How It Happened: My Connection With Harry Partch

 Jon Szanto playing the  Boo , circa 1976

Jon Szanto playing the Boo, circa 1976

While in high school, sometime in 1970, I contacted my local university percussion instructor in order to take some xylophone lessons.  The professor met me outside the music building and led me to the percussion studio.  When he opened the door I expected to see timpani, bells, drums, and the like; instead, I walked into a room that was filled to the rafters with musical instruments from another time or planet.  Of course, the 'professor' was none other than Danlee Mitchell, and the campus was San Diego State University.  After asking Danlee about the instruments and where they came from, I went to the library to check out one of the recordings Danlee had made with those magical sculptures.  When I had recovered sufficiently from that virgin listening experience I decided to attend the local university; although better music schools existed, there was no place else in the world that I would have a chance to be part of the group dedicated to performing the body of work created by that "philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry", Harry Partch.

During the years 1971 to 1986 I performed with what we called "The Harry Partch Ensemble", a most unlikely collection of people, brought together by the intrinsic strength of Harry's vision and a desire to present his works.  As people familiar with Partchiana will note from the dates, it was my great fortune to have worked with Harry during the last few years of his life, and the experience has been invaluable in two important ways: Harry's philosophy of music-making / performing has been the prime influence on my own performance aesthetics (even on the "tight coat and tight shoes" symphony stage), and it supplied me with a benchmark of beliefs regarding the performing of Partch's compositions, then and now.

Something struck me about the direction Partch had gone in, beyond the obvious instrumental and intonational uniqueness.  From the first rehearsal with Partch, it was clear that the difference I sensed was correct: Harry began communicating to the ensemble members the extra-musical attitudes and actions that he felt lead to a experiential performance.  He would show how to approach an instrument with the proper physical inclination, not unlike the motivation of an actor in his part.  The physical approach would reflect both the nature of the notes and phrases themselves (especially the notoriously wicked licks Harry could come up with), as well as the dramatic or musical intent of the passage.

He taught us respect for the instruments, for their individual mannerisms, how to coax the best and the worst sounds out of them.  In doing so, as former instrumentalists, we slowly began to see our relationships to the printed page and the vehicle to transmit the notes changing, from one of passive translators to active, engaged participants.  What followed directly from that was a natural inclination to move, to sing, to dance, to act.  As the years went on, we broadened our performances and productions to include as much of Partch's corporeal aesthetic as we could.  This meant putting aside fears of embarrassment and inadequacy at being those singers, dancers and actors, to better serve the piece at hand.  To this day, I can't play a typical orchestra concert without feeling claustrophobic and constrained; if not corporeal, to at least strive for exuberant.

Not long after I had started into school at San Diego State University, Danlee said one afternoon "Would you like to go up and meet Harry?".  As startled as I was, I leaped at the chance!  Harry was living in the beachside community of Encinitas, just north of San Diego proper.  On the drive up Danlee started filling me in on his years with Harry, and gave me a little background on an upcoming project, the filming of "The Dreamer That Remains".  I didn't know it at the time, but I think Danlee wanted to introduce me to Harry to see if I could cut it; Harry was, as many know, a rather cantankerous fellow at times, prone to moving from fire to ice in the blink of an eye.  When we arrived, Harry couldn't have been more warm in his greeting, and wanted to know all about me and what my interests were.  Not long after, he received a phone call that was very upsetting to him, and I soon saw the flip side of this vibrant personality - when Harry was mad, he was industrial-strength angry!  However, it soon passed, as it usually did, and we ended up having a fine time as he showed me around, looked at the new instrument he was working on (the Mbira Bass Dyad, only used in "The Dreamer That Remains"), scores, photos and everything else.  Harry's abodes had a cluttered look, not unlike many older people.  As an avid reader, there were papers, books, magazines laying all over the place -- quite a mess.  He had gourds, at some point intending to be turned into instruments, but serving as holders for this or that, art work of various types that had been given him, a great couch that he made himself (which rivaled the Eucal Blossom for fanciful design), and then there was his overgrown and unruly collection of pipes.  The general area of the pipes would always be a stopping point before we would go out, and would almost certainly delay the proceedings as he gathered the various implements of smoking recreation.

Within a few weeks we started learning instrumental parts for "Dreamer".  I still don't remember how I came to end up on the Boo, or Bamboo Marimba, but for the next 15 years the Boo and I would be pretty much inseparable.  I came to Partch with a background as a percussionist, and Harry's percussion parts are accessible to anyone who reads conventional music notation with regard to meter and rhythm.  Each instrument, however, has its own unique assignment of 'pitches' to the staff, so that a slightly different notation must be learned for each instrument. If you would like a little deeper background on playing the Boo, please take a look at A Part of Partch.

