By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In the annals of art, and measured by originality, few figures are more revolutionary than the composer/musical philosopher/hobo/woodworker/visual artist/dramaturg/gardener/inventor Harry Partch. This eternally mysterious pipe-smoking pioneer’s persistent impact on the cultural groundwater that nourishes the mainstream has been a long time coming, and its presence is now immeasurable.
Oakland-born Partch (1901-1974) was a scabrous, sardonic, intellectually fearless and imaginatively fertile creator of new ways of hearing, playing and thinking about music. He was a defiantly anti-establishment outsider whose chief contribution to the contemporary canon was a lifelong pursuit of musically challenging ways to smash the rigid formalities of the standard Western 12-tone musical scale. His own 43-tone just-intonation scale (with 43 pitches in each octave) shaped the framework for a multitude of precisely notated pieces between 1930 and 1972, composed for beautifully odd instruments that he himself designed and built in order to perform his works’ intricate tonal deviltries.
Partchwas a well-read autodidact who dropped out of USC’s music program, where he was studying to become a concert pianist; he devoured library books on Greek mythology and the physics of sound, basing many musical pieces on his findings and theories, and also on his experiences as a homeless drifter during the Depression. In his search for a total, corporeal art, he became fascinated with ritualistic spectacle as well, writing his own texts, and even costume-designing his later dance/theater works, including his magnum opus, The Delusion of the Fury (1966).
Several of Partch’s wide-ranging works will be performed by local composer and Partch historian John Schneider’s Partch ensemble at REDCAT on May 29 and 30. The program is called “Partch Dark/Partch Light,” with partial reference to the varied degrees of persona within this Harry Partch, a thornily complicated man who was both brooder and droll wit, whose music scaled unearthly peaks via the savagely scathing, the searingly comical and the ethereally alien.
Schneider’s ensemble will perform on re-creations of Partch’s original instruments, wonderfully strange wooden and metallic percussive and stringed contraptions with takes-you-places names such as Cloud Chamber Bowls, Blow Boy, the Harmonic Canon, Boo, the Marimba Eroica and Spoils of War. According to Schneider, a classically trained guitarist, his initial exposure to Partch’s music and legacy changed everything.
“I just didn’t know what to do with it,” he says, laughing at the memory, “because I was a composing major, and in the ’60s, early ’70s, when I was learning composition, serialism was still the thing — European influence, all that really heady, intellectual stuff. Somebody played me Delusion of the Fury, Castor and Pollux, and Barstow, and I just flipped out. It was too weird, it was too wild, it was too elemental, it was not intellectual. That kind of freaked me out.”
Scored in later years for Chromelodeon (retuned reed organ), Surrogate Kithara (based on the ancient-Greek lyre) and Boo (bamboo marimba), Barstow details in text and music the thoughts on dating and vagrancy that Partch gleaned from graffiti and overheard rabble-rousing on his hobo rounds along the West Coast; it’s one of his more light-toned, albeit cheekily woe-filled pieces.
For Schneider, the notion that humor could be employed in the context of composed concert music was stunning.
“Imagine, humor in contemporary music — how could that be?” he says. “They don’t kid around when they call it ‘serious music,’ because it usually is.”
Years after his initial discovery of Barstow, Schneider found out from Danlee Mitchell, Partch’s right-hand man and the former director of Partch’s performing ensemble at San Diego State University, that there was a solo-guitar version of the piece. Schneider became so obsessed with the original handmade guitar Partch had constructed to play Barstow on that he rebuilt the guitar according to what he could figure out from Partch’s book, Genesis of a Music, written in 1947 (Da Capo Press). The original guitar, which featured frets only as you needed them, and to be removed when not employed, doesn’t exist anymore. Over the years, Schneider has reproduced most of Partch’s original handmade instruments. (Partch’s originals are now housed at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, where music students can earn a minor in Partch, and where a structure has been built to house the Partch Institute — an idea that our rebellious Harry Partch would probably have scoffed at.)
Barstow, which will be performed at the “Partch Dark/Partch Light” event, was written in 1941, and is played on instruments precisely tuned to Partch’s 43-tone scale, as are virtually all of his works. The smearingly dissonant effect of this microtonal scale made a colossal impact on his fellow musical avant-gardists, including Terry Riley and, notably, Lou Harrison, who discovered Partch’s scale when he was assigned to write a review of Genesis of a Music by Virgil Thompson for The New York Herald in 1949.