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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
Music of Harry Partch - Volume 3
Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962) [6:18]
Twelve Intrusions (1950) [26:46]
Windsong (1958) [19:04]
Sonata Dementia (1950) [9:23]
Bonus Tracks
Canción de Los Muchachos (Edison Cylinder, 1904) [1:46]
Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941) [11:44]
Performed by Partch
Rec. 24 June 2017, Disney Hall/REDCAT, Los Angeles (Ulysses, Windsong); 11-12 January 2018, Crean Recital Hall, Chapman University, Orange, California (Intrusions, Sonata Dementia); live performance by Harry Partch, Eastman School, New York 1942 (Barstow)
BRIDGE RECORDS 9525 [75:05]

Listeners are always guaranteed intriguing new sounds with Harry Partch, and those who have already collected volumes 1 & 2 (review) will know something of what they are in for with this third volume from the superb ensemble Partch, who play on the strange and aesthetically fascinating instruments designed by the composer.

This well-filled programme opens with Ulysses at the Edge of the World, which remarkably was originally written for the famous jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker never performed the work alas, and as with all of Partch’s pieces there are various versions of it, but the trumpet and baritone saxophone part intended for Gerry Mulligan are a feature in this performance. This has all of Partch’s rhythmic fingerprints and signature resonances in a relatively compact package that ends with a humorous but enigmatic punchline.

The Twelve Intrusions form a cycle that use speech ‘songs’ surrounded by instrumental pieces that explore exotic scales and microtones, starting with Studies on Ancient Greek Scales. The instruments include Partch’s Bass Marimba and Cloud Chamber Bowls, and if you like a decent rumble through your woofers then this fine recording will offer some subtle thrills. The songs start with The Rose which sets a text by Ella Young and uses the 10-string Hawaiian-type Adapted Guitar II and something called a Diamond Marimba. Texts are not given in the booklet, but Erin Barnes’ diction is clear enough to make these unnecessary. The Waterfall on a poem by Ella Young is highly descriptive, with sparkling notes and sliding harmonies, while The Wind by the same poet is a grim representation of nocturnal gusts. This is paired with the Chicago chill of The Street, the text intoned from Willard Motley’s book Knock on Any Door. The Letter shares a use of Partch’s pervious work Bitter Music with The Wind, its feel of Americanise heightened with slide-guitar strings as well as exotic Kithara, marimba and hand drum sounds. The three final songs start with Lover, with an undulating fretless Guitar III and the atmosphere of the Cloud Chamber Bowls. This is followed by Soldiers-War-Another War that sets G. Ungaretti’s dark words from the trenches in WWI, and the miniature Vanity by the same poet, that sets up undulations of waters gazed upon by a Narcissus-like figure. The cycle is completed by Cloud Chamber Music, with an Adapted Viola adding its strangely animal lines over textures of Marimba, Bowls, Guitar III and Kithara. Traditional New Mexican chant sets up an animated rhythmic section, the original of which comes from a cylinder recording included as a bonus track at the end of the CD.

Windsong was created as a soundtrack made in collaboration with filmmaker Madeline Tourtelot. The inspiration came from the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, and the music timed to fit characters “cavorting amongst the sand dunes of Lake Michigan.” Chase scenes, character leitmotifs and a narrative line to the piece as a whole are all preserved in this first complete recording of Partch’s ambitious score, and there are some impressively virtuoso passages as well as highly atmospheric sections with bell-sounds that give an effect of distance, mysterious ringing strings and driving percussion that all add up to something oddly timeless as well as uniquely striking in its sonorities.

Sonata Dementia has three movements with as titles ‘Abstraction & Delusion’, ‘Scherzo Schizophrenia’ and ‘Allegro Paranoia.’ Partch was worried about the experimental nature of the piece, and the titles reflect what he perceived as his own “incipient psychosis” at a time of reclusion. There is a sense of instability in the sliding strings, and inserted texts might be seen to indicate madness or satire, depending on your view. With everything else going on with in this recording this work is however hardly less sane than many of the other pieces, though Partch admitted that he “just threw a lot of ideas into the thing, without trying to integrate them.”

With the bonus tracks we get the aforementioned chant, Canción de los Muchachos from an Edison cylinder, a solo voice speaking to us from well over 100 years ago. Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California is a 1942 recording of Harry Partch giving a humorous introduction, followed by his performance of these graffiti texts set with Adapted Guitar I. The 12” glass-base acetate discs which hold this surprisingly clear recording have only recently been unearthed, and provide a fascinating glimpse of Partch as a very fine performer indeed. His comic timing is certainly excellent, and the audience appreciates him greatly. The wit and double-entendre of the graffiti texts form a kind of American parallel to Hoffnung’s ‘Letters from Tyrolean Landlords’, and you’re sure to want to hear it more than once.

Harry Partch’s legacy can be traced forward to the likes of Tom Waits or The Residents, and there is always a small risk that some of these pieces may drive you up the wall. There is however at least as much subtle and fascinating nuance as there are incessant clip-clop rhythms, so I would say, take the plunge and educate yourself on the art of an American legend.

Dominy Clements
 



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