There are times that I feel as if the phrase “American original” has been invoked so often across such a diversity of sources that it has become trivialized. Composers representative of that epithet on this site easily include Charles Ives, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and, for that matter, Edgard Varèse, who moved from France to the United States in December of 1915 and turned away from his traditional training in Paris almost immediately. Nevertheless, there are several ways in which Harry Partch has his own personal distinctions. One of them involves the nine years he spent as a hobo during the height of the Great Depression. Another led to his approach to just intonation that differed significantly from Harrison’s pursuits and ultimately resulted in an ensemble of invented instruments to accommodate a division of the octave into 43 unequal intervals.
I first became aware of Partch during my student days, when Columbia Records released its 1969 vinyl album The World of Harry Partch, which consisted of three compositions, “Daphne of the Dunes,” “Barstow,” and “Castor & Pollux.” Apparently, the world had to wait until October of 2013 for this material to be released by Sony Masterworks on CD; but that release included sixteen bonus tracks demonstrating the instruments Partch had invented. The performances were conducted by Danlee Mitchell under Partch’s supervision. Partch had known Mitchell since 1955, when the latter had assisted him in presenting a production of his “ballet satire” “The Bewitched” at the University of Illinois. By that time Partch had been distributing recordings of his music through his own Gate 5 Records label for about two years.
Since Partch’s death in September of 1974, there have been a variety of efforts to distribute his work through both audio and video media. The earliest of these is probably the Enclosure series edited by Philip Blackburn, which began in the late Nineties. This included CDs on the Innova label, videotapes of performances and films for which Partch had provided soundtrack scores, and a 524-page hardbound book, which may well have reproduced just about every physical document associated with Partch’s work as a musician. The video content would subsequently be reissued in DVD format.
Beginning in 2004, New World Records began to release remastered reissues of Partch recordings, many of which involved performances by his Gate 4 Ensemble. Then, at the end of 2013, Bridge Records released the first volume in its Music of Harry Partch series. These are newly-produced recordings by the ensemble that calls itself PARTCH (the capitals being part of the name), founded by John Schneider. Schneider himself is a member of this group, playing a wide variety of the instruments that Partch had invented; and he is also producer of the album series.
Cover of the album to be discussed in the remainder of this article (courtesy of Naxos of America)
A little over a week ago, Bridge released the third volume in its series. As might be expected, there is considerable overlap when it comes to the pieces being performed. Nevertheless, this series is the latest to involve a contemporary ensemble committed to providing faithful accounts of Partch’s music without the benefit of direct contact with the composer.
In spite of the wealth of archival material, there are three selections being recorded for the first time. One of these, “Sonata Dementia,” provides the title for the album. Another, “Windsong,” is the original version of what would eventually become “Daphne of the Dunes.” That original version was written for a film made by Madeline Tourtelot; and “Daphne” would later emerge as an expansion of the score for a dance-drama. Finally, there is the first release of a “bonus track” of Partch himself playing what has become one of his best-known compositions, “Barstow,” as a solo performance at the Eastman School of Music in 1942.
While the historian in me has been drawn to all of that archival material that began to emerge after Partch’s death, I definitely laud the commitment of a present-day ensemble to keep the composer’s music alive through both concert performances and recordings. I first encountered PARTCH on the Color Theory album released by the PRISM Quartet in the spring of 2017. However, the Sonata Dementia album provided my first opportunity to listen to the group perform compositions by its namesake. I have been impressed by the freshness of the groups immediacy, which interleaves with Partch’s “original spirit” without making too much of a show of itself. Perhaps it is time for me to look into the two preceding volumes!