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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
Music of Harry Partch - Vol. 1
Bitter Music (1935-36) [3:16:30]
Performed by Partch; John Schneider (voice, adapted viola, adapted guitar); Gary Eister (voice, piano); Richard Valitutto (piano); Paul West (kithara)
includes Harry Partch speaking about Bitter Music
rec. July-August 2010, Second Story Studio, Venice CA
BRIDGE RECORDS 9349A/C [3 CDs: 70:06 + 61:55 + 64:35]

Music of Harry Partch - Vol. 2
Plectra and Percussion Dances: Castor & Pollux [14:58]; Ring Around the Moon [9:20]; Even Wild Horses [24:03]
1953 Spoken Introduction by Harry Partch to the live broadcast premiere [7:11]
Performed by Partch
rec. 9 July 2013, Disney Hall/Redcat Theatre, Los Angeles
BRIDGE RECORDS 9432 [55:55]

Harry Partch is one of those names you may have come across in a context of avant-garde music, but you are more likely to have seen pictures of the composer with his remarkable self-designed and made musical instruments, rather than to actually have heard his music.

Bitter Music begins with a summary, in which the composer describes it as “a diary of eight months spent in transient shelters and camps, hobo jungles, basement rooms, and on the open road”. The text is a long-lost journal of the Partch’s travels and experiences at the time of the Great Depression and, told in John Schneider’s pleasant and gently modulated vocal tones, and the whole thing is as much a ‘talking book’ as anything else. The music is sporadic, sometimes fragmentary and on occasion more extended, appearing as songs from amidst the narrative as it does in the journal. What we do have are returning themes or motives both charmingly direct and folk-music like, so that there are some lovely moments of ritornello familiarity.

Some extracts and drawings from the pages of Bitter Music are reproduced in the booklet for this release, giving a good impression of Partch’s remarkable imagination. The entertainment value in this release may to a certain extent be dictated by your interest in this American pioneer, but while this recording is not really what you could call music-heavy, it is certainly a compelling tale, made up of numerous anecdotal diary entries but together forming a hypnotically absorbing and coherent narrative. The feeling is one of an intimate tête a tête, an extended, smoky long evening and night with a surprising character, a troubadour who has plenty to say, and quite a few musical tricks up his sleeve.

Framed by a prologue and an epilogue with Partch himself talking about Bitter Music in 1969, the composer’s words tell of his travails finding funding, efforts to have his chromatic organ made, his travels in Europe, including Ireland and an encounter with W.B. Yeats, via Italy and Malta back to London, converting prices in various currencies into dollars as he goes. His experiences include some lively impressions of the different voices of people he encounters on the way, Schneider enjoying himself but avoiding hamming things up and playing actor rather than staying in the presence of our hero. We gain a pretty solid impression of vagrant life in America in 1935, year of the Dust Bowl and Roosevelt’s dedication of the Hoover Dam. This is a view on life perhaps more familiar from documentary photographs of hard times, with some of the acuity of observation of a writer such as Damon Runyon and at times with a period sense of humour akin to James Thurber. Harry Partch’s words also have a poetry all of their own: direct, unpretentious and poignant – a musical type of speech with all of the rise and fall of melody, tensions and relaxations of harmony.

Listen to a sample in advance if you can, but as a 2012 Grammy nominee you’ll know you won’t have been the only person to have been charmed by this unique and rather special release.

Volume 2 is the first complete performance of Harry Partch’s cycle in three parts, Plectra and Percussion Dances. The original 1953 recording missed three movements from Castor & Pollux, and Even Wild Horses was performed missing its tenor saxophone part. The booklet also lists a catechism of other problems with this live première. The introduction given by the composer is also included, and I would recommend listening to this brief but entertaining talk before embarking on the music itself.

The booklet notes are extremely useful in outlining the background, structure and intent of these pieces. Knowledge is power when it comes to this kind of project, but impressions of the music are probably more useful in a review. Partch’s remarkable instruments have been lovingly recreated, and are expertly performed here by the award winning ensemble Partch. Harry Partch worked to create an entirely personal sound world, but used principles of sonority which won’t sound too strange to listeners today, especially those who are acquainted with so-called ‘world music’. In eight dances of almost identical length, Castor & Pollux digs deep into rhythms made by a variety of marimbas, these woody sounds decorated with the strings of a Kithara, and Cloud Chamber Bowls. This is music with a rousing energy and plenty of pulse-driven action, but the sounds are subtle and full of colour. The more you listen the more you hear, but you have to engage thoroughly or risk dismissing the piece as monotonous. Each dance runs directly into the next, and the work is a kind of set of variations in sound, A Dance for the Twin Rhythms of Gemini as the subtitle indicates, ending as it does in a finale which brings together all of the instruments into something rather spectacular.

Ring Around the Moon is credited as being “one of the oddest compositions in Partch’s output.” Satirical in concept, the sliding strings and strange nonsensical contribution of a singer are both humorous and disturbing. At times the music deflates like a gramophone record being slowed down, and if images are called to mind then they might as well be those of a weird cartoon. If America ever had a Dada moment in music, then this was it.

Without seeking to diminish the previous works, Even Wild Horses is more substantial and ambitious, its movements defined by recognisable dance genres such as Samba and Conga, but always viewed through a lens which renders everything tricky and obscure, without making the music needlessly aversive. If the title says ‘Happy Birthday to You’ you can be sure this tune will pop up at some stage, but never quite as you will have heard it before. Harmonium mixes with strings, marimba and other subtly dis-tuned percussion create their strange atmosphere, and the ear is constantly teased to render the unfamiliar familiar, or to identify with the new and the uniquely curious. This is compelling stuff but also deeply introverted. Partch hardly ever delivers an angry note or seeks to shock, and the surprise and strangeness in this music is top to bottom and in every dimension.

This should be mandatory listening for all of us rooted in the conventions of Western instrumentation and musical structures. There is a fascinating timelessness in this music which speaks of ancient lyres and narratives, while at the same time we are in the American Diner or on the railroad hearing the wind whistling randomly though the telegraph wires. This stuff is rich and delicate, seemingly naïve, apparently surrealist, outwardly uncomplicated but inwardly drenched in cultural reference and the complexities of the human condition. I’m glad to have heard Harry Partch’s exotic instrumentarium brought to life, and especially in this première context.

Dominy Clements

See also A Just Cause by Paul Serotsky