Harry PARTCH (1901-1974) Music of Harry Partch, Volume 3 “Sonata Dementia”
Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962) [6:18]
Twelve Intrusions (1950) [26:46]
Windsong (1958), original version* [19:04]
Sonata Dementia (1950)* [9:23] Bonus Tracks: Traditional – Canción de los Muchachos [1:46] Partch – Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions (1941)* [11:45]
PARTCH Ensemble (Ulysses, Intrusions, Windsong, Sonata)
Ramon Zumi (Canción)
Harry Partch (Barstow)
Rec. June 2017, Disney Hall, Los Angeles (Ulysses, Windsong); January 2018, Crean Recital Hall, Chapman Univ., California (Intrusions, Sonata); 1904, Edison cylinder (Canción); 1942, Eastman School, New York (Barstow)
* First Recording BRIDGE RECORDS 9525 [75:07]
My excitement at getting my sticky mitts onto this new CD of music by Harry Partch had me rummaging through my old Partch reviews. Why, I’m not at all sure, but not to worry, because it did turn up some interesting things. I was surprised to find that, between 2003 and 2007, I had reviewed nearly all of the then-available recordings of Harry Partch (Innova’s Enclosure 8 came along later). More or less off the top of my head, it looks as though the only extant recordings that I hadn’t covered were volumes 1 and 3 of New World Records’ “The Harry Partch Collection” and a couple of bits and pieces on Knonos Quartet CDs. Also, I recalled a couple of important recordings that I would have loved to review, but back then they seemed to be languishing, out of reach, in “deleted” bins.
Firstly, there’s the legendary Columbia recording, “The World of Harry Partch”, which for many was their introduction to Partch’s unique sound-world. Being originally released in 1969, I guess it must have had whole tribes of hippies whispering, “Far out, man!” This recording finally resurfaced in 2013 as a download (e.g. from Presto Classical, including digital booklet) and in 2015 on CD, this latter unfortunately bundled, with lots of utterly unrelated stuff, in a 10-CD boxed set, “Masterworks Of The 20th Century” (Sony Classical 88875061902).
Secondly, there’s the famous Tomato recording of “Revelation in the Courthouse Park”, a splendid live recording of the first performance, which vies for top place as the closest approach to Partch’s corporealism to have come along postmortemPartchi. It was made in 1987, but reportage of publication dates varies – I’ve seen 1987, 1989 and 2001, which suggest that it’s been in and out of the catalogue like a yo-yo [see footnote]. Currently it’s out, but there are second-hand copies to be had, so grab one while you can.
Rather significantly, since then some new recordings (which of course have the advantage of thoroughly up-to-date sound) have appeared, notably volumes 1 and 2 of this Bridge series (see review). Also, there are two New World Records special edition vinyl LPs, mostly (but not entirely) of remastered reissues; these have been lavishly, even lovingly prepared by Jon Szanto, the Harry Partch Estate’s archivist.
As is well known, Partch himself felt that his work would in all likelihood die with him. He was of course simply being realistic: mainstream composers work cosily within a long-established, universal performing tradition, whilst he was well aware that he had completely and necessarily cut himself off from all that (not that he wanted to have anything to do with it anyway!). To perpetuate the practice of his works would require, therefore, the birth of a completely new performing “tradition”. All Partch could do was to leave behind him the wherewithal to perform his works: his instruments, his scores, a book to explain his theory, philosophy and practice, and a pile of recordings – what use, if any, was to be made of them had to be left in the lap of the gods.
It would indeed be a tragedy if such an astonishing achievement as Partch’s life’s work should end up as no more than a dusty page in the history books, even if leavened by some ageing audio and video recordings over which, in some dim and distant future, historians (musical or otherwise) could scratch their heads. The good news is that nowadays – with certain provisos – it’s starting to look as though the gods might be starting to sit up and take notice of what’s nestling in their laps.
Following the sad demise of Dean Drummond, Newband was disbanded, but in 2014 the Partch Instrumentarium passed into the hands of the University of Washington, Seattle, under the curatorship of Charles Corey, who also directs what is in effect the reincarnation of Newband, now styled the Harry Partch Ensemble. Although as yet they’ve not entered the recording arena (and why not, may I ask, after five years?), they have several significant performance events to their credit.
