The Partch Reverberations:
Notes on a Musical Rebel
Harry Partch wasn't trying to stand the musical establishment completely on its ear. Rather, he wanted to roll out the wax that had accumulated in it over the last 300 years and allow it to hear new alternatives. Partch regarded the history of music in an almost Biblical fashion, as a fall from wholeness into "specialization" and, his most bitterly uttered term, "abstraction." Originally, according to Partch, music was part of a much larger aesthetic unit, a combination of the aural and the visual, the human voice and human body, dance, drama -- all intertwined by the religious tendrils of ritual. Somewhere along the way (Partch doesn't say specifically when) each of these united elements became cut away, "abstracted" from the whole. The consequences of this rift are that now dancers merely dance, musicians merely play music (collared by the "inhibiting incubus of tight coats and tight shoes"), and actors merely act -- each separate part having been locked into "sealed spheres of purity." And each had become entangled in its own discrete tradition, something that Partch regarded about as highly as the remains of yesterday's breakfast. "Traditions in the creative arts are per se suspect . . . They exist on the patrimony of standardization, which means degeneration. They dominate because they are to the interest of some group that has the power to perpetuate them, and they cease to dominate when some equally powerful group undertakes to bend them into a new pattern. "Partch was one such bender, and the new pattern he attempted to forge was a return to the wholeness he envisioned in the theatrical music of the ancient Greeks.
Partch looked everywhere around him and saw only rigidity. "The ancient, lovely, and fearless attitude toward the human body was gone." The concert hall had become petrified by "rampant formality, huge impersonal assemblies with closely placed, hard, stiff-backed seats, black and white tails, brisk robots on stage." Looking at the spectacle of these automatons, Partch allowed himself a dash of wry nostalgia when he recalled a more innocent time. "Back in the early Twenties, long before Hollywood Bowl became a cemented, be-shelled, be-uniform ushered stadium, a few of us would take sandwiches and bottles of pop high up on the hillside there, and consume them quite without regard to whether we liked or did not like the music being played. That is a singular memory, and never since has the idea of the symphony orchestra seemed so painless in contemplation." Musicians, in Partch's mind, had become second-class citizens, relegated to the pit and forced to perform like mannequins in a tuxedo shop. And, Partch says, "I have watched them jealously guard their precious misconceptions."
In place of this stolid spectacle, Partch envisioned its opposite. He put his musicians on stage, in a theatrical situation, and had them not only playing the huge instruments but also performing in the drama itself, becoming an integral part -- joined with the actors, mimes, and dancers, all in vigorous movement. This "body feeling" rejoins the physical aspect of man with the music, achieving not an inversion of spirit back into flesh but rather a condition in which each infuses the other with its own qualities. Partch called this coupling "Corporeality", a difficult term he never pinned down completely, though his musicians came to understand it.
When Jon Szanto first learned to play the Boo (sixty-four sections of bamboo arranged in seven rows that produce a sharp, dry sound), he bent over it from the waist. Formally trained as a percussionist, for Jon this was standard form. During a rehearsal, Partch took one look at Szanto and cut short the proceedings. he rushed over and groaned, "Man! Oh no, man! To play the Boo, you have to bend at the knees, like and athlete . . . not at the waist like an amateur California prune-picker!" Szanto learned Partch's dictum quickly that the instruments must be played with athletic, Corporeal grace.
Szanto also had one of those ineffable experiences that can happen to members of the Harry Partch Ensemble during a Corporeal presentation. They were near the end of a performance of The Bewitched, a "dance satire" about lost musicians who achieve a developing "at-one-ness" through the beat of their music. The score called for Szanto to reach way down, with now tired knees deeply bent, to the lowest level of the Boo (this part come just after section ten, entitled "The Cognoscenti Are Plunged Into A Demonic Descent While At cocktails"). Exhausted from the performance, at the conclusion of his part, Szanto collapsed to the floor, which was perfectly in keeping with his role -- though not written into the score. "I fell to the floor naturally. If I would have thought of doing so beforehand, it never would have worked." That perception -- the fluidity of the spontaneous act perfectly in tune with the entire arrangement of the stage, the music, the drama, the sounds of human speech, the movement -- is Corporeality. And Partch himself knew of the difficulty of sustaining it when he said, "Perception is a sand flea. It can light only for a moment. Another moment must provide its own sand flea."
