Harry Partch on the pier at Gate 5, Sausalito, 1956

Reconstructing Harry:
Some Current Issues in Partch Biography


We are proud to offer to our readers the essay presented by Bob Gilmore at the 2001 UCLA Partch Centennial. Known to all Partch readers as the first official biographer of Harry, Bob takes a look back at what that effort entailed, what questions he sought answers for, and (more importantly?) what questions he feels are still out there. This is vintage Gilmore, with all the erudition one could want, leavened with his wry sense of humor. Please enjoy this thought-provoking missive from a pre-eminant authority.

I'd like to say first how delighted and honoured I am to be here among such marvellous (and distinguished) company, and to express my gratitude to John Schneider for the invitation to come and speak to you this afternoon.

Many of you here were, I'm sure, as amused as I was when, in 1997, Woody Allen released a movie with the title "Deconstructing Harry". Of course, he didn't mean our Harry. But by changing only one letter it would have made an ideal title for my book; for the work I did for the ten or so years preceding its publication in 1998 might be described as a process of reconstructing Harry. During those years I made it my business to unearth everything I could about the man that I considered then and still consider now to be one of America's greatest artists, and about whom---when I began my research in earnest in 1987---so little had been written. Even the facts of his life were then only sketchily known to the musical world at large.

What I thought to do this afternoon is, in a way, to re-open parts of the process of "reconstructing Harry", and to share with you my thoughts about current issues, mysteries, or dilemmas in Partch's biography, including some of those areas that I feel are not yet satisfactorily settled, and about which further research and reflection is needed. For despite the best efforts of those scholars who have worked on Partch issues in recent years---myself included---there remain not a few puzzling things about Harry Partch's life, issues that may never really be resolved fully, but that might be fun to share with you this afternoon.

Biography is a curious genre. The English biographer Richard Holmes has called it a "love-match" between invention and truth. In England, and I think the same is true in the United States, it is both despised and adored. Despised, inasmuch as every biography is an intrusion into a private world, the inner life of an artist or celebrity. It therefore raises ethical questions about how justified we are in making public things about a person that they themselves would probably have rather left unsaid, but are prevented (by death) from objecting to. James Joyce, in a memorable phrase from Finnegans Wake, describes the conniving, privacy-invading biographer as the "biografiend": and the eighteenth-century English writer Dr. Arbuthnot remarked that biography had added a new terror to dying. But occasionally the artist gets his/her own back: some of you may recall the legal battle some years ago when the reclusive (and still very much living) novelist J.D. Salinger took his (British) biographer Ian Hamilton through the courts and successfully impeded publication of Hamilton's would-have-been biography of him on the grounds that its publication would constitute an invasion of Salinger's much-coveted privacy. But whatever the objections to it, biography is adored at the same time by the reading public as being a lively genre, engaging, gripping. Real lives are often more incredible than fictional ones. (And certainly no novelist could have invented a character like Harry Partch.)

You will not be surprised to learn that Harry had some pertinent things to say about biography. One day, many years ago, I was working through a box of papers that Danlee Mitchell had in San Diego, and you can imagine my consternation on finding a memo, scribbled in Partch's most assertive handwriting, that said: "Biography---it is so trivial. The larger world is trivial beyond belief. So let us be less trivial than that larger world." It really felt like he'd written that just for me, for Bob, to discover many years after his death, politely but firmly telling me to leave him alone and get a life.

Then there is the marvellous passage in the Preface to the second edition of Genesis of a Music in which he is talking about the path-breaking step taken by the individualist creative artist, and he says (in a memorable phrase) that the individual's "path cannot be retraced, for each of us is an original being." I love that idea: it's so true, and so beautifully expressed. But in a sense what I did was precisely what he warned me was impossible: I tried to retrace his path. I suppose part of me read that statement as a deliberate provocation or challenge: his proclamation---you cannot retrace my path---felt like an enticement to try. For the biographer such a statement really throws down the gauntlet.

