The Partch Reverberations:
Notes on a Musical Rebel
This article originally appeared in the San Diego Reader - Volume 9, No. 38, September 25, 1980. I am grateful to the author, Jeff Smith, for allowing us to reproduce it. In over 35 years of passing time, many of the same issues are still in play, questions still unanswered. We start with this Introduction and then proceed to Parts 1, 2, and 3.
But perhaps the most mysterious thing he ever said about it was this. I was questioning him on the subject . . . and had incautiously said, "Of course, I realize it's all rather too vague for you to put into words," when he took me up rather sharply by saying, "On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why the thing can't be expressed is that it's too definite for language."
- C. S. Lewis, Voyage To Venus
It is a warm August morning -- an omen that summer heat will vie for one's attention all day -- and the fragments of haze that remain from the dawn seek refuge, in slowly receding shadows, from the sunlight. Inside an auditorium of the music building at San Diego State University, however, shadows dominate. They surround a dimly lit stage where a collection of large, strange, beautiful musical instruments stands in silence. Each instrument looks more like a piece of sculpture, yet each is capable of producing the sound inside of a normal musical sound. They are made from all sorts of unlikely, though carefully tested, objects, such as Pyrex containers lopped in half, eucalyptus boughs, artillery shell casings, and empty bottles of Harvey's Bristol cream Sherry. And they have mysterious, evocative names like Zymo-Xyl, Quadrangularis Reversum, Mazda Marimba, and New Boo. They are part of the priceless, controversial legacy left behind by Harry Partch, a visionary musical composer, when he died in San Diego six years ago. Partch, a Magellan of Western music who designed and built the instruments and who explored numerous uncharted regions of sound, also left behind several theatrical/musical compositions that, when performed, roll into you like auditory tidal waves, that articulated the reaches of harmony and discord in his own heart, and that forced you to add at least thirty-five new colors to your conception of a rainbow. He also left behind an armada of unanswered questions and problems.
Generally the death of a composer creates problems. But if the composer wrote for the conventional instruments of an orchestra, using the dominant tuning system of the West -- the twelve-tone scale of the piano -- the problems are usually matters of interpretation and proper emphasis during a performance of the works. At age twenty-nine, however, Harry Partch gathered up fourteen years of music he had written, based on what he called the "tyranny of the piano" and the twelve-tone scale, and summarily burned it in a big iron stove. he termed this act his auto-da-fe, "a confession to myself that in pursuing the respectable, the widely accepted, I had not been faithful." He felt he was only an imitator of the tradition he found dumped on him, without ever questioning the ideas that lay beneath it or its ability to express the confluence of oceanic, non-Western minisounds he heard in the world around him. For the next four and a half decades, most of the time working in virtual obscurity, Partch devoted his entire life to the production of those sound. Only very late in life did he acquire a belated but significant international reputation (to this day he is still more revered in Europe than America) as both a major musical composer and as an innovative genius. When he died in 1974, he had built around thirty instruments and had devised complex theories of intonation and even of performance to accompany them. His legacy has crested problems equally complex. It has constituted, in music circles, almost a national debate.
The questions are easy to ask, the problems easy to understand. Stated simply, they are: What now? Where does one go from here? What is being done, or should be done, with the unique nature of the Partch legacy? The answers and solutions, however, are like the music of Partch -- a vast array of conflicting opinions, suggestions, and opposed proposals. And Danlee Mitchell, a teacher at San Diego State University who worked with Partch for eighteen years and who legally inherited the legacy, has been the focus of both praise and criticism for the work he has done with the inheritance.
Other problems intrude here as well. The instruments are in varying states of sickness and health. while some can be replaced -- improved even, as is the case with the New Boo built by local composer Cris Forster -- others cannot. The Cloud-Chamber Bowls, for example, which sound like liquid gongs, are made of brittle, twelve-gallon Pyrex containers, which Partch obtained from the radiation laboratory glass shop at UC Berkeley in 1950. If one shatters during the heat of a performance, it is irreplaceable. A substitute bowl necessitates rewriting the parts of the score in which it appears. and the Harry Partch Foundation, Headed by Mitchell, has only limited sources of funding at present (derived largely from the royalties on Partch's intriguing book Genesis of a Music), a large portion of which goes into the upkeep and repair of the slowly deteriorating instruments. Also, the Harry Partch Ensemble, an ever-changing group of volunteer musicians trained to play the unique instruments, requires enormous amount of time (yet with no financial reimbursement) from its members for rehearsals and performances. And only six or seven performers of the original ensemble remain, two of whom are leaving the area shortly.
Of this and other problems, one member of the Harry Partch Ensemble has said, "The legacy is like a dying species in a zoo. The instruments are one-of-a-kind, and they are so cumbersome it's very expensive to get the music heard. the large fee required just to move them around is self-limiting. And yet people all over the world, who think they and only they know what to do with it, are dying to get their hands on Partch's stuff. But just what are they going to do? It's kind of like people crossing a field in 1750 and coming across a football. People don't know what kind of game to play with it yet."
Others, of course, have expressed the opposite opinion, and charge that devotees of Partch are either too intellectual (or too anti-intellectual), that the time has come to demystify the man and to concentrate on this or that aspect of his work (very few agreeing on which one). In fact speaking to the various people who knew, worked with, or have since his death become involved with Partch and his work is like asking the disciples of twenty-five different religious sects about the true nature of the Godhead. Each sees a different Partch, contribution, and direction for the legacy.