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! –
Article – A
Just Cause (this can get a bit technical,
but that’s all part of the fun!)
Reviews – Enclosures
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
web-site, this is expanded slightly
to "Harry Partch coffee table research
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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