Of course, if the Partch phenomenon is to flourish rather than simply survive, the world needs that fragile seed of a performing tradition to bear fruit, in the shape of a growing stock of instruments with correspondingly growing numbers of performers capable of doing justice not only to his music but also to his radical performing philosophy. The danger here is that, although it would do Partch an immense injustice, you can have the one without the other; this is the main source of the aforementioned “provisos”. One of the motivations behind Jon Szanto’s on-going work on a new Corporeal Meadows website is, so to speak, to curate a library of Partch’s ćsthetic, a philosophic parallel to and complement of the instrumentarium and its clones.
We might imagine, one fine day, being able trot down to our local music shop and, just as we might a guitar or clarinet, buy ourselves a chromeliodion, harmonic canon or marimba eroica (this last perfect for putting the fear of God into noisy neighbours). We can imagine, but it isn’t going to happen, is it? For one thing, even with mass-production they would be prohibitively expensive, even for those with bonfire-loads of money to burn.
The good news, though, is that some folk are starting to take the time and effort (you need lots of both) to craft replicas of Partch’s original instruments and put them to good use – one such group is John Schneider’s PARTCH [sic], confusingly, sometimes called “PARTCH Ensemble”, whilst on Innova’s Enclosure 8 it’s credited as “Ensemble Partch”. To avoid any confusion (should you happen to read this aloud for any reason) between “Partch” the composer and “PARTCH” the performers, in this review I’ll call the latter “PARTCH Ensemble”.
I absolutely must also make mention of another group, Germany’s Musikfabrik who, about a decade ago, built (or at least caused to be built) a replica of the entire Partch instrumentarium (an astoundingly serious financial investment), in order to be able to mount a new theatrical production of Delusion of the Fury (an unbelievably serious investment, both financially and in time and effort). Yet, bewilderingly, although at the time a performance was filmed, to the best of my knowledge no DVD or SACD was ever released.
One effect of this expansion, especially if it “takes off” anything even remotely approaching “big-time”, is that a catalogue of competing recordings of Partch’s works also will emerge – as my rummage showed me, there is already a modest list of alternatives [see foot of this review] for the works on the present CD. Reviewing Partch, it seems, may soon become a bit less of a cushy number than it used to be.
All of which brings us nicely to the CD in hand, the third volume in a series. It contains four pieces performed by PARTCH Ensemble plus two “bonus” tracks: a previously unreleased (indeed, thought to be lost), invaluable recording of Harry Partch himself performing Barstow in 1942, and a transcription of an Edison cylinder of the Indian chant used by Partch in the last of his Intrusions. I must heartily commend PARTCH Ensemble for their enterprise in presenting two pieces in previously unrecorded versions.
First let’s look at the general technical aspects of the Bridge recording:
As befits a modern recording, the sound is as pure and detailed as anyone could wish; there’s no trace of distortion or congestion, and the instruments are clearly located across the stereo field. However, it strikes me as all rather “clinical”, as though recorded using standard “pop music” techniques: instruments miked individually in an acoustically dry – but not entirely arid – studio space, and mixed down to a synthetic stereo image. There’s practically no common ambience, no feeling of a true performing “space” – the performers seem at once a bit too up-close for comfort and yet unconnected.
Yes, I know that Partch himself made recordings using over-dubbing between two tape recorders, effectively an antediluvian equivalent to this “pop music studio” style of multi-tracking and mixing. However, he only ever did it when he absolutely had no other option. Partch ruefully observed that an audio recording “lacks half the take”. Yet surely, in this medium and this day-and-age, something could be done to compensate partially, to conjure for the listener some measure of that feeling of “corporeal involvement” that was Partch’s ideal? The answer is, “Yes, but not a lot” – which of course is better than nothing. And, would you believe, that “not a lot” has been around for at least 50 years.
Here I’m thinking of that legendary Columbia LP, which was produced in 1969 by no less than John McClure, who also produced the contemporaneous audio recording of Delusion of the Fury (see review). This LP sounds almost as though it’s a (very) high-quality “dummy head” recording. However, that it is not, in which case we must conclude that its multi-miking has been extraordinarily well-judged, especially when compared with the CBS products typical of that era. Particularly through headphones, although obviously there’s no sound coming from behind, what’s in front has, to a quite remarkable degree, the same sense of spatial perspective as a surround-sound recording.
You get a most convincing impression that you’re “standing on the director’s podium”: the space is nape-tinglingly tangible and there’s a fabulous feeling of a wholly natural width and perspective depth. Surely, the overall sense of involvement can justifiably be said to give back a small but not insignificant proportion of the “half the take” that’s lacking. Indeed, Partch himself was “quite impressed” by this recording – which is high praise indeed.
