The Partch Reverberations:
Notes on a Musical Rebel


At the conclusion of an excellent, half-hour film about his work called The Dreamer That Remains, Partch makes a statement that decomposes his own personal stake in the work he has done. Although he wishes that the work be understood and appreciated, Partch appends a cryptical tag that, though not necessarily ambiguous on the surface, has generated numerous, conflicting responses, as if it were a message from the Oracle at Delphi. Partch says, like the primitive cave painters in the south of France who never signed their efforts, "I would choose to be anonymous. There is no author there. Who cares who did them? Who cares what the name was?" The various reactions to this apparently self-effacing remark reflect in microcosm what has happened to the Partch legacy since his death in 1974.
Although Partch's statement appears to divorce himself from his works, most interpreters recombine the two when they read it, and they also see in it clues for what remains to be done. Jon Szanto expresses at least one side of a multi-sided structure of opinions. "Everyone has had to resolve Partch and the legacy in some way. The music is so unique, so expensive to perform -- since it can be performed only on the fragile instruments he made, which cost a bundle just to move -- that maybe the music should be like Harry. Let it rest. It's done its thing. He did it, and it was great. End of movie. Credits. Like the cave painters, this was Harry's moment, and now it's gone. His wish for anonymity is the strongest affirmation of belief he could have made about what he had done."

David Dunn, another member of the Harry Partch Ensemble, sees a different Partch, and a different direction for the legacy. "You must remember the context in which Partch made the statement. He didn't say it in the privacy of his own home. He put it on the record, in a film about his work. It is a dramatic flourish and its intended effect was to promote himself and his works. The time has come to get beyond glorification and deification of the man, which do him an extreme injustice, and begin to take his work seriously, looking at both its strength and weaknesses. Right now, everyone wants to use Partch the way they see him, based on their own subjectivity, which is inescapable. But we should get beyond all the rhetoric and try to see what is actually there in Partch's work."

Both Szanto and Dunn knew Partch, as did San Diego composer Kenneth Gaburo, who worked with Partch at Illinois in the Fifties. Gaburo, who directed the ensemble' most recent performance in West Germany -- for which the German government paid $100.000 and the success of which is also open to conflicting views among its performers -- sees in Partch a host of schizophrenic contradictions. "Partch built and lived a self-destruct system and therefore planned his own obsolescence. He didn't make it easy to repair his instruments, for example, because he built them out of such rare material. In this sense he was both a creator and a destroyer. Whatever flaws and exaltations exist in the man also exist in the music. His is a flawed system. I don't mean this as a negative statement, but rather as an affirmation of his human frailty. Whatever influence he had in the Twentieth Century," Gaburo continues, "has already long ago been felt. The influences have dissipated and have become other things."

And David Carey, a student of music doing his doctoral work at UCSD, adds another position. "It is unfortunate that without his instruments, the music is impossible. Putting the instruments in a museum would kill the music, which should be not only heard but seen in a live, Corporeal performance. The most positive thing would be one production, at least, per year with financial backing, though money has always been one of the continual problems with the legacy -- that and giving the instruments a decent home and space for rehearsals."

As should be very obvious by now, any attempt to resolve these and twenty-five other differing views into a clear-cut synthesis of opinion would likely be futile. Partch deeply moved everyone he touched, and yet he moved each in different ways. Some argue that he was, in fact, a deliberate promoter and that now his music should be promoted vehemently as a result. Others contend that his was a private struggle and that his work should, as Szanto says, be put to rest. Still others demand immediate access to his scores (most of which are as yet unpublished) and to his instruments -- for an array of reasons that, when combined, are so vast as to seem microtonal in nature. As one member of the ensemble put it, "The legacy is like a piece of choice beef out in a desert, and the buzzards are beginning to fly in from all over."

For all of his protestations to the contrary, real or contrived, Partch left behind several clues regarding the future he wanted for his works and instruments. for those who would have them housed away in a museum: "I can only partially sympathize with the curator's attitude toward rare and unique instruments. paintings and sculpture and many other museum objects are fulfilling their purpose in being looked at. Whether or not the dead can experience frustration, I for one feel an intense frustration for those artisans who created instruments to sound, when I see the results of their labor placarded with the injunction 'Do Not Touch' or displayed in locked glass cases."

