimile". Perusing these pages is about as near as most of us will ever get to looking at the real thing. Hence, as you read the newspaper reports, they start to feel like they’d been written only yesterday. This is largely, I guess, because we are entirely used to reading newspapers no older than "yesterday". However, reading Partch’s own writings constitutes a very different kettle of fish.

Usually, such words are just second-hand, quotations handed down by others through their books or sleeve notes. We read the words, but are insulated from their origin. Not so in Enclosure 3. As a reader you feel very exposed, drawn in towards Partch’s milieu: what you’re reading is his very own writing, along with his mistakes, his corrections, and his marginal comments - it is all as near as dammit straight from the horse’s mouth, completely uncensored, so that any conclusions you draw are, for once, entirely your own. I’ve lost count of the number of times my body tingled when the thought of what my eyes were seeing bubbled to the surface. There aren’t an awful lot of books that can do that.

I realise that I’ve given no specific description of any of the actual contents. I have at least two good reasons for that. Firstly, with over 450 pages of it, even a summary would probably double what is already a rather long dissertation. Secondly, I’m spoilt for choice: with such a vast array of disparate materials, my choice might well be not so much representative as misrepresentative. Oh, make that "three" good reasons. your paths through this book are many. On entering it, you embark on a virtual voyage of discovery. I don’t suppose you’d thank me for spoiling it by letting any juicy cats out of the bag, would you?

So, in summary, this is what you get for your $75 – or a lot more if you miss the boat of this reprint! You get a very big book that is a special pleasure just to pick up, even if you need a little help from your friend. Open it – optionally muttering "Open, Sesame!" under your breath – and the sheer quality of the content shines forth. Inside you will find, artfully assembled, a host of absorbing documents and fabulous photographs, facsimiles of the contents of a scrapbook. But this is no ordinary scrapbook - it is in effect a chronicle of the life of one of Music’s most extraordinary characters, as collected by the man himself. It brings you as close as you’re likely to get to this truly practical visionary, who is perhaps the greatest unsung hero of Music in the Twentieth Century.

I am well aware that for once I haven’t voiced so much as a single complaint. The answer to that is as simple as it’s obvious. As far as I am concerned, Enclosure 3 is an unequivocally magnificent achievement, the jewel in the crown of the entire series of seven Enclosures. In bringing it to fruition, PB has done Partch – and, I presume accidentally, the collectors’ market! – an inestimable service. Enclosure 3, and for that matter the entire series of Enclosures, is a "must have" for anyone with an abiding interest in musical "alternative universes".

Paul Serotsky


 



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