Yet, let’s be absolutely clear: this does not make the present recording a bad one – of its type it is produced to a very high standard and certainly offers the clearest reproduction of the instrumental sounds. It’s just that, to my mind, the recording technique employed is not the most appropriate for Partch’s music.
The first item is Ulysses at the Edge of the World – A Minor Adventure in Rhythm. Unusually – but not uniquely – for Partch, this is a “small chamber work”, pure music with a fair bit of the contrapuntal about it, although it owes little to the example of JSB. Partch admitted that, while he was writing this piece, his hobo experience weighed heavily on his mind (which makes me speculate: wouldn’t Ulysses make a really neat prelude to Barstow?). I guess that this emerges in the music’s juxtaposition of nervous, twitchy angularity, manic tendencies and “cool” jazzy good humour.
You’ll notice that the main titles of this performance and the two other recordings listed below are not identical. This would seem to reflect the various “incarnations” of the piece, which were written c. 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1962. But it doesn’t, not quite, because although the Enclosure 5 and this recording have differing titles, both use the final revision, in which trumpet replaces alto saxophone and the Partch instruments are augmented by bass marimba.
PARTCH Ensemble, with guest artists Ulrich Krieger (baritone saxophone) and Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), play impeccably, projecting every polyphonic strand with admirable clarity. Krieger and Rosenbloom “bend” their notes onto Partch’s just scale effortlessly, as to the manner born. Having said that, it’s only fair to point out that there’s one phrase where Rosenboom sounds a mite uncomfortable. To be even fairer, I’d blame the phrase itself, because Jack Logan (on Enclosure 5) suffered the identical patch of discomfort.
PARTCH Ensemble’s rapid-fire “na-na-na” vocalisations come rattling across like firecrackers, but I’m less sure about the spoken “punch-line”. Although the booklet identifies all the performers and their rôles, at any given time it isn’t (indeed can’t be) clear about who’s speaking or who’s playing what. Throughout I’m assuming that the principal vocalist is Schneider. In respect of this punch-line, nobody – neither here nor in the alternatives (Enclosure 5 and NWR Vol. 1) – quite manages to ram it home convincingly. All things considered, although tending to favour the cool jazzy good humour at the expense of the “manic” aspects, PARTCH Ensemble’s view of Ulysses is entirely valid and its performance is very enjoyable.
But what of the competition? On Enclosure 5 is the 1971 Orion Records stereo recording. This version is described in the Bridge booklet as “definitive” and in the Enclosure booklet as “arranged by Jack Logan” (the trumpeter). Make of that what you will. Sadly, the recording’s sense of space is marred by an irritating, distant, blurry echo, whilst the performance, only a few seconds slower than PARTCH Ensemble’s, is cast in a very similar mould.
On NWR Vol. 1 we get the 1958 Gate 5 recording, in what sounds like 2-mic. stereo – which would account both for the two saxophones being prone to “wandering” a bit and their sounds occasionally becoming fuddled. But then again, who knows – maybe the sax players did move around? Partch was among the performers, and he certainly would not have discouraged it. However, there’s a gratifyingly realistic sense of space, within which unfolds a performance of pioneering zeal. In spite of being somewhat slower than its successors and a bit bass-shy in those pre-bass marimba days, it bristles with strong, edgy accents, the players – apparently working way outside their comfort zones – projecting an intensity that induces a measure of “manic” lacking in both the later versions.
The second, and by far the most substantial – in terms of both length and stature – work on the PARTCH Ensemble CD is the Twelve Intrusions(1949-50) Twelve? Yes! PARTCH Ensemble has added to the standard Eleven Intrusions the original No. 9 (The Letter) that Partch had dropped in 1962. In the booklet, John Schneider explains the history of this in some detail, yet I find that I’m not entirely convinced that its reinstatement (in a hybrid edition) is justified. Granted, in 1970 Partch did indicate that he thought his original version of The Letter better than the 1955 revision, but that’s not the same as restoring it to the Intrusions (which he never actually did).
As far as I can gather, although Partch revised (sometimes several times) the four parts of his “hobo album”, The Wayward (1941-43), he never tampered with the set’s integrity – and The Letter is part of that set. Quite why, seven years later, he should have “copied” it into the Intrusions is not at all clear. We can argue that it makes the structure of the “body’ of the Intrusions a nice, tidy “three groups of three” and (like Von der Jugend in Mahler’s Das Lied) constitutes a timely bit of light relief. Yet really, in both mood and provenance it feels distinctly like an intruder amongst the Instrusions. Crucially, without it the common mood of the Intrusions is unbroken until the arrival of the finale, which makes more sense dramatically. Maybe that’s why, in the end, Partch cut it: its real place is in The Wayward. Anyway, if you’re of a purist frame of mind, you can always programme your player to leave it out.