What Partch was after in a Corporeal performance of his works was an "attitudinal technique." The players of his unique instruments were to be constantly aware that they are "on stage, in the act." Merely playing the notes in a masterful style, the goal of "abstract" music, was not enough. "When a player fails to take full advantage of his role in a visual or acting sense, he is muffing his part -- in my terms -- as thoroughly as if he bungled every note in the score." For this reason Partch thought any performance, for example, of Beethoven's works (and the composer himself) was too abstract. Any composer who tries to pole vault into the ethereal regions without being grounded, at the same time, in the soil from which he springs is not "emotionally tactile," according to Partch.
While Beethoven was too abstract for Partch, the early Elvis Presley was not. Partch saw in Presley, the unfettered kid from Memphis who sung from the hip, the occasional glimmerings of Corporeality -- the dramatic fusion of human speech, music, and movement, and inseparable combination of these parts into a larger whole. Partch, however, did not appreciate the later Presley at all. He saw the man becoming an imitation of his earlier vitality, the whole being separated back into its various and obviously detectable parts once again. And Partch did not like rock and roll in general. Calling it the "dominant mediocrity" of the day, he wrote one of his greatest musical dramas, Ritual In The Courthouse Park, partially in an attempt (only "partially" because he is after much bigger game in this masterwork) to demystify the growing, follow-the-leader conformity and false idolatry he saw in popular music -- and music in general, all of which he called "hollow magic." "Let us give to nuts and blots the standardization of thread that we have come to expect, but let us give to music, magic; to man, magic . . . My peaks of wrath and nadirs of depression, though some four decades, were akin to the fulminations and despair of the Hebrew prophets, and for exactly the same reasons; the endowed priests of the temple sanctifying form without content, ritual without value, hollow magic." ("Revelation In The Courthouse Park concentrates on two locales: ancient Thebes and modern-day Hollywood. Each city is ruled by manifestations of the same impulse to rejoin the human body into a religious context. Thebes is ruled truly, by Dionysus, while Hollywood is ruled falsely by Dion, a contemporary rock and roll star. The latter represents nothing more than the worship of what Partch has called the "dominant mediocrity." when Partch finished the score -- around 1960 -- a new rock and roll star emerged -- Dion, of Dion and the Belmonts. Partch only learned of this figure long after the completion of Revelation.)
Along with his concept of Corporeality, Partch tore off in another, non-Western direction. He became fed up with the system of tuning known as Equal Temperament -- the twelve-tones-per-octave scale of the piano -- because its twelve equal intervals distort true sounds, according to Danlee Mitchell, "in order to gain an intellectual hedge in certain compositional procedures like modulation and transposition." In all, there are four major theoretical tuning systems: Equal Temperament, Pythagorean, Meantone Temperament, and Just Intonation. Partch felt that the last, a tuning system based on the relationship of two or more tones vibrating in phase with each other (at least in their lowest vibrational relationships) is a more natural and more precise system than any other, since it not only reflects the sounds in nature but is also in keeping with the various components and processes of the human body. And though he was by no means the first Western composer to advocate the system of Just Intonation (in 1550 a Partch-like composer named Don Nicola Vicentino experimented with it, and many non-Western cultures -- Japanese, Indonesian, African, Balinese, as well as native American Indian -- base their music on it), Partch was among the first to embrace completely its possibilities.
Just Intonation enable Partch to expand the number of notes in a musical octave. This choice opened for him the floodgates of "microtonality," which means, simply, more than twelve notes per octave. Many of the instruments he built can go as high as forth-three notes per octave (an "arbitrary" personal choice, he said, and by no means the limit), creating a plurality of sound, especially when combined with the other instruments and the Corporeal nature of a production. One devotee of Partch, who worked overtime for a year in New Jersey to save enough money for a flight to San Diego to catch a few rehearsals of the ensemble, said, "The whole thing is like the Great Flood. Makes you want to build an Ark. Not to escape -- but to ride those waves forever."
