The Harry Partch Ensemble in WDR Studios, Cologne, Germany, 1980
The Corporeal Group
These were the folks: the gang of academics, outcasts and misfits that saw their way to playing concerts without compensation, energized by the creative vision of Harry Partch. Or am I resorting to hyperbole and romance? In any event, we spent a lot of time together, rehearsing, travelling, playing the works. Here's a little of what it was like.
In his earliest creative years, Harry Partch developed a body of compositions that relied on very few participants; indeed, many were for solo performer, a requirement fulfilled by Partch himself. During the late 1940's, however, Partch began to compose for larger groupings of instruments and performers. There were several reasons: he was starting to design and building new instruments to support his harmonic and melodic theories, he was interested in a wider 'orchestrational' palette, and he was beginning to develop his sense of the corporeal performance, which included instruments that had both an aural and a physical presence.
One of the most arduous challenges that Partch faced during the ensuing years was the assembling of ensembles to perform his music, and the larger the ensemble, the more difficult the task. Due to the nomadic lifestyle Partch led (for many, and varied, reasons), he was never in any one place long enough for an ensemble to last for more than one, or possibly two, major productions. With each new group of players Partch had to give instructions on how to play and tune the instruments. Most of the groups he assembled were either amateur or student musicians, causing him to exclaim at one point "We literally had to accept almost anyone who was willing -- I use the words advisedly -- to take part". The most notable exception to this was the group used in the mid-60's for "Delusion of the Fury" and surrounding concerts and recordings (Columbia's "The World of Harry Partch"), which included many fine professional players.
Exceptions aside, Partch coped with volunteers that would be willing to work for the interest and excitement of the moment, as he could rarely pay a salary. At one point Partch even composed with lesser demands in mind; the composition was "Water! Water!". Later, he withdrew the work, and then went back to small group writing with "And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma". "I've also been discouraged", Partch said, "by the quality of musicians available to me, and in Illinois I found that I was writing progressively easier music because I lost confidence that difficult music would be played well. ... Due to these experiences I determined, in the summer of '62, to concentrate on a series of duets, in which I would have complete control. ... And I determined not to record until I had the right musicians."
Now, with the renewed interest in Partch's work, we are seeing performers venture into the early repertoire, but the obvious stumbling block of just one set of those canons, marimbas and assorted other sound-sculptures means that large productions will probably be few in number. I was fortunate to be among a group of musicians in San Diego, California, that devoted the better portion of 15 years to performing some of those larger works. The experience has had profound influence on even my non-Partch musical activities, and this time-frame constitutes the longest stretch of ensemble activity devoted to performing his compositions -- too bad Harry passed away not long after we had started.
I first met Partch while I was attending San Diego State College (now University) in 1971. Danlee Mitchell, assistant to Partch and curator of the instruments at that time, asked if I would like to be involved in an upcoming project, and to meet Partch. Not long after we met, the rehearsals began for the documentary film "The Dreamer That Remains", which contains the last piece that Partch composed. The ensemble consisted of people from in and around the academic community at the time: people in the new music fields, percussionists, vocalists, friends. Upon learning I would be playing the Bamboo Marimba, Danlee gave me the basics of the notation and playing technique, and then left me to work on the part. As with all but his simplest instruments, the Boo is not designed for sight-reading or much dependence on the printed page. When properly playing the lowest notes, you are knee-bent down near the ground, and the music is above you by a good distance. It is necessary, at least in the more athletic sections, to memorize the part.
This type of preparation was common among the players, most of whom would come into the room where the instruments were kept, and practice during their spare time; each player committed whatever time was necessary to become proficient. This was done without compensation - very few of our tours did more than pay for expenses. Even at this early stage the ensemble drew people who were genuinely moved by the honesty of the music, and most likely felt as I did - that being part of this group was sufficient remuneration. Over the years I performed parts on most of the instruments, and though it might at first seem a hindrance, that most of the instruments used slightly different notations or tablatures was not a negative experience. In fact, it reinforced the unique personality of each instrument, and allowed the player to approach each in a different and appropriate manner.
Once full rehearsals started, the piece (The Dreamer That Remains) was worked on very much as in any other ensemble: starts and stops, balance corrections, all under the watchful eyes/ears of both the conductor, Jack Logan, and Partch himself. These rehearsals are documented as well in the film. Particularly instructive was when Partch saw us play, because he was at least as concerned about how we looked as how we sounded. Even in the more rarefied setting of film, the symbiotic relationship of performer/instrument was of paramount importance to Harry. We also committed a number of rehearsals to the vocal parts, of which there were a few 'chorus'-like sections. For most of us, it was the first time attempting to sing microtonally. I can still remember a descending passage in very small intervals: there was a marvelous moment when, after many repetitions, each of those small intervals seemed to grow wider and wider, until it became as natural to sing that scale as anything I had ever sung before.