Certainly, as biographical subjects go, he was no serving of tapioca. Several periods of his life have left only the patchiest of documentation: much of his childhood, his twenties, and (not surprisingly, perhaps) his hobo years in the later 1930s. To give you some idea of the problem of sources, consider that the earliest surviving letter written by Harry Partch, to the best of my knowledge, dates from 1931, when he was already thirty years old. Tom McGeary wrote rather pessimistically in his Introduction to the Bitter Music anthology that "little will ever be known of the first forty years of Partch's life". The problems in documenting Harry came up at the memorial meeting held in his honour some three weeks after he died in 1974, and I'd like to play you a short extract from the tape recording (which still survives) of that meeting. In it, those present have begun to recall stories and anecdotes that Partch told them about his childhood, and Lou Harrison suggests the urgency of the need to document these memories. You'll hear Lou's voice first and, briefly, Stephen Pouliot's:

LH: Speaking of such subjects, couldn't we send in written things that we think about, or as a matter of fact on anything we think about, that we might not think about here for example...
SP: It should be done, because...
LH: If we send in things to Danlee, he can keep them and sort them out, because I have the feeling there's going to be some difficulty in writing a biography of Harry Partch.

But none of these difficulties or warnings, I should say, really put me off: they just added to the fun.

As I worked on Partch's life I began increasingly to feel, and now I am convinced of it, that he was aware that a biography of him would one day be attempted. And I also believe that he would not, in principle, have been opposed to the idea. When, during the preliminary research for the film The Dreamer that Remains in 1972, Stephen Pouliot asked him if anyone had ever written a biography of him, Partch replied, quite straightforwardly, "No... that would take a foundation grant." I believe that he cared desperately that his work be remembered; but I also believe that he would have accepted the claim that I make on the first page of my book, that while not in any sense "explaining" his work, an account of his life sheds light on how and why his output developed and took the form that it did.

I would even argue further than that, that Partch consciously thought about posterity, perhaps from quite early on---maybe even from the time of Bitter Music in the mid-1930s. His letters, for example, are always carefully dated; quite a few of them give the sense of "going on record", of being written with an eye to being read after he himself was long gone. His music manuscripts are likewise always dated, usually with precise indications of place, starting-date and completion-date of composition, so that as musicologists we are in the unusual and luxurious position of having no areas of doubt about when a piece was written or revised. This is not the behaviour of a man who is unconcerned about posterity.

And he did, after all, give us parts of an autobiography. He didn't ever write his memoirs as such: Lou Harrison suggested the idea to him late in Partch's life, and Partch replied that many of his early memories, especially of his childhood, were painful ones, so he could not face it. But he gave us parts of an autobiography: Bitter Music, End Littoral, U.S. Highball, the passages recalling his childhood in the preface to the second edition of Genesis of a Music, The Dreamer that Remains : all of these document and bring alive chapters from his life. In my book on him I suggested that it's possible to see Genesis of a Music partly as a sort of intellectual autobiography, an account of the musical and theoretical trail he had followed since the 1920s.

In another sense, you could argue that nearly everything he did was autobiographical: the lonely wanderers who crop up time and again in his work---think of them: Li Po, the anonymous graffiti-scribblers of Barstow, Mac (in U.S. Highball), Ulysses (in Ulysses at the Edge), The Son in Search of His Father's Face and the Deaf Hobo (in Delusion of the Fury), The Voice in the bubble (in The Dreamer That Remains)---surely these are all, to a greater or lesser extent, reinventions of Partch himself. Philip Blackburn has even speculated that there may have been a measure of self-identification with some of the characters in his dramatic works, such as Oedipus, Tiresias (the blind prophet), or The Witch (in The Bewitched); and Danlee Mitchell has emphasised the close identification Partch felt with the character of Sonny (and Pentheus) in Revelation in the Courthouse Park.