It can be explained this way, using an image suggested by Jonathan Glasier. A clock has twelve numbers. Where most people just see the cardinal numbers on a clock, Partch would see through them to the minitemporal divisions -- the sixty seconds -- inside. Translating the twelve numbers of the clock into the twelve-tone scale, Partch contended that the majority of Western composers were stuck with those cardinal numbers (Harry might have called them "Papal" numbers since they were so predominant.) And Partch, as we have seen, couldn't put up with any sort of limitation. Calling Equal Temperament a "tyrannical monolith," he felt it "closes all doors for any meaningful adventures in consonance and dissonance" (the harmonic and discordant elements in music). He often questioned its right to rule. "The statement in the Harvard Dictionary of Music that the advantages of the system far outweigh its flaws (p. 735) is made with such authority as almost to convince me that the Dictionary got it from Bach, and that Bach got it from God."
Two features regarding Partch's break with tradition need to be stressed here. One is that he was not an experimenter for its own sake. He was not a timid dabbler with a new microtonal toy (that would be the path of the "foolhardy" man of the "publicity-seeking mountebank," he says). The instruments he built and the scores he composed all have specific purposes. They were never designed solely for the solution of acoustical problems or theoretical issues, even though he wrote a large text about it, which many commentators have suggested does a lot of intentional leg-pulling. Partch hated theory. He always preferred the doing of something to the analysis of it. There was always an ideal for each instrument, a place for it, in other words, in his overall conception. In effect, Partch left theoretical concerns for the next generation.
The second feature in need of stress is one of the wildest aspects of the whole Partch enterprise. it takes at least half an hour to tune most of the instruments before an actual performance, often even longer. But most of them go out of tune within ten minutes, and Partch knew this. The expertise required to play the instruments (and the six months required to rehearse a single performance) forestall the advent of total chaos. But part of Partch's Corporeality is that anything can happen -- within the approximated guidelines of the score -- on stage after the initial tuning. Colors of sound leap out that no score can document, no theory can articulate. The initial tuning, done with painstaking precision, serves as a point of departure for the multiple, yet rarely muddled, prisms of sound that emerge, and audible heterophany in which all sorts of diverse effects happen at the same time. Once during a rehearsal, Partch told one of the performers he was hearing colors not written into the score. "By God, man, keep them!" he shouted.
While on the one hand Partch abandoned the Western musical tradition, in his concept of Corporeality, in what he mock-snobbishly called his microtonal "adventures into acoustical profundity," and in his beautiful instruments, on the other hand many of his works focus on the speech patterns, the rhythms, and the pulse of America. His intuitive path led him to write music based on harmonized spoken words, many of which draw on his experiences as a wanderer. His large work The Wayward is composed of four smaller works, each concerned with the voice of the streets. U. S. Highball, the musical account of a "Transcontinental Hobo Trip from San Francisco to Chicago," utilizes the language of the hobo in a nonepic, nonheroic light ("in the aloneness of his experience . . . his achievement in the face of small difficulties -- more or less constant hunger, loss of sleep, filth, and a good deal of petty apprehension and danger -- he is the focus of a work that suggest epic feelings"). Barstow, another part of The Wayward, takes its cue from "hitchhiker inscriptions copied from a highway railing," and San Francisco is filled with the cries of newsboys. Thus, amid his many departures from the norm, there is embedded into his work a return as well -- a journey he felt was necessary back to the native speech patterns of his homeland.
In all of his departures -- to ancient patterns of Corporal ritual, to Just Intonation and microtonality, to his emphasis on human speech -- Partch never intended himself to become a tradition. "The work is not offered as a basis for a substitute tyranny," he said, "the grooving of music and musical theory into another set of conventions. What I do hope for is to stimulate creative work by example, to encourage investigation of basic factors, and to leave all others to individual if not idiosyncratic choice. To influence, yes; to limit, no."
The message of Harry Partch, for musicians and nonmusicians alike, is that there are still choices to be made and independent paths to pursue. On several occasions near the end of his life, Partch contended that he did not want people to consider his work the only worthy destination but rather one viable direction deserving serious scrutiny among many. He feared slavish imitators of his work almost a much as he feared its being misunderstood in general. Imitators, he felt, were like remora fish that attach themselves to larger fish; as they hitch a free ride, they abandon their creative responsibilities. In one of his last utterances, Partch blasted this phenomenon. "The widely revered master-disciple concept represents, on both sides, too easy an escape into the limbo of no responsibility. I have said that if anyone calls himself a pupil of mine, I will happily strangle him. But this is simply the expression of an attitude, and -- amazingly -- in its deeper meaning it is an expression of hope."