On another occasion, in a manual he wrote regarding maintenance and repair of the instruments, Partch said, "The basic and essential need as of this moment is someone who can and will -- if necessary -- take my place (1) to see to it that the instruments are in good structural and playable condition; (2) to keep them in tune as well as this is humanly possible; and (3) to demand that they be played competently, and that the attitudes be right, even at the risk of arousing momentary hostility."

Partch left his legacy -- the instruments, the scores, his writings -- in the care of SDSU's Danlee Mitchell, who was one of Partch's most trusted friends. An inheritance this important, this priceless, is certain to arouse more than the "momentary hostility" of which Partch spoke. And Mitchell, who derives no personal income of any sort from the legacy, has been criticized for the essentially moderate path he has taken with respect to promoting the music. A partial reason for this, many of his admirers have suggested, is that he shies away from using the legacy in any apparently self-serving capacity. Another reason, suggested to me by Randy Hoffman, another member of the ensemble, is that "Danlee is in a no-win situation. You can't do anything without financial support. And when you don't have it, you get killed for not doing anything."

One example of the heat Mitchell has felt came in a blistering article written by Peter Garland, editor of a musical journal called Soundings. In 1973 Garland got Partch to agree to the publication of The Bewitched in Garland's magazine. Forty-one months later, more than three years after Partch's death, Mitchell had not sent Garland the score. So Garland shot from the hip: "Danlee has been active performing, lecturing, and teaching about Partch's work -- I will grant that. But if one does not live in California, or more specifically San Diego, one is left out again."

In reply to this incident, Mitchell says, "When Garland contacted Harry, he and I were busy putting out the second edition of his book, Genesis of a Music, and we were also making the film The Dreamer That Remains. Publishing the music was not that important at that time. After Partch died, my efforts went into productions of The Bewitched and U. S. Highball, and Peter was left on the back burner. He blasted me in his journal, and I can understand his anger. He was well intentioned, but I don't think it would have worked out, because neither Peter nor I were set up to distribute the material properly after the printing. I've since given Ken Gaburo Harry's letters, documents, and rights to publish the scores, and I think everything has worked out for the betterment of Partch."

The main problem facing the legacy, according to Mitchell, is financial. "There is no grant money for maintenance," he says. "It all goes for creative work. And I don't have rich acquaintances in San Diego who would invest in the Partch Foundation as a tax-deductible contribution. Right now, the Partch Foundation receives about $2000 per year from royalties on his book. But that's about it, and the money goes into the continual repair of the instruments."

At present, thought they are the personal property of Mitchell, the instruments are housed at San Diego State. Jack Logan, another member of the music faculty there, says that the situation is inadequate. "I find it appalling that Danlee cannot find sufficient space at SDSU to house all the instruments. We have one of the most important repositories of experimental musical instruments in the world. Partch's music is still so little known that the university hasn't fully realized the potential for research and practical application that these instruments imply. We're all frustrated that this condition exists. Partch's creative imagination could be used as an example to put fort -- a self-made, creative, individualistic genius. For a major university to overlook this potential seems to me to show very little foresight. But I'm sure that the leaders at SDSU are much more able to deal with a problem like this than they have been in the past. The ideal solution, it seems to me, would be expensive but also worth it. It would be to put the instruments into a living museum, where they cant be seen, repaired, and above all, where they can be heard."
In the shadows of the auditorium on this warm August morning, the instruments stand in the dim light like strange sentinels. They look like the sculpted playthings of the mythical Greek Titans of pre-civilization rather than the objects of such feverish concern, such a cacophony of varied opinions. A seismic shudder, of either supersonic or subterranean origin, bowls through the depths of the mesa, and a few of the stringed instruments awake briefly from their slumber and hum a barely audible, microtonal chord. "Where do things go from here?" I ask, surprised by the event and half expecting a detailed answer as a result of this momentary communication. "Perhaps," replies a voice way inside my imaginings, "perhaps only the gods know for sure. But right now they are extremely busy. They're trying to track down a fairly recent arrival, a fireball of an upstart who has gone and retuned all the lyres in paradise to his system of Just Intonation."

Jeff Smith, 1980

  . . . return to Part Two