The other way of saying this, and I am not the first to have said it, is that it is so difficult to separate out Partch's life from his work: they seem so inextricably one. The architect Bruce Goff wrote to him after their first meeting in 1956: "I had the feeling we were old friends, although we had just met. Perhaps this is because you are so like your music and it is so of you." In this sense, Partch's life and the life of his work tell one and the same story.

One of the rewarding things about becoming an author is that you get to read reviews of your book, which can be, depending on your point of view, a harrowing or an amusing pursuit. But I discovered that it can even be instructive (occasionally). In particular, I noted with some surprise that several of the reviewers who wrote about my book complimented me for doing one thing I didn't in fact realise I'd done, and for which therefore no compliment seemed entirely deserved: for having, as one of them put it, "exploded many of the myths Partch had created in sculpting his image for the world." I read this and thought, well, have I really done this? Such a thing was certainly not my intention. The more I thought about the reviewer's comment (and a few other reviewers made similar statements) the less I agreed with its implicit assumption. The assumption seems to be that Harry Partch mythologised his own life, creating a distorted but more glamorous version of his life's events and conveniently airbrushing less desirable details out of the picture. The job of the biographer (the one for which I received such undeserved praise) would then be to strip away these wilful falsifications and reveal the true man beneath the mask.

A wilful myth-maker is not how I see Harry Partch, and an exploder of myths is not really how I regard the role of the biographer. But, as we all know, sometimes wrong ideas can be as useful as right ones, and the reviewer's comments got me thinking about these supposed Partch "myths", what they were and how they arose, and about Partch's own role (if indeed he played one) in this process. I thought I would share some of these thoughts with you as a way of showing you some of the stages in "reconstructing Harry".

Perhaps the most prevalent of these myths is the idea that Partch and his work sprang out of nowhere, that he was a sort of cultural desert plant, a self-made, self-taught genius owing nothing to any teacher or educational institution. This myth has been perpetuated by a number of the journalistic sources on Partch as well as by some historians of American music---Otto Karolyi, for example, in his book Modern American Music, writes [p.85]: "As a musician [Partch] was, as they say, 'a natural', self-taught and independent"---and this idea is supposedly one that my biography demolishes. Well, let's explore this a little. In Chapter Two of my book I outline in some detail the quirky history of Partch's formal musical education, which is slightly more extensive than we might imagine. He studied twice for brief periods in the early 1920s at the University of Southern California, where he took piano lessons with the then well-known pianist Olga Steeb, and he also studied briefly at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. (He studied harmony as well as piano, but not, as far as we know, composition per se.) So how does this square with the image of Partch as a self-taught, "natural" genius? In one sense, not very well: but my point is that this image of Partch---let's call it the "cultural desert plant" myth---is a fabricated one to begin with and arose not from any distortions or falsifications on the part of Partch himself but from the previously sparse knowledge of this part of his life.

To demonstrate this point, listen to how he responds to a question about his early musical development in this extract from an interview with Studs Terkel, recorded in Chicago in March 1962. Terkel asks him if he has had "an academic musical background":

ST: You're obviously not a traditional composer or maker of instruments. Have you had an academic musical background?
HP: Oh, almost none, I would say. I was brought up on the Arizona/New Mexico deserts. I was always interested in instruments. My mother and father and brother ordered instruments from mail-order catalogues, but they were either too busy or they tired of them to continue, and I was the one who took them seriously. And so I played a mandolin and a harmonica (of course) and a reed organ and a few things like that when I was very young. And I continued in music. I never stopped.
ST: But self-trained?
HP: Oh almost entirely, yes. Well, later on I did have piano lessons and some violin lessons, but... I think I entered the University of Southern California School of Music for about a month and about a month with the Kansas City Conservatory. But I wasn't built for academic inculcation.

