Today, Harry Partch would be 118 years old. I try to remember this day (with the help of friends) and try to think of something to go along with it. This year, nearly 45 years since his death, is showing up in darker hues.
It has been a growing concern of mine that we are losing Partch. With each passing year since his exit, less and less of the creator of this body of work is evident. This is not to say that there are fewer activities that have the words "Harry Partch" connected with them, but that those activities are bearing less resemblance to what he wanted than before. I'm reminded of the resurgence in period performance in the 1970s, when artists such as Gustav Leonhardt and Trevor Pinnock attempted to harken back to resources and aesthetics of performance as they imagined them to be, a couple of centuries before. Certainly this was done with scholarship and good intentions, but one does face the question: when, and why, did the original performance style go away? Why did they have to be rediscovered and (with potential for miscarriage) reimagined?
I fear that this is what we face, in mere decades, in the works of Partch. Few originators have tried as hard to document how they want their work experienced, yet it seems to be lost on any but those who knew him. Lip service is paid to his notions of dramatic involvement of the performers, willful ignorance is given to his abhorrence of "a concert of music". As the years roll on, techniques are guessed at, the many elements that shaped his sound that aren't written into the scores drop away, all yielding performances that refuse to stand on their own two legs and grab you by the scruff of your neck.
So, we think of Harry Partch today, and think of what he was and what he did:
the man who took the pitches and hammered and bent them to be in tune and small-of-size, to take the exquisite poetry of Li Po and turn out something between song and oration, unequaled lyricism;
the chronicler of a life on the road, giving us a window into the lives of his fellow travelers through "U.S. Highball", all in service of acknowledging the occasional joys and far more frequent lows of being on the lam, bringing a chaotic dignity to these people without ever wanting to be tagged, unimaginatively, as a "hobo composer";
the visionary who, as he struggled in the coastal woods of a California retreat, began dreaming up a new way of presenting music and dance and theater, all melded into a whole and backed by an extraordinary ensemble of instruments the likes of which had not been seen;
the constant wanderer, who seemingly never stopped moving even while the amount of baggage he himself built was growing beyond all common sense, who in his sixties managed to bring to life a magnum opus in "Delusion of the Fury", unleashing all the elements he had built up to bring to the stage a work unlike any other, unparalleled to this day;
the man, once again, old before his time, finishing life as a dreamer who remembered the simpler times of his youth, witnessing the inception of his last ensemble, not knowing what the future would bring to this unlikely and extraordinary artistic life.
There is more to say on some of these subjects, but we'll leave that for another time. Let us once again simply sit back and marvel at what one man, of limited resources, was able to accomplish. That is a remarkable story all by itself. Happy Birthday, Harry.