Philip Blackburn speaking about Harry Partch at McNally Smith College of Music, April 2, 2015.
The Rehabilitated Hobo
Few moments have changed my Partchian trajectory like the arrival of Enclosure III. This indescribable book, created and assembled by Philip Blackburn, effectively changed the way many of us approached Partch's life story and his inner workings. Hand in hand with Bob Gilmore's biography, these two volumes fill the giant chasm that existed before: the untold story of our subject. I am happy to re-publish this article by Philip on how this project came to be, with gratitude.
I am a one-book man, like Walt Whitman and the prophet Mohammed. But I promise nothing - not four wives, paradise, or houris in paradise.
- Harry Partch (lecture at the University of Hawaii, July 9, 1971)
Alone in a vault with a rubber stamp (of two boy scouts setting fire to an Adapted Viola!?) in my hands, lifting another six-pound book into place and stamping page 157, I realize what an obsession my hobby has become.
The screen shimmers. Harp (kithara?) arpeggios...
Little did I suspect that my vacation would turn out like this. At 16, with some musical imagination but concrete plans to be a golfer, I found myself lounging around California. A friend suggested I telephone someone called Kenneth Gaburo in San Diego to see what was shaking in the world of new music. He was busy, but suggested I come to his rehearsal the next day. Dad and I met him at the specified address - a jukebox warehouse - and one David Dunn drove us all to San Diego State University. There, in a classroom, were the Harry Partch instruments, which took me by surprise.
I did not hear them immediately; the first hour of the rehearsal was spent doing breathing and visualization exercises on the floor. These were the "lost musicians" who were in the process of mixing ritual magic together, finding a humanizing alchemy, unwitching... or something. Then followed the Prologue from Partch's The Bewitched, which the ensemble was preparing for the 1980 Berlin Festival - the first time the instruments were to have gone out of the country. I followed the score, asked a few questions, and left. I have not been the same since.
Back in Oxford, armed with a copy of Partch's Genesis of a Music, a saw, and a broken chisel, I scrounged some African Padouk from the local carpenter and built myself a Quadrangularis Reversum - perhaps the first in the whole of the Thames Valley. This giant marimba in attempted Just Intonation can be seen as a clue that the Partch karma had sunk its fangs into my teen neck.
I returned the next year to study composition with Kenneth in a desert biker town, and a few years later arrived in Iowa City for more formal studies with him. The first question he asked me was whether I could help him out with his publication project; all the Partch archives were in boxes in his attic (on loan from Danlee Mitchell, Partch's heir) and he hadn't had time to sort them out. A filing cabinet full of correspondence and several box loads of photos, scores, and odds and ends awaited my eager browsing. Many of the items were undated or otherwise mysterious, but all were absorbing: a cigar box of photos, a collage score cover to Barstow, pencilled sketches of coastlines, Indian music transcriptions, wry jottings on the back of Pioneer hatchery note paper, two huge scrapbooks of clippings... How could we make material accessible and coherent while preserving the thrill of encountering it for the first time? Perhaps by means of a fancy box of selected photocopies, facsimiles of the originals?
We lacked computers, money, