Thursday, January 17, 2008

Learning about Harry Partch

I first learned about Harry Partch from a record that Columbia released back in my student days. I could not find a CD listing for this on either or Downtown Music Group, which is a source I use frequently for music I am unlikely to find anywhere else. This is just as well. The Columbia "package" was a very attractive vinyl album with lots of nice color photographs, readable notes, and three recorded selections that I would still judge to be representative of Partch's work. However, there was a polished quality to the recordings that one expected from Columbia Records; and it took me several decades to appreciate the extent to which this approach was at odds with what Partch was trying to do. Most important is that it gave the impression that this was an "abstract music" that deserved nothing less nor more than an attentive reading of its score, the sort of attentive reading one might expect, for example, from a first-rate collegium musicum.

Today I find this approach misguided on a variety of counts. Most important is that the performance is more important than the score; and, having heard multiple performances of some of Partch's music, I have a greater appreciation for the improvisatory flexibility that one can bring to the act of performing. Furthermore, much of that flexibility has to do with the instruments on which the performance takes place, many of which take up more space than the performer and some of which may even require two performers (which one could not appreciate from the way the photographs for the Columbia album were taken). Thus, performance must, of necessity, be thought through as a physical act at a much higher level than just reading notes from a score page. This brings up a third point, which is that much of the Partch canon is made up of works for film, dance, and/or theater. The music is but one element of a Gesamtkunstwerk vision, not in any Wagnerian sense of the word but still in the literal sense. Finally, there is an overall coarseness to both the music and the way it is performed, which is definitely not Wagnerian and probably has its origins in Partch's life experience as a hobo riding the rails between California and Chicago.

Fortunately, there are now better resources for learning about Harry Partch; and one of the best of them is a DVD, which I recently purchased from Downtown Music Group, entitled Enclosure 8: Harry Partch. The "Enclosures" are a collection of archival materials of text, audio, and video; and much of the material on this disc had been previously released on two VHS "Enclosures" (the first and fourth). Thus, all of the old video material is now on DVD, along with two new items, both of which are of performances that postdate Partch's death in 1974: a 1981 concert performance of "Barstow" and a 2006 choreographed performance of "Castor and Pollux" (both compositions included on the old Columbia recording).

The best part of Enclosure 8, though, is the material that had previously constituted Enclosure 1, four films by Madeline Tourtelot, the first of which, "Music Studio," is about Partch and the many instruments he invented for the performance of his music. This is, without a doubt, the best way to begin the process of getting to know Partch, his theory of dividing the octave into 43 parts, the sounds of the instruments (and the pitches of his tuning system), and all the physical issues intimately connected with performing on those instruments. Tourtelot's films are also not particularly polished, which may be one reason that I no longer have a taste for the Columbia approach to Partch's music. Nevertheless, they provide an expository account of Partch the composer and the inventor that treats the subject with a sympathetic respect that has become rare in more recent expository film. Much of the music that Partch uses to demonstrate his instruments comes from the soundtrack he composed for another Tourtelot film, "Windsong," which, conveniently enough, is the next selection on the DVD. Thus, in these two juxtaposed films, we learn about Partch in both theory and practice. The music was also turned into a suite independent of the film, which is performed as part of the KEBS-TV documentary, "The Music of Harry Partch;" so the DVD actually provides three perspectives on this one piece of music.

The real fun begins, however, with "U. S. Highball," which, along with "Barstow," is a "hobo" composition. The film alternates between the ensemble performing the composition and footage of the sorts of freight trains and railroad yards around which hobo life and transportation were based. I have now seen this film several times and have no qualms about saying how exhilarating I find each viewing.

It takes some listening to get used to Partch's tuning. He developed his system in search of a better sound for the interval of a major third, which, in its purest form is a 5:4 ratio. The approximation of twelve equal steps to the octave is not a particularly good one; but that system has an excellent perfect fifth, the 3:2 ratio. The problem is that just about every effort to improve the third make the fifth sound worse, and Partch's solution is no exception. Indeed, I had one colleague who could not stand listening to the old Columbia recording, because she could only hear it as "out of tune;" but, of course, the whole reason that Partch built his instruments the way he did was to be able to play those "out of tune" pitches!

The one problem that this creates is that Partch's music can seldom be played on instruments other than those of his own making. Perhaps the most notable exception is that Ben Johnston (who has also been interested in composing with pitches other than those of the octave divided into twelve equal parts) composed an arrangement of "Barstow" for string quartet, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet. This is nice as far as it goes, but fidelity to Partch's pitches is still a far cry from fidelity to his sounds. The 1981 performance on the DVD is far more satisfying for the quality of those sounds.

Given the difficulties in arranging a performance of Partch's work, it is unlikely that he will ever have a large following. This makes the DVD all the more valuable, since most of us will have to make do with the "vicarious" experiences it offers. Nevertheless, I was personally glad to see that there is still at least one ensemble making an effort to arrange Partch concerts in 2006. They probably are not in a good position to do a lot of touring; but, given the right opportunity and circumstances, I would be all to happy to come to them!

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