The keynotes of the Intrusions are loneliness and isolation, reflecting Partch’s increasingly severe depression over his overly-secluded sojourn near Gualala. As a prelude, Partch adapted two of his Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (Olympus’s Pentatonic, Archytas’s Enharmonic). Especially for newcomers, these are utterly eyebrow-lifting – and even more so when you realise that these sounds are nothing “new”, but latter-day echoes from the music of 2,500 or more years ago. To their credit, PARTCH Ensemble does nothing to keep the listener’s eyebrows in their proper place. Actually, the first ambles along quite genially, the harmonic canon twanging zestfully, with just a hint of the sound of the cimbalom. But, through the second, slower and much darker, a funereal procession sounding far more like “the air of another planet” than anything of Schoenberg’s, PARTCH Ensemble lead you “downhill” into Partch’s vale of harmonised poetic despond.
For, Partch cast the nine solo vocal Intrusions in the mould of his 1930s “speech-music”, the first justification of his system of just intonation. He understood the biological fact that not only our ears but also our voices operated in just intonation. Thus, in strict speech-music, the words themselves are the source of the music. Both the tones and the rhythms of speech are preserved, the instrumental tones serving as emotional intensifiers. All this conspires to optimise the intelligibility of the words, subject, of course, only to the speaker enunciating them clearly (even in speech-music, a mumble is still a mumble). Speech-music is a far cry not only from song but even from sprechtstimme (in both of which the words are mercilessly distorted to fit the music) – and is tailor-made for intimate dramatic expression.
There is, of course, a catch. Unconstitutional as it might sound, the speaker cannot have complete “freedom of speech” – the players necessarily have to stick to what’s already written down, and the speaker must therefore modulate his speech to suit the pre-existing speech-tones. Offhand, I can’t say whether Partch has in any way “notated” the spoken words, but I’ve a feeling that he might have done, since there are clear parallels between Schneider’s renditions and Partch’s own in NWR Vol. 1’s recording of the Eleven Intrusions. In passing, I noticed that their voices even sound fairly similar.
At this point, I need to digress a bit. Partch is often described as a microtonal composer – and under the broadest definition of microtonality, that’s exactly what he is. However, actually calling him that seems to get him lumped in with the common run of microtonalists, i.e. those who subdivide the semitones of the 12-tone equal temperament scale, and this (it seems to me) does him something of an injustice. Partch, first and foremost, is a just-intonational composer who, in pursuit of “speech tones” set the “resolution” of his just-intonational system in accordance with criteria imposed by the abilities of the human ear. The difference between the two is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody enormous.
In the Intrusions, Partch expands the aforementioned harmonic/emotional intensification to encompass a form of impressionism, even on occasion stretching to onomatopœia, which texturally further illuminates the texts. Partch considerately relieves his audience of the onerous burden of keeping the booklet in hand whilst listening, by the simple expedient of having the vocalist announce the title of each item.
That the PARTCH Ensemble have paid very careful attention to detail is obvious right from the very beginning of The Rose – an arpeggio that begins in consonance but smoothly sours into dissonance in the twinkling of an eye, setting the stage for their finely articulated expression of dark dismay, and all the more remarkable for its apparent sparsity of means. I was especially impressed by the playing of Adapted Guitar II, which touches tones only to glide gracefully but tantalisingly beyond reach. Some might question Schneider’s whispering of the word “despair”, which replaces speech-tones with what amounts to vocal “white noise”. Yet, it is only the one word (and, for that matter, not even the whole of that one word) and to my mind the dramatic effect fully justifies it.
The Crane introduces an element of gloomy irony. Schneider’s wailing vocalise emulates not only the cry of the crane but also the gliding guitar, the two weaving around one another like two lazy (perhaps even tipsy) bees, occasionally settling momentarily on the same harmonic flower. Like The Rose and several others, The Crane is pithiness personified, its concentration making it feel rather longer than it really is: in this respect – and only this respect! – Partch seems to nod in the direction of Webern.
