Gunnar Johansen and Harry Partch
My personal thanks to Lucie Marshall for allowing me to reprint this article. A copy of the article was sent to me by a visitor to the Meadows, Steve Shain; the original article appeared in the quarterly journal Ridge Review, published locally for the Northern California coast. Ms. Marshall made her home for many years in this rugged coastal area, and it has been a real joy to have met her in conversation and in person. This article puts in perspective some of the early hurdles Partch had to deal with, and shows the devotion, and consternation, he inspired in others.
The first professional musician to settle on the South Coast was Gunnar Johansen. In love with ideas, airplanes, Romantic music, his motorcycle and pretty girls, this handsome Dane left his homeland while still a very young man to study with Egon Petri in the Bay Area. There he soon became known for his weekly radio broadcasts and the artistry he displayed in his many concerts -and his enthusiastic sociability.
In the mid-thirties, with his friend George Everson, who often could he persuaded to sing for small gatherings, and who loved piano music, he also fell in love with the Coast, and at the suggestion of the Ratcliff family, bought the old Zarucchi ranch north of Anchor Bay. There he settled into the original Civil War-period farmhouse, set far up a challenging dirt road and over an equally challenging old bridge, while George built a new house higher on the ridge. In his tiny white farmhouse Gunnar spent long summers, composing, practicing and reveling in Coast life with his wife, Lorraine, until his death in the spring of 1991.
For many years their days here had to be mainly summer ones: Early on Gunnar's taste in music and his natural love for the company of all sorts of scholars led him to become the first Artist-In-Residence in this country, at the University of Wisconsin. In an old stone house outside Madison, in Blue Mounds, he established his magnificent studio with its variety of pianos, a harpsichord, even a two-keyboard concert grand. There he practiced, set forth on tours, taught, composed, and recorded.
On Fridays at the University, his weekly music history lecture drew so many students that it had to be cut off at 750 - all the hall would hold. He loved those afternoons as much as the students loved his stories, insights into music, and playing. The Madison appointment suited him well: it gave him freedom to concentrate on the Romantic music he preferred, and it gave him time to spend in Gualala at his ranch. And perhaps even most important, it gave him the freedom to indulge his curiosity about all sorts of new ideas in the sciences and medicine. He was as happy taking part in a conference on, say, the future sources of energy, as he was on the concert stage. Many Coast residents remember his delight in watching the sparks fly between Bucky Fuller and Edward Teller at a conference on future energy sources he had helped to organize at The Sea Ranch.
He enjoyed roaming about the Ridges making friends, and, always generous with his music, welcomed neighbors many an evening. Gathered around a kerosene lamp on his old kitchen table, they reveled in music that went tumbling out into the old apple orchard and the darkening redwood forest beyond. After these evenings, the neighbors, returning to their cars by flashlight, enriched both by music and by Gunnar's sense of awe and wonder,and basking in the glow of Lorraine's hospitality, marveled at this mix of music and ideas. Here, after all, was concert pianist whose license plates read "HYDROG," short for hydrogen - to Gunnar the only energy source that made sense for the world of the future.
Driving back down the road, his guests could hear the last faint notes from the huge Bechstein concert grand, a magnificent instrument that occupied almost all of the tiny living room. But there were times also when Gunnar still played on the first piano he acquired - a sturdy Steinway upright. The Steinway came up the Coast in l936 in a monstrous wooden crate, and because Gunnar was away at the time, the crate sat for months on the porch of the Gualala Hotel, until he returned and could get it trucked up the hill.
After Gunnar's death, The Bechstein went off one rainy December night, wrestled out of its home and onto a huge piano truck by a skillful and adventuresome piano mover from Sherman-Clay. This gentleman will no doubt never forget his experience - and will never come again. Before the operation was over, the piano truck, which had already picked up three other Steinway grands and which had been driven all the way from Seattle, had buried its nose in a deep muddy ditch, suffered the indignity of rescue by come-along and eventually, chains. But the old upright is still there, its tone as full and true as ever, and these days it is the former students who return to visit with Lorraine and play on long summer evenings.
While Gunnar swam with exuberance in the stream of the Western classical musical tradition, he was never closed-minded about innovation. From the first moment he heard the music of Harry Partch - in the early '40s with Otto Luening in New York - he became a fan. And that is how Harry, whose life had been a continual struggle for existence, wound up with an appointment at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He had been barely surviving in any number of places, from a brief collaboration in Ireland with Yeats to life on the road as a hobo during the Great Depression. The Music Department refused to touch him; the appointment Gunnar wangled for him was in one of the sciences.
About the time of his first meeting with Gunnar, Harry had written:
"I am first and last a composer. I have become provoked into becoming a musical theorist, an instrument builder, a musical apostate, and a musical idealist, simply because I have been a demanding composer. I hold no wish for the obsolescence of the widely heard instruments and music. My devotion to our musical heritage is great and critical. I feel that more ferment is necessary to a healthy musical culture. I am endeavoring to instill more ferment."
While at Madison he supplied plenty of ferment by giving concerts and lectures, and by his book, Genesis of a Music, published in 1949 by the University Press; and by his activities there: composing, writing, building instruments, and by issuing a limited series of recording of his early work. But as ferment mounted, the funds ran out, so Gunnar offered Harry, faced again with homelessness, the former blacksmith shop in Gualala on his ranch, Azalean.
