Harry Partch – A Portrait (2016)
Within the history of American avant-garde music, few figures are as important as Harry Partch – yet while Ives and Cage are household names, Partch’s music (which is an important conceptual bridge between them) largely remains hidden in the shadows. Whether I like it or not, there are tangible reasons for this. It goes without saying that avant-garde music places extreme demands on its listeners, but if we examine its prominent figures and movements with scrutiny, it becomes apparent that in most cases those demands were constrained. The leaps from Mahler to Schoenberg, from Schoenberg to Serialism, and from Serialism to Musique Concrete and John Cage are relatively short – each taking the ground of its predecessor and advancing it. Not only does Partch stand outside the legacies and inheritance of Western avant-garde traditions, but his demands on listeners were profound.
Harry Partch – The Dreamer That Remains (1972)
Like most composers Partch began his study of Western Classical Music at a young age. At nineteen he enrolled in the University of Southern California’s School of Music, but after two years, he found his teachers lacking and dropped out. In 1922, he moved to San Fransisco and continued to compose and study on his own. During 1923, he discovered the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz’s Sensations of Tone which investigated the psychological effects of pitch and tone on a listener. The book is generally credited with instigating Partch’s abandonment of the Western 12 tone system of equal temperament, but it’s likely that the seeds for this were planted long before.
Harry Partch – U.S. Highball (A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip) (1943)
Equal temperament is a fairly recent structure in Western Music – coming into common usage during the Baroque period. It grew in favor because of its allowance for key shifts on an instrument. Most non-Western traditions do not use it, favoring a system generally referred to as Just-Intonation, which utilizes micro-tonal relationships where frequencies are divided into whole number ratios. For example, a perfect fifth is 3:2, a perfect forth is 4:3, a major third is 5:4, and a minor third is 6:5. Just-Intonation is often considered to be more organic and natural sounding to the human ear. Because an octave is split into a considerably larger number of discrete notes, it can also open broader compositional possibility and tonal complexity.
Harry Partch – The Rose (1949)
Partch’s parents were Christian missionaries and lived all over the world prior to his birth. There are indications that his mother, who was a devoted lover of music, developed an affection for the diverse traditions she encountered during her travels, and made them part of Partch’s world from a young age. It makes you wonder if his struggles as a student were the result of an already broadened understanding of tonal possibility, and if Helmholtz’s book simply gave him the language and confidence to express it.
Harry Partch – And On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma (1963–66)
During the 1920’s, Partch began to compose using Just-Intonation. By the 30’s he had rejected all connection to Western traditions of music – beyond the use of adapted versions of its instruments. Most of his early works are lost. As his career and music progressed, Partch began building his own instruments and composing specifically for them. It is this work for which he is most known, but also remains a contributing factor of the neglect he has suffered. It is nearly impossible to perform or record his work without his instruments, let alone without an understanding of how to play them – making them very difficult to share with new listeners.
Harry Partch – Selected songs from 17 lyrics by Li Po (1930/1933) and 11 Intrusions (1949/1950)
Because Partch’s music is so radical, it is difficult to describe. Placed against a figure like John Cage (who was his junior by 11 years) it becomes slightly easier. Cage’s propositions were no more or less radical than Partch’s. They simply set out out to liberate the listener from the grasp of the 12 tone system in different ways. Cage’s approach to sound was relational. He was interested in reshaping the listener’s understanding of what they already knew – thus within his compositions, the instruments and “non-instruments” usually retain a tonal framework which was familiar to the ear. He was asking us to hear something in a new way, not to hear something new. Partch’s conceit was almost the perfect inverse of this. He rewrote the entire structure of music and asked listeners to approach it like any other. It’s a nearly impossible request. The result often sounds like songs written by an eccentric tone-deaf hobo re-imagining the music of an ancient culture. It’s incredibly challenging, but full of rewards.
Because Partch’s music was well regarded in his lifetime, but never attracted large audiences, his records have never been in short supply. You can find them easily and for fairly low prices. The reissue market has been flooded with records like this. It’s the type of thing that leads me to roll my eyes, wondering why the labels don’t know better. New World’s new collection A Portrait is a welcome exception. Though about half of it’s contents are drawn from a collection split with John Cage from 1978, and the rest can be found on their four CD collection of his work from the middle 2000’s (with one remastering), they’ve managed to do a lovely job and make its presence worthwhile – particularity by issuing it on vinyl which composers like this rarely get treated to. They’ve also included a book of essays and rarely seen photographs. Though it’s not a must have for anyone who already has a number of Partch’s releases, it’s worth noting that it’s presence has everything to do with context. The world has changed since Partch shared it with us. As listeners we’ve grown, and parts of culture have caught up with him. Just-Intonation has become a functioning component of the avant-garde landscape – having been embraced by many noted composers (La Monte Young, Terry Riley etc) since the 60’s. Our ears have matured. The strange re-intonated folk music of figures like Richard Youngs, Henry Flynt, and Jandek are familiar and exciting to many, while the source of their inspiration is often lost. New World’s collection is important and welcome because it enters a different world than the albums released during Partch’s lifetime. This is a world that he helped shape. Because he is so important, but his music is so hard to perform, collections like this bring him back to life and help introduce new listeners to a wonderful composer who laid the groundwork for so much that they love. You can pick it up from them directly here, or from your favorite local shop.