Dispelling, albeit only temporarily, the prevailing depression, The Waterfall is a little gem. PARTCH Ensemble’s humming and prickling guitar and popping diamond marimba delightfully evoke and even imitate the carefree splash and sparkle of the cascading stream, as agitatedly described by the voice – making the cruel twist of the final word all the more jolting. The Wind is a game of two halves, the feathery rustlings of a dawn breeze succeeded by the harsh bluster of a nocturnal gale, in which PARTCH Ensemble demonstrate to chilling effect how just two instruments – bass marimba and harmonic canon – can conjure winds even more effectively than Wagner’s huge orchestra.
A close relative of the eerie wind that has just wafted The Wind’s lonely wanderer he knew not where, blows the vocal observer along The Street. Schneider’s grim, grating voice eloquently grinds out the stark imagery of the dank, shabby environs and their forlorn inhabitants, alarmingly embellished by weird yet apposite music, equally eloquently expressed, that seems to have been exhaled from the underworld itself. This is not comfortable listening.
That brings us to The Letter, which I discussed in some detail, just over half-way down this review. Briefly, Partch had written to an old hobo buddy, and was very pleasantly surprised when he got a reply – which furnishes the text of The Letter. Schneider sets a good pace, so that on the one hand he can use the tumbling words to convey the breathless excitement of both the writer’s writing and the reader’s reading, and on the other he has a bit of room to hang on to his clarity of diction through the poetically awkward corners (whose very awkwardness adds to the breathless excitement). The PARTCH Ensemble brings to life Partch’s gloriously witty and apposite musical “setting” with a keen sense of humour. It’s really good stuff, this!
Like The Rose, The Lover does not live up to the promise of its title. The first part is grim and sinister, the up-tempo second manages to sound at once jolly and desperate, an ambivalence encouraged by the almost “alien” quality of a closely coupled soprano vocalise and adapted guitar III.
Setting three extremely terse poems, Soldiers – War – Another War focuses intensely on the terrible isolation of individuals, distilling their essential hopelessness. Bass marimba thuds, diamond marimba tremolandi, wailing guitar slides, bonging cloud-chamber bowls, and creepily dissonant harmonic canon arpeggiations create a blood-freezing mood of unnerving (dis)quiet. In the second part, Schneider’s voice wavers. I can’t say whether this is due to uncertainty – Partch (NWR Volume 1) doesn’t do it – or to expressive intent, but I strongly suspect the latter. PARTCH Ensemble takes this one a lot slower than Partch’s rendition, but in this case it makes a greater impact, especially since, sadly, in the latter the flesh-crawling harmonic canon is all but inaudible.
Pithiest of all is Vanity, which, by a simple stroke of real-world logic, proves a real poke in the eye for Narcissus. In the first couple of lines I can’t make out half of Schneider’s words; curiously, Partch himself causes me the same problem! PARTCH Ensemble’s adapted guitars give a vivid impression of the restlessly undulating water.
The postlude, Cloud Chamber Music, Partch’s “first serious use” of his new cloud chamber bowls, in effect leads us out of the miry vale of despond. A bell-bright bowls fanfare announces a lengthy lament for adapted viola and guitar, which summarises the foregoing doom and gloom; a brief “wake-up” call launches the viola, distinctly enlivened, into the traditional Canción de los Muchachos chant – it’s as though the lonely man’s woes are at last dispelled by the sudden arrival of a lively bunch of his pals (muchachos = boys), hell-bent on partying. To my mind, the awkwardly strained-sounding viola is surely balanced too far forward. However, with increasingly joyous vigour, the chant is repeated twice, firstly by an added solo voice, and finally by a gloriously rowdy vocal chorus; this is a real upbeat ending belted out by the players with lusty abandon.
I must say, though, that to me this came as a big surprise. Up until this issue, the account of Intrusions on NWR Volume 1 was the work’s only recording. Although the NWR booklet says, “the viola introduces the melody of [the chant, which] is then sung by all the musicians, accompanying themselves on their instruments,” one listen is enough to tell you clearly enough that all three statements of the chant are purely instrumental: the voices enter only for the concise “codetta”.
Yet, as the author of the NWR note is none other than Bob Gilmore (Partch’s biographer), this statement will in all likelihood be true, at least as far as the score goes, so maybe they had to omit the chanting for reasons of practicability. Still, whether or not it’s “authorised”, I’m not about to object because the PARTCH Ensemble’s “version” indisputably fits the bill a real and riotous treat – and listening thereto is a whole heap of fun, not to mention relief to the nerves.