For the biographer, recorded interview material like this is gold dust. I find it fascinating, on listening to that recording, to follow the somewhat unusual train of Partch's thought and to see how he answers the question about his early musical education. After first replying that no, he had "almost" no academic musical background, he goes on to talk about his lonely childhood in the southwest and about the instruments he played as a boy, which seems like an answer to a slightly different question. Terkel then asks the same thing for a second time and gets a similar initial response, Partch saying that he was "almost entirely" self-trained but that "later" he had piano and violin lessons and studied briefly at USC and at the Kansas City Conservatory. In other words, he interprets Terkel's question to mean: were you musically trained from an early age? to which his truthful answer is no, in this respect he was "almost entirely" self-taught. Hence there is absolutely no concealment or myth-making in his answer. In some of his written discussions of the same subject Partch emphasises that most of his important musical discoveries came from lonely hours browsing in public libraries and not from his teachers: again, all of that is true. But he does not deny that he had teachers, nor does he himself claim to have been any sort of "cultural desert plant".

A second myth that my book is supposed to have "exploded" likewise rests on a misconception. It concerns the image of Harry Partch as a "hobo composer". This one is really very simple: if you follow the chronology of this part of his life in Chapter 4 of my book you will see that when he was a hobo he wasn't doing any composing, and when he was composing he wasn't living as a hobo. Even Bitter Music, as Partch himself tells us, was put into shape using the "homes and pianos" of friends in Glendale, La Crescenta and Covina when he was taking a temporary respite from his hobo existence. The only completed composition from that traumatic and difficult period of his life is Barstow, written in a few weeks of relative peace and stability in La Mesa and completed in Anderson Creek. U.S. Highball was composed in a room in Ithaca, NY, when he was working at a book-keeping job for a "small scrap iron company" some eighteen months after the hobo trip it describes. Again, these misconceptions are not the doing of Partch himself, who is straightforward and truthful on such matters. They arise from an unthinking kind of journalistic excess, from writers (sometimes quite well-meaning ones) who like the idea of the "hobo composer" and the romantic but wholly imaginary image it evokes. After all, music manuscript paper is not usually in ready supply in freight trains.

I could continue this list of misconceptions and "myths" indefinitely. But I feel such things are only interesting up to a certain point. Partch's life story has plenty of genuinely puzzling aspects, those shady areas about which we have relatively little information, and hence all kinds of fascinating questions pose themselves about his intentions and motivations. Many of these questions about his life still fascinate me, much more so than the mistaken or misleading notions that crop up from time to time.

I'd like to talk now about one such mystery that I feel I solved, and then about two others that I feel I haven't. In these latter two cases I invite all of you to enter the discussion. 

First, though, one of my little successes. Again, it relates to Partch's early years and to his brief periods of study here in the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the 1920s. Specifically, it has to do with the role his mother played in pushing her son in the direction of a musical career. Those of you who have read my book or Philip's Enclosure 3 will already have made the acquaintance of Jennie Childers Partch, a formidable woman, whom today we would describe as a social rights activist, a campaigner for women's rights, a newspaper journalist, a Christian Scientist, and, by her younger son's accounts, a domineering mother. She encouraged the young Harry's early musical aptitudes, taught him to read music, and after the death of her husband in 1919 seemed determined to oversee Harry's development. Listen to how he talks about her in this extract from an interview with Vivian Perlis in March 1974, only a few months before his death. They are talking about his setting out on his own musical path around 1930 and turning his back on the traditions of concert music.

VP.  Most people are afraid to cut loose from the past.
HP.  Well, I had nothing. I'd given up the piano totally, which I had played as a young man. Of course I was still young, but I had no family, had no wife and children; I had only myself to be concerned about. My parents died before I was twenty, so there was no home. I had nothing. And in a sense, that was good. Because if I had had a mother who was demanding that I get someplace, which she would have been if she had been alive, because that was her purpose in life, that I had to amount to something.

