PARTCH performing Plectra and Percussion Dances (courtesy of John Schneider)
About half a month ago, I wrote about the third volume in the Music of Harry Partch series produced by the ensemble called PARTCH (capitals distinguish the name of the group from the name of the composer), founded by John Schneider and released by Bridge Records. I used the first portion of that article to reflect on my own previous experiences in listening to Partch’s compositions, none of which, sadly, involved listening to the music being played in concert on the instruments that Partch had designed. In fairness to the Schneider-Bridge project itself, I felt a need to account for the first two volumes in the series; and, thanks to both Schneider and Bridge, I now feel equipped to do so.
In order of their release, those volumes are Bitter Music (December 6, 2011) and Plectra and Percussion Dances (August 1, 2014). The former amounts to the narration of a diary with occasional musical interjections, while the latter is a reconstruction of a KPFA live broadcast concert performance (with the same name as the title of the album), which took place on November 19, 1953. These will be discussed in reverse order, reflecting a desire to prioritize music over text.
As the title suggests, Plectra and Percussion Dances is a triptych of compositions, all three of which were conceived to be performed in conjunction with dance. “Castor and Pollux” (“and” is represented by a G clef, rather than an ampersand, in Partch’s own hand) is subtitled “A Dance for the Twin Rhythms of Gemini.” “Ring Around the Moon” is subtitled “A Dance Fantasm for Here and Now;” and “Even Wild Horses” is “Dance Music for an Absent Drama.” Partch himself provided an introduction for the KPFA broadcast, which is included as the final track on the CD.
For those of my generation, the most familiar of these is likely to be “Castor and Pollux,” since it was included on the Columbia Records 1969 vinyl album The World of Harry Partch. As the subtitle suggests, the piece is in two movements named, respectively, for the two Gemini twins born of Leda. In his explanatory introduction, Partch observed that the rhythms of the two movements were identical. Furthermore, each movement was in four sections, the first three of which involved different combinations of instruments, all of which would play their parts simultaneously in the fourth section.
This was the piece that occupied most of my attention on the Columbia release, since the structural plan was not difficult to grasp. At that time, however, I had little awareness of the distinctive qualities of the instruments that Partch had created, particularly as they had been tuned with respect to his division of the octave into 43 unequal intervals. Indeed, it would not surprise me if the Columbia mixing engineers tried to smooth over the rough edges of both the sequential contours of individual polyphonic voices and the simultaneities arising from the superposition of those voices. Since the whole structure of “Castor and Pollux” is based on superposition, I would suggest that Columbia did not provide a particularly satisfactory account of this composition, while the PARTCH reconstruction allows the attentive user to appreciate just what Partch was trying to do and how he succeeded in doing it.
The other two selections both involve text as well as music. Most likely Partch himself delivered those texts when these pieces were first performed. On this new recording Partch’s voice is channeled by Paul Berkolds and T.J. Troy; and, sadly, the accompanying booklet gives no account of who is speaking when. “Ring Around the Moon” involves wordplay with a wide diversity of familiar (and frequently amusing) phrases, as well as counting off the first 21 positive integers. The texts for “Even Wild Horses,” on the other hand, are taken from “A Season in Hell,” Louise Varèse’s English translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s extended poem “Une Saison en Enfer.” (In anticipation of the inevitable question, the translator was, indeed, the wife of the composer Edgard Varèse!)
What is particularly interesting about “Even Wild Horses,” however, is that each of the eight movements is based on a rhythmic pattern, most of which are associated with familiar dance forms. In addition, as can be seen from the above photograph from the booklet, the vocal delivery of the Rimbaud text can be accompanied by tenor saxophone. Partch even suggested that the saxophonist should improvise the vocal contours of the French utterances “in a way that is fairly intelligible to cultivated Frenchmen (a dubious value).” (The text goes on with a few sarcastic digs about American and English listeners.)
Taken as a whole, Plectra and Percussion Dances makes for a highly satisfying listening experience. Those encountering Partch’s music for the first time will probably need to adjust to his unique approaches to intonation. However, between the clarity of the performances by PARTCH and the related production efforts supervised by Schneider, the “full package” definitely encourages such adjustment.
Bitter Music is another matter. This amounts to about three and a quarter hours of readings (by Schneider) from Partch’s diary entries. Since these entries are not read in chronological order, the listener should not be obliged to listen to the three CDs in this album in a single sitting. [added 7/2, 11:35 a.m.: Schneider was kind enough to point out to me that, for the most part, the entries are in chronological order. The only exception is the account of Partch’s visit to Europe, which he wrote as a reminiscence on his birthday.] Just as the performance itself (including the musical interjections) involves sampling from the source, the listener is free to sample specific excerpts. [added 7/2, 11:35 a.m.: Thus, while the recording is not a mixture of samples, the tracks are arranged in such a way that the listener can work his/her way through the full account through a sequence of listening experiences.]
Most of the entries involve the nature of hobo life. While the “full package” discloses more diversity in its episodes than one might expect, it is clear that this was a hard life. Partch’s capacity for endurance is to be admired.
At the same time one can appreciate how that capacity may have subsequently served the many ways in which his musical achievements were rejected. In this regard I have to confess that I was particularly drawn to the shift of locale to London that one encounters beginning at the end of the first CD. This was the setting that most appealed to my own theoretical background. Of particular interest was Partch’s account of a meeting with Arnold Dolmetsch, recognized in the twentieth century as a pioneer in the revival of what we now call “early music.” (When I was growing up, my parents had a recorder album of performances by Dolmetsch’s ensemble.)
Partch visited Dolmetsch to share thoughts about approaches to intonation. During the conversation Dolmetsch cited Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, one of the earliest treatises on music theory as we now tend to know it. (Mersenne was one of the first advocates of equal-tempered tuning.)
When Dolmetsch cited a particular passage, Partch asked which edition he had been reading. Dolmetsch then expostulated as some length about how he had not previously encountered anyone who had heard of Mersenne, let alone someone who knew about differences across the editions of his treatise! Dolmetsch may have been treated with a bit more respect in London than Partch had encountered during the better part of his life; but that respect masked a polite disregard for an individual recognized, for the most part, as an irrelevant novelty. At least Partch managed to live long enough to experience the realization of many of his ideas and their informed performance in public concerts before appreciative audiences.