More often than not we memorized our parts, at least the most intricate sections; the physical nature of Harry's exotic and sculptural instruments didn't readily facilitate staring at the music while striking or plucking the correct note.  I worked on that part so much I could play it in my sleep; additionally, we had other, slightly smaller, parts to learn; in my case, Mbira Bass Dyad, Ektara and vocal parts.  Though I played the Boo more than any other instrument, I have listed below the other instruments that I performed on during my tenure with the Ensemble.  Preparation time on the parts varied from player to player, depending on their musical strengths and the degree of difficulty of the parts.  Percussionists, as would make sense, were the natural players for all of Partch's percussive instruments, but the string instruments don't really have an analogous set of players, so those positions were cast with musicians from many backgrounds (bassoon players, singers, guitarists, keyboard players).  As far as I know, Partch didn't compose with any particular players in mind; this would make sense, since he could never be sure where his ensemble would come from.  He could, however, play (in a fashion) any of the parts he had written.  He truly understood his instruments, in both conception and execution.  If Harry wrote it, no matter how difficult the part, with practice you could always play it.  And when you could play it, there was great satisfaction, as the parts really 'laid' well on the instruments and were great fun to play.  Not everyone performed on multiple instruments; the Kithara players particularly had their work cut out for them, with the Kithara being one of Partch's most difficult instruments .  However, if you stayed in the Ensemble for a while you would usually end up learning more and more of the instruments, both out of personal interest and to fill in if someone was missing one day.  And then there was the time one of the Harmonic Canon players left to join the Hare Krishna group a couple of weeks before a West Coast tour....

That first rehearsal with Harry was thrilling and nerve-wracking.  Some of the Ensemble members had not met Harry, and yet many of them would end up playing his music for the next few years.  Harry listened as we rehearsed, occasionally offering suggestions or making certain requests; some of these moments are captured quite well in the film ("Dreamer").  It was at one of these rehearsals that Harry corrected my rather pristine approach to the Boo, in typical fashion.  First, he came over and took the mallets from me, and then he proceeded to play the passage, bending his knees to crouch low to the Boo.   "Jon, dear boy, that's all very nice, but you have got to get down low to the instrument. You've got to bend at the knees, not at the waist like some God-damned amateur California prune-picker!  You see?".  There would usually be a Greek chorus of affirmation in the room when Harry would ask "You see?"!  In the course of those weeks of preparation, leading up to the recording and subsequent filming of "The Dreamer That Remains", Harry revealed all of the subtleties and vulgarities he expected from performers involved in his works; indeed, Harry often spoke of not only "caressing the instrument, but raping it, too".  Even within the context of the visual nature of the filming, it became clear that the physical connection between player and instrument, so crucial to any corporeal performance, had to be established early; that when player and instrument were one, we would transcend our roles as instrumentalists and become more fully formed performers, ready to move, to act, and to live the part. To create a corporeal experience.

My colleagues in the Ensemble during those years were a hard-working and motley crew, ready to practice long hours or spend an entire day packing the instruments onto the moving vans.  Self-motivation was a key factor, as all of us prepared our parts individually to be ready for rehearsals, and due to the fact that the Ensemble operated outside of the university, we received no credit or salaries for our work.  Many of us were students, and after graduation, or with developing families or time-consuming jobs, people would have to leave the group.  Others, however, maintained an active role in performances long after that; the last of our original members, Randy Hoffman, helped in the logistics, training and preparation of a local group of players in New York when the American Music Theatre Festival sponsored a concert production of "Revelation In The Courthouse Park" at Lincoln Center in 1994.

During three tours of the West Coast, a trip to Germany, numerous short tours and local performances, the Ensemble worked for expenses and the gratification of bringing Harry's music and theater to as wide an audience as possible.  One of the most daunting tasks for anyone presenting Harry's body of work is the simple fact that there are so few pieces of 'pure' instrumental music, those without any theater attached.  In an effort to bring as much of a corporeal spirit to even the instrumental pieces, Danlee Mitchell initiated stagings of "Castor and Pollux" and "Daphne Of The Dunes" that incorporated the players as dancers, choreographed when not actually playing, and theatrical "Barstow" and "U. S. Highball" productions, where all the vocal and character parts were performed by the instrumentalists in costume.  Again, to see Harry unable to stay in his chair while making a suggestion or correction, to see him cross the room and show you exactly what he wanted -- it all pointed to a mode of performance as far from a stiff, strict recital as was possible.  That the Partch Ensemble of the 70's and 80's contained a fair number of, well, 'outgoing' people was a real bonus in presenting Partch's works in a corporeal setting.