Early on in my research, when Danlee let me hear this tape, I formed the theory (the quite plausible theory) that it was Harry's mother who pushed him in the direction of formal musical education, perhaps against his wishes (or at least against his inclinations and instincts). He tells us in Genesis of a Music that when he left high school his mind was already filled with "doubts and ideas", and as you heard him telling Studs Terkel a little earlier, he probably sensed even then that he "wasn't built for academic inculcation". However, he had been a good student at high school, had good grades, and the idea of further study at university or conservatory surely appealed to his mother, who herself had then just recently completed a degree at the University of New Mexico. But this matter was settled---I hope conclusively---by some documents I turned up in the archives of the University of Southern California. The chronology in fact runs like this: Harry moved to Los Angeles (as far as we know) in the fall of 1919, and his mother joined him there a few months later. However, his mother died (in fact, was killed in a streetcar accident) in November 1920, which meant that both his parents were then gone. But in the dusty old USC School of Music ledgers that I turned up in the course of my research we find Harry Partch's name inscribed, quite clearly, three times, first in February 1921, then June 1922 and then again for the Summer Session in 1922. That makes it quite clear that his enrolment at USC was his own decision. (Of course, it may have been motivated by some form of urge to honour his mother's wishes: that we can't say. But in any case none of his periods of formal study lasted long.) 

On this matter, then, a measure of biographical sleuthing paid off and clarified at least one of the mysteries of Harry Partch's early life. But I want to end my talk this afternoon with two unsolved mysteries which still fascinate me. They are perhaps somewhat specialist in nature, so let's just think of them as curio items for the Partch connoisseur. The first relates to a comment I made in one of the footnotes in Chapter 3 of my book, and it's something I still think about although admittedly without any further progress to speak of. It concerns the auto-da-fé, Partch's burning in an iron stove of the manuscripts of all the music he had composed in his youth, some sixteen years' worth, allegedly in New Orleans in 1930. Here, first, is Partch's famous account of that incident, as recorded forty years later:

The Adapted Viola was begun in Santa Rosa in 1928 and finished in New Orleans in 1930, and after it was finished I destroyed some sixteen years of previous work in a big pot-bellied stove and... I called it an auto-da-fé. And with those flames came a great new freedom.

Partch was always clear that this burning of his early music was of tremendous symbolic importance to him, and he speaks of it as an act of purification, a ritualistic purging by fire. However, in the documents he left us there is a puzzling and in his case totally uncharacteristic vagueness about the date of this auto-da-fé. All his life he claimed to be able to relive the great surge of freedom that swept through him on that occasion, and the precisely remembered detail of the appearance of the big, pot-bellied iron stove in which the manuscripts were burned lend the memory a touch of authenticating vividness. Yet among his later accounts we find datings as much as four years apart. In one document, prepared for the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s and the earliest of his accounts that we still have, he gives the date as 1926, which would place the event several years before his arrival in New Orleans. But maybe there's no contradiction: perhaps he burned some pieces as early as 1926 and the rest---perhaps the vast majority---in New Orleans in 1930.

But let's think this through a little further. In his descriptions of the "auto-da-fé" Partch was adamant that he burned absolutely all of his music to that time. If so, this would imply two things. First, that he kept all his manuscripts---even the earliest juvenilia from his school years in Albuquerque---together in one relatively tidy pile (which is rather at odds with his later habits: those of you in this room who knew Partch will remember, indeed several of you have told me, that he could be careless about the filing of his papers and would lose or misplace things fairly often, even scores or parts). Second, it would imply that all his manuscripts either accompanied him to New Orleans or were forwarded shortly after his arrival (he is unlikely to have brought them onboard the oil tanker he worked on just prior to his arrival in New Orleans, so we must assume that a trunkload of papers and books that had remained intact during his wanderings in the later 1920s was forwarded to him). And while none of this is impossible, I would suggest that we cannot rule out the tantalising possibility that some manuscripts, or copies, or scraps, of his early pre-1930 music escaped the auto-da-fé, simply because they were not part of the bundle of papers he had in New Orleans. We have absolutely none of this music apart from one little published song that you'll hear tonight: but wouldn't we all love to hear some more!