With a core of performers now having been established, the next big hurdle came with a production of "The Bewitched" in 1974. The tour included 17 instrumentalists, 1 singer (the Witch), 10 dancers and a supporting crew of 5. This tour would also include the moving of the instruments and the set that had been built. Rehearsals followed the same procedure, and as I recall performers worked for a number of weeks before the first rehearsal. Though a fully staged production, this one was not as corporeal as the later 1980 production; the main corpus of the action was committed by the dancers and the Witch. This production was the first to diminish the use of a conductor -- though Danlee Mitchell was the music director, his on-stage duties were primarily to play the Surrogate Kithara and only secondarily give downbeats, tempos and visual cues.
It was after a tour of California with this production that Danlee guided the ensemble toward realizing Partch's most fervent intent: that specialization in the performance world be abandoned, and that his musicians would also dance, sing, act - whatever the moment deemed necessary. The first production that embodied these aspects was "U. S. Highball", in 1976. The instruments were the set, along with various railroad props, and all of the performers were in costume, as an integral part of the stage action. Most vocal parts were taken by instrumentalists, some leaving their instruments (while someone else would play them) to perform the characterization of the person. This was the first production to essentially do away with the function of the conductor, treating the whole as one large chamber group. As before, many months of preparation were necessary to accomplish this.
As the years went by, the corporeal approach was extended to as many pieces as possible. Much to our consternation, but not to our surprise, was when Danlee announced to the group that in a new tour including "Castor & Pollux", the instrumentalists would be choreographed! The piece consists of two sections, each with the form of duet-duet-duet-tutti. The idea was that anyone not playing during the duets would be away from their instruments, dancing; the soloist (dancer-choreographer Marta Keeney-Jiacoletti) would dance during the tutti sections. Therefore, in addition to practicing the music, it was necessary to attend regular dance classes a couple of times a week. While the quality or effectiveness of our movement(s) can be debated (as it certainly was among us!), the consensus was that it was a worthwhile effort if it opened up the performance boundaries. Even with my rather clumsy attempts at "poetry in motion", it was wonderfully energetic to dart back to the instrument just in time to play as the others moved out onto the stage! One unfortunate side effect is that every 'normal' performance I do now seems static and dry.
Another composition that excels in a corporeal setting is "Barstow". The last revision Partch prepared, in 1968, is for 4 instrumentalists and intoning voice. By using 5 performers who are versatile on the instruments, the vocal parts can be rotated amongst the players, and dramatic settings can be aided by lighting and stage action. This lifts the piece to another level of involvement, both for performer and audience, and serves to highlight the individual tales of those lonely souls waiting for a lift on the side of a distant highway.
The 1980 production of "The Bewitched", produced for the Berlin New Music Festival, involved a greater depth of preparation for the performers. Director Kenneth Gaburo, along with choreographer Lou Blankenburg and musical director Danlee Mitchell, envisioned a completely enveloping evening, with performers intertwined in all aspects of the dramatic activity. Preparations began seven months in advance, and classes in movement and even meditative techniques were employed to aid musicians and dancers in going beyond their traditional performance modes. This was one of the group's musical high points, where 70+ minutes of music could be done with subtlety and power. It is unfortunate that this kind of production is simply not possible without the tireless efforts of a willing band of enthusiasts, and the elements that existed during that time may not exist again.
The following years saw productions and tours of some of the smaller-scale works, including "Daphne of the Dunes" and "Petals". The last production that I was involved with was "Revelation In The Courthouse Park", produced by the American Music Theater Festival in 1987. This was a situation where musicians, as well as the cast, were hired from the local area. Danlee, Randy Hoffman and myself were in charge of assisting with the instruments and helping train players, with Danlee doing the bulk of the work on transcontinental weekend flights. The production was probably successful in a number of areas, but it was a step backwards in terms of a corporeal effort (it could be argued that this approach would be difficult with "Revelation"). Certainly, from a performers perspective, it lacked a depth of involvement that I had come to expect; what was missing was the dedication of individuals that understood the philosophical ground on which they stood, and could act upon that philosophy accordingly. Following these performances, the instruments were relocated to New York.
Partch is being approached in numerous ways today: in addition to the work being done by Newband in New York, there are new performers tackling the solo and small group pieces, and there is a great deal of material and recordings surfacing, much of it new or heard/seen for the first time. I am on record as being opposed to transcriptions for non-Partch instruments; setting that aside for the moment, I would pose some questions:
With so much material available (now and forthcoming) for study, including the re-issue of "Genesis of a Music", will more performers go beyond a fluency with just intonation to embrace new modes of performance? Will more performers risk abandoning the relative safety of a conventional "concert of music" and incorporate theatrical elements, movement, or drama? Will more performers, instead of merely presenting a "tight coat and tight shoes" presentation of someone else's work be inspired to develop ensembles of their own, and explore the territories that lie outside of the normal concert hall?
If, instead of focusing only on the ratios and the lyrics but on the broader contexts of Partch's aesthetic, a new generation of corporeal performers could create fresh works to enlighten us all, and Partch could be serve as a touchstone of inspiration rather than a millstone around the neck. Surely an apt legacy for a man who 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."
Jon Szanto, 1997/2016