To be around the instruments that much for that long a time period brings one very close to their frailties, and many of the players became adept at keeping the instruments in good playing condition.  Although it would seem a Herculean task to tune all of the string instruments, tuning charts, playable from the Chromelodeon, were made for each piece and for each string instrument; all that was needed were two people, one to call out the individual strings to be tuned (and tune them), and the other to play the corresponding pitch on the Chromelodeon.  This was done for all rehearsals and performances.  Each instrument had its own peculiar 'aches and pains', both short- and long-term.  I was constantly making Boo mallets, trying to find better ways to keep the sound percussive while drawing as much pitch and tone out of the tubes as possible.  Diamond marimba bars would become separated from their foam rubber mountings, strings would break, screws would loosen during transit, soundboard bridges would fall out; the list was endless.  And then there was the night that two bottles on the Zymo-Xyl broke, necessitating an immediate foray to the local liquor store and ensuing emptying of contents...

In addition to the instruments needing care, Harry needed attention too.  While working on the filming of "Dreamer" Harry had taken a fall in his hotel room and had fractured a bone in his arm.  As with many older people, his recovery was slow and not entirely satisfactory, and this injury led to a general decline in his health over the next couple of years.  During that time, Harry moved closer to Danlee in San Diego, first renting a house and then purchasing one down the street that he would move into, although he never occupied it.  Danlee, myself and other Ensemble members helped Harry in any number of ways, ranging from everyday tasks to musical assistance; for instance, I helped Harry proof-read the galley sheets for the 2nd edition of "Genesis of a Music", but I also pruned peach trees and fixed sprinkler systems.  Harry, as always, could be difficult at times, but he was also an appreciative person, and would always treat for lunch at the local smorgasbord.  Harry never lived in luxurious splendor, and I don't know all the details of his income, beyond the small royalties for his recordings; suffice to say, he was not a rich man.

Before his death he slowed down considerably, yet he was always reading and, in his own way, staying engaged with the world.  Every time you would go to visit him, Harry had been poring over   some periodical, book or score, or watching TV, ranting about this, ecstatic over that.  When he was tired, he would lay on this crazy sofa he had built from big wooden branches (maybe Eucalyptus), with the back an interlacing of ropes.  He had placed the television at one end of the couch, and had threaded bamboo poles down through the ropes, with rubber cups on the ends, so that he could change channels without getting up -- a true "hobo remote control"!  Though his body let him down in the end, his mind was as sharp as an overblown piccolo.  Finally, a clarification: although Harry's last years were neither easy nor painless, the portrait that has been painted of him as alone and abandoned, drunk and decrepit is simply not true; he was still sharp as a tack, ready to engage the visitor in conversation or debate, as those of us who visited can attest.  That Harry had too much to drink on many occasions, no one can argue; in the vast bulk of his life that I didn't know him, the drinking must have given him both an escape and a liability, and I know that it was a problem from time to time for those who had worked with him.  Yet when Harry was really 'there' he was lucid and creative, and he would work as long as his body would allow him -- not unlike many others his age.

Touring with the Ensemble was always so satisfying; in 40 years as a professional percussionist I have yet to find any other music that evokes such wonder and enthusiasm in an audience.  While we played to very supportive crowds, we also had our share of nights when the audience was not quite sure what to expect, yet invariably they would be won over.  Post-concert would almost always entail a mass of people on-stage, looking, asking questions, trying a few sounds for themselves.  On more evenings than I can remember some person would approach an Ensemble member with a phrase like "You know, I knew Harry Partch back when...".  Some times you knew that you really hit the mark in a performance, and one of my favorite comments was after a performance of "U.S. Highball", in which the Ensemble members were cast as the hobos.  One of the audience members said that not only did we evoke the sights and sounds of riding the rails, but it even smelled right!  I'm not sure how we pulled that off, but I guess Harry's spirit was with us that night.  Although I only worked with Harry directly during "Dreamer", spending time with him over the next couple of years confirmed all that I had gleaned of his substance during those rehearsals; it is important to understand that Harry led a corporeal life, and that life, as expressed by Harry, helped us to fully form our performances.

Jon Szanto, 1998/2016