And that, in turn, is how Harry moved on, this time driving an old Studebaker and hauling a trailer containing all of his possessions and the precious instruments, to 'The Smithy," a one-room cabin studio-home.
The Smithy he soon transformed into a snug, attractive workplace, complete with a huge rock fireplace, wood cookstove, astoundingly original water system and attractive outhouse. The seat for the latter came from an old wagon he found in the barn; it had scrolled metal handles at either end. And the shell of the building? It was the old Steinway packing crate, with the words "STEINWAY" stenciled across the interior ceiling - an irony that was certainly not lost on Harry, and was probably intentional.
The year was 1949. In the summer, a small band of faithful disciples gathered. Harry was first joined by the late Larry Marshall, a physicist from Berkeley with whom he shared support from the Guggenheim Foundation. From North Carolina came composer Ben Johnston and his wife, Betty, a painter. In the ensuing weeks a variety of graduate students in music and the sciences appeared, mostly from Berkeley, with rather loose affiliation with the School of Music. With time these disciples became adept at playing Harry's instruments, reading his notation, and understanding the 43-tone-to-the-octave scale he had developed, along with at least a partial grasp of the complex mathematics involved.
To Gualala Harry had brought an adapted parlor organ called the Chromelodeon; an adapted guitar and viola; a diamond-shaped marimba; two standing stringed instruments called the harmonic canon and the kithara. All of these beautifully crafted, sculpted instruments were set up in the tiny Smithy, where the group rehearsed, labored away, and learned how hard it was to please Harry.
Life with Harry was far from easy. In poor health, lonely (although he always claimed he didn't want even any disciples), hating the Coast climate, often depressed, he was a trying companion and a severely uncompromising guru. He could summon up a surprising amount of creative energy at times, often coming up with ingenious solutions to problems caused by living and making music without telephone, electricity or much else; the group who gathered about him lacked almost all the skills appropriate to survival in a rural environment. Bravely and with hilarity they discovered ways of hauling vast amounts of salt water up the hill in order to cook live crabs from the Point Arena Wharf. They became adept at catching chickens bought from a neighbor, then killing, plucking and cleaning them. They could quickly switch from a session with the 43-tone scale to the wood pile and a large cross-cut saw. By the time they'd figured out how to get a garden in, Harry had moved on and they were left to go their own ways, enriched by what they had absorbed of his musical philosophy and by their own small successes in communal country living.
The major part of Harry's philosophy he had worked out during the 1920's, when his aim, according to musicologist Tom McGeary of the University of Illinois, had been to:
"create a monophonic and corporeal music that returned to what he believed was the primal, ritualistic, corporeal state that music had long ago abandoned: a music arising from human speech and the natural acoustic musical intervals generated by sounding bodies; a music no longer estranged from the physical production of sound: a music where the audience experiences an integration of drama, dancers, and performing musicians."
In Gualala Harry had composed, written, and built a new, enormous and booming bass marimba, and a series of percussion instruments created from the discarded tops of huge glass jars from the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. The bottoms had been cut off to make cloud chambers for the Physics Department. Although the mathematics involved in these designs was often beyond members of his Gualala group, they could all be of help in finding materials and in construction. During the time in Gualala Harry also moved beyond his early bardic songs and settings from Chinese poetry, Shakespeare, biblical verses and hobo texts to large theater pieces integrating dance and drama. A major accomplishment during the Gualala days was the recording of a sizable body of his work that was subsequently issued on records available commercially. The recording sessions themselves turned out to be as adventurous as living at Azalean, conducted as they were with a portable generator and a high level of emotional instability.
From Gualala Harry went on to a long series of short-term stays - in Petaluma, at Mills, at Yellow Springs, at Urbana where he collaborated unhappily with Alwin Nikolais. Through the years came an increasing number of awards and professional recognition: Harry finally wound up living in San Diego, where he enjoyed the warm sun and the equally warm support of a group headed by Danlee Mitchell. He died there in 1974. Unfortunately for the world of music, there is only one set of his instruments in existence: it is now in New York, in the care of a group called "NewBand."
[Editor: and with the passing of Dean Drummond, now at the University of Washington, under the direction of Dr. Charles Corey.]
Harry never made much of an impression on the Gualala community, whose generosity and energy often irritated him. Aloof and withdrawn he worked away at Azalean never giving local performances or attempting much contact with his neighbors. The friends he made were mostly people who helped him out: Walter Tock kept the old car running and the road open. Jimmy MacNamee, with his usual intense intellectual curiosity, learned all he could about Harry's music in addition to supplying his needs from the store, handling his mail and messages and depositing a rather odd series visitors on his doorstep. Present-day Coast residents who are familiar with Harry's work are often surprised learn that he ever lived in the area all. And the '40s Coast residents who did become aware of him at the time most certainly considered him to be quite mad.
Going back to humanity's very earliest ways of hearing and making music actually pushed Harry Partch ahead his time. In a mere local context, he could have been ahead of his time on the Coast as well: If he'd hit the South Coast 20 years later, in the '60s, he might have been regarded as more of pied piper and less of a March hare.