The second of my still-live biographical mysteries for the Partch connoisseur may seem like an apparently simple detail but it's one that hints at larger questions. It concerns one of the letters to Partch from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, whom he met in Ireland in November 1934---a momentous occasion for the young composer. The letter from Yeats in question unfortunately is not dated but by various clues we can say that it was almost certainly written around March 1935, while Partch was still in London pursuing research at the British Museum. Yeats, who had been ill that winter, wrote that he regretted not being able to come to London and to see Partch again, and then continued:

I return your biographical essay which I found exceedingly interesting. You have a narrative gift and a remarkable power of explaining yourself.

While it is marvellous to have such praise from one of the twentieth century's great men of letters for Partch's writing, it is frustrating to acknowledge that we simply do not know what this "biographical essay" that Yeats found "exceedingly interesting" was. First of all, there is an oddity: surely Yeats cannot mean biographical essay (Partch did not, as far as we are aware, produce biographical material on anyone [although, what a tantalising idea!]). Surely Yeats must mean "autobiographical", i.e. Partch writing about his own life---but what, by March 1935, could it have been? Perhaps a product of his sojourn in Italy or Malta, from where he had just returned? Anyhow, no such essay (biographical or autobiographical) has survived.

Or has it? You may recall that there is a passage in Bitter Music, the entry for June 24th 1935 (Partch's thirty-fourth birthday) which in effect is a long flashback to his travels, studies and experiences in Europe, amounting to a lengthy recap of the events of the previous year (from late June 1934 to June 1935, beginning with the moment he receives notification of his Carnegie grant through his months of waiting in New York, his passage to England, his arrival in London, his trip to Ireland, his disappearance to the sunnier climes of Italy and Malta and his brief final weeks in London before returning to the U.S.). I have often wondered about this flashback material. Is it possible that this---or part of it---could have originated as a stand-alone piece? that this is what he sent to Yeats? and that Yeats's high regard for it mandated its later incorporation in Bitter Music? In that case (and I hasten to point out this is pure speculation on my part) we would, after all, have a record of W.B. Yeats's high praise for (part of) Bitter Music.

A final twist to these speculations: suppose I'm right, and Partch indeed produced an autobiographical essay about his experiences in Europe which he sent to Yeats who wrote so glowingly of it. Could Yeats's approval then have encouraged Partch to take a notebook with him when he took to the road in June 1935? In other words, have we W.B. Yeats to thank for the encouragement that provided some of the motivation to write Bitter Music?

In conclusion, then, let me return to the idea I discussed earlier that Harry Partch shaped the mythology of his own life, that he himself was one of the main players in the game of reconstructing Harry. I think the idea is nonsense. If he remains a semi-legendary figure today, and in some senses a mystery even to those of you (unlike me) who knew him, this is (I would suggest) largely because of gaps or inconsistencies in the historical record, the documents of his life, and NOT because, as some of my reviewers implied, Partch controlled, shaped and doctored his own image, reinventing himself for the world, and throwing a smoke screen in our faces. On the contrary, in talking and writing about his own life he is scrupulously honest, even harrowingly so, an exemplary figure in the quest to be true to one's lived experience.

The simple fact is that when I, for example, began the research for my book in 1987, the longest available published chronology of Partch's life was Ben Johnston's, in the sleeve notes to the New World Records LP of Partch and Cage, and that was only some 2,000 words long. In terms of published sources this was superseded only as recently as 1991 with Tom McGeary's introduction to the Bitter Music volume. This is perhaps why, when Philip Blackburn's Enclosure 3 and my Harry Partch: a biography rolled off their respective presses a matter of months apart in 1997 and '98 reviewers began to speak of "exploding myths": it was because many of the gaps in our knowledge of Partch could now be filled in. But, as I hope I've shown this afternoon, some mysteries still remain. Let me end, then, by stating my hope that the research into Partch's life---the process of reconstructing Harry---is far from being over now: it's only just begun

Bob Gilmore, 2001