Played by five instrumentalists including Harry Partch, who was also the principal vocalist, the first recording was made in 1950-1 – the extended recording period was because the composition was work in progress. Partch’s own rendering of The Letter is currently available in its “proper” place as part of The Wayward on NWR Volume 2. However, we have to bear in mind that this is a hybrid, very neatly created by Jon Szanto from the voice of Partch (with re-scored accompaniment) recorded in 1972, interleaved by the instrumental interludes as recorded in 1950.
Coming hard on the heels of the writing of the music, the original recording (issued originally on 78s) of the Intrusions does rather betray its age, its murky sound and surface noise well down to 78 r.p.m. shellac standards, not to mention some serious instrumental imbalances. The sound of The Letter is, as you might expect, a fair bit better; Szanto did a brilliant job of blending his source materials. The performances, though, are something to treasure, most notably for Partch’s peerless vocals, and especially those in The Letter, one of the last recordings ever made of Partch in action – in spite of his age, infirmity and illness, he was still very much a force to be reckoned with.
Broadly speaking, tempi are that bit tighter than PARTCH Ensemble’s, which pays dividends particularly in the giddy cascading of The Waterfall. However, all things considered, PARTCH Ensemble’s thoroughly empathetic performance is well worth having; and, my aforementioned reservations about the recording notwithstanding, you can hear everything with crystal clarity. Partch aficionados, needless to say, will want both this and the NWR issues.
Windsong was the first product of Partch’s collaboration with the independent film-maker Madeline Tourtelot. It was a true collaboration, in that, unlike the usual industry practice where the music is designed to fit the pre-existing film, Partch’s music and Tourtelot’s movie evolved bit by bit, in parallel, with give and take on both sides. Partch crafted his music so that, for the most part, no more than three instruments at a time were being played. This was because he was working alone, and perforce when recording he had to “double-overdub”.
PARTCH Ensemble’s Windsong is billed as the first recording of the original version. Maybe I’m nit-picking here, but it does need to be said: the history of the matter seems to be a bit confused! I was surprised to find the Bridge booklet saying, “No-one has ever heard the entire score as [Partch] wrote it.” You’d imagine that, since the music grew piecemeal alongside the visuals, “as he wrote it” must be as enshrined in the film soundtrack? That would make the completed film the original version, which plenty of folk have heard, since the film is available in Innova’s Enclosure 8 DVD (along with the – admittedly excerpted – soundtrack, originally published in a Gate 5 release and now on NWR Volume 3). If anything, the fact that, as the Bridge booklet says, “the actual soundtrack often differs from the written page”, means that Partch’s “edited and copied” autograph score is already a revision, and it’s this that “no-one has ever heard”.
Regardless of all that, a recording of this autograph score can only be welcomed with open arms by completists and enthusiasts alike – and, for that matter, it should be a captivating experience for raw newcomers. Throughout, the playing is right on the button, cleanly articulated, the potent accents punched home, and with a lovely feeling for Partch’s intoxicating, unique palette of colours. In this respect the bass marimba, boo and diamond marimba especially are spine-tingling – as are the nape-lifting streams of unearthly sounds emerging from the harmonic canons, their overlapping strands well-differentiated but without sacrificing their essential “impressionism”.
Thoughtfully, as I can imagine that some may not wish to hear it every time, the sparsely accompanied introductory narration has been separately tracked. Again, the adapted viola, like its unadapted parent a modest, quietly spoken instrument, seems to be set far too far forward – like a soloist on an early concerto recording it’s disproportionately loud, given a dominance totally at odds with its intimate message. Less intrusive (unless you’re using headphones) are the jumbo-sized stereo images of the boo and bass marimba, which between them – and with some overlap – cover over half of the stereo width. The overall sound quality, though, is excellent, with a luscious “Mussorgskyian” depth to the bass marimba.
If you can (whether that be find it or afford it), I’d recommend that you also consider Windsong’s reincarnation as Daphne of the Dunes, in the fabulous classic Columbia Masterworks first recording which features Partch himself playing a rather more modestly balanced adapted viola. Needless to say, the Tourtelot film on Innvova’s Enclosure 8 DVD is a must-see.
Now, what about this Sonata Dementia? In his booklet notes, John Schneider gives a potted history of the work. Written in 1949-50, around the same time as the Intrusions, it started life as an earlier keyboard exercise (Progressions within One Octave, for chromelodion), from which grew a piece entitled Tonality Flux, basically an exploration of tonality interplay within a monophonic system, which finally emerged as the equally “experimental” Sonata Dementia. Apparently, Partch wasn’t especially happy with it – it could have been, but wasn’t included in the ongoing recording project that included the original recording of the Intrusions. Nevertheless, a couple of years later, after some minor tweaking (including a curiously arbitrary dividing of the third movement into two parts, played without a break!), it was “re-incarnated” as Ring around the Moon, the second of the Plectra and Percussion Dances (which PARTCH Ensemble have already recorded, on the Grammy award-winning Bridge 9432 – see Dominy Clements’s review). So, evidently, he wasn’t all that unhappy about it, either.
So, although this is billed as – and indeed is – the first recording of Sonata Dementia, it’s no Big Deal, really. It’s not even the first recording in modern sound of the substance of Ring around the Moon (see a few lines above!). Also minor, but nevertheless significant, is the fact of the bizarre titles of the original three movements; on the one hand apparently casting a sideways glance at the movement titles in Britten’s Simple Symphony (written about 20 years previously), on the other furnishing a further reference to Partch’s depressed state of mind at the time – as is borne out by the music itself, which is even more bizarre than the titles.
Partch said little about the original composition, basically just the fairly objective observations that it was “an experiment”, “an exercise” involving three instruments as yet untried in compositions and that it was deliberately made difficult for the players. Later, referring to the Ring around the Moon version, he ventured rather more, suggesting wide-ranging satire and, perhaps most tellingly, “I am always a little hard-pressed to find words to give any verbal validity to this music”.
Judging by its unceasing procession of unfamiliar but potent harmonies, the first movement, Abstraction and Delusion, must surely be what became of the original tonality flux study. It is by any standards an astonishing – and astonishingly weird – piece of music, arguably the closest any music has come to a “surrealist dreamscape”. The PARTCH Ensemble “paints” a nightmarish picture in a miasma of “brush-strokes” of disturbingly peculiar hues. Yet, as perhaps befits its surrealism, they also find in it a certain ghoulish humour (the soundtrack for an imaginary Hammer cartoon, perhaps?) – small wonder, then, that at the end the man says, “Well, bless my soul!”
The equally remarkable Scherzo Schizophrenia, whilst scarcely less creepy, is by way of compensation somewhat more zany, as though projected through an alcoholic haze – hence, we may conclude, the “Scherzo”. It culminates in a voice reciting the numbers “1” to “22” inclusive, followed (attacca) by “X, Y, Zee”. Do you suppose that the “23” or “W” missing from the sequence is somehow significant? From the words spoken at the outset, it seems that the final, bustling Allegro Paranoia is to be regarded as something of a boxing match (or a dig at the traditional Romantic concerto?); in fact, for a while you do feel that there are two conflicting rhythmic patterns “trading punches”, although here we are at least breathing much healthier air than in the other movements!
In my Enclosure 2 review of Ring around the Moon I described the patter-song towards the end as, “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?”
I can now answer my own question: this song only came out in 1960, so the correspondence is mere coincidence (or was, perhaps, the song inspired by Partch’s piece?) and the mirth must have been prompted by the hint of slyness. This hint, I should add, is not given by PARTCH Ensemble and, for that matter, neither is the subsequent, “Look out! He’s got a gun!” barked with the urgency that you’d expect of such alarming words.
That apart, PARTCH Ensemble’s performance, not only of this patter-song but the entire Sonata Dementia, is enthralling entertainment from first to last. I’d go further: it brings to this work an impact and stature that is simply not evident in the murky, recessed mono of the earlier Ring around the Moon alternatives listed below. These were both recorded in 1953 (Enclosure 2 – live performance, NWR Vol 1), both by the Gate 5 Ensemble; the Enclosure 2 being in marginally less bad sound. Both must now be regarded strictly as valuable historical documents, because, as representations of the music, both must now yield – by an enormous margin – to this vigorous, vital and colourful new recording. That said, though, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this “revealed stature” sets it above the Intrusions, which really ought to be this issue’s headline work.
That leaves the bonus tracks. For many years it was believed that the earliest surviving recording of Barstow was the 1945 one of the 1943 version (Enclosure 2), which added parts for chromelodion and kithara. In 1942 Partch wrote Barstow originally for voice and adapted guitar, for solo performance in his proselytising lecture/demonstrations of this period. As the Bridge booklet says, “legend has it that there was a 1942 recording of a lecture/demonstration given at the Eastman School of Music”. Happily, it’s a legend no more: recently the long-lost acetates were unearthed – it turned out that, all along, they had been buried in some archival oubliette at Eastman!
Now, this priceless recording, its sound brushed up into its Sunday best (i.e. a lot better than merely acceptable), is where it belongs – before the public. It came as quite a surprise. Given its original purpose, I’d imagined that the accompaniment would have been quite discreet, concentrating on tones in support of speech. Yet, although such tones are evident, they are embroiled in the hurly-burly of Partch’s vigorous, almost raucous “folksy” strumming. This is a long way from Barstow as we know it, particularly if we know only the relatively “orchestral” 1958/1968 versions. All the vocalisations, the little song-tunes and what-have-you that we already know and love are already there, but the presentation is far more earthy and raw-knuckled. It’s so much sheer fun that you’ll want to keep coming back to it; and although Partch’s personable and witty introduction is separately tracked, I’d be surprised if anyone would want to omit it on subsequent re-hearings. This is a real bonus - a whopping big thankyou to all concerned!
The other bonus track is rather less of a revelation. One of Partch’s many odd jobs – to help keep body and soul in adequate contact with one another – was to transcribe onto manuscript paper a dozen 1904 wax cylinders of (what we must now call) Native American songs. This track features the canción that Partch used in the finale of his Intrusions. Even at under two minutes’ duration, it may not bear repeated hearings, but nevertheless it is instructive to hear it and compare.
Notwithstanding my occasional mild argument with it, the booklet is exemplary: informative, well-written, very readable, and includes several photographs. It’s also pretty comprehensive: there are technical and photographic credits, recording dates and venues, and a list of players along with the (several) instruments each of them plays.
OK, then, it’s time for summing up. To Partch aficionados this disc will be an essential purchase on account of the inclusion of the historically significant Barstow bonus track. In respect of its own original content, this issue usefully presents two pieces in previously unrecorded versions. I would recommend this disc without reservation to almost anyone – the exceptions being those to whom the “pop-studio mix-down” recording style is anathema. Personally, I’m content to tolerate this recording style because, at rock bottom, the quality of the sound itself is by far the best currently available for the works featured (we must regard the CBS Daphne of the Dunes as a special case), whilst, a few quibbles apart, the PARTCH Ensemble performances leave mere acceptability gasping in their wake.
Whilst I have highlighted certain alternatives where I feel that the performances are in some ways better, broadly speaking you should regard these as supplements rather than substitutes – I should think that it’ll be a good while yet before reviewers have to treat Partch the same as Beethoven or Mahler or, for that matter, as certain works by Vivaldi and Orff. Roll on Volume 4.
Tomato’s history seems to be shrouded in swirling mist: has it gone bust (at one time it or its distributor did fold, at least temporarily), or is it still going – and if it is, then where on Earth is it hiding? For, Tomato and its catalogue of recordings do give a distinct impression of having sunk without trace – nowhere on the internet are there new CDs for sale, and the only “Tomato Music” website I could find is another business entirely. Innova’s Philip Blackburn did try to trace the current owner of the “Revelation” recording, but without success. Any information would be very gratefully received – especially as it could result in restoring this important document to the catalogue.
Comparative Recordings (not necessarily an exhaustive list)
Revised and retitled Ring around the Moon:
1. Innova Enclosure 2 (review)
2. New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 1
3. Bridge Records, Music of Harry Partch Vol. 2 (review)
Ulysses at the Edge of the World
1. Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World – Innova, Enclosure 5 (review)
2. Ulysses at the Edge – New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 1
1. Tourtelot film soundtrack – Innova, Enclosure 8 (review);
2. New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 3 (soundtrack, excerpted)
3. Restyled as “Daphne of the Dunes”, performed in film “The Music of Harry Partch”, Innova, Enclosure 8 (review)
4. Restyled as “Daphne of the Dunes” – Columbia Masterworks LP MS 7207*
Eleven Intrusions – New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 1
The Letter – in The Wayward, New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 2 (review)
1. 1943 version – Innova, Enclosure 2 (review)
2. 1958 version – Columbia Masterworks LP MS 7207*
3. 1968 version – New World Records, The Harry Partch Collection Vol. 2 (review)
4. 1968 version – Innova, Enclosure 8, DVD (review)
Version history of Barstow
1941: adapted guitar and voice; 1942: adapted guitar, chromelodion and voice; 1943: adapted guitar, chromelodion, kithara and voice; 1954: adapted guitars II and III, surrogate kithara, chromelodion, diamond marimba and voice; 1958: surrogate kithara, chromelodion, diamond marimba, boo and 2 voices; 1968: recopying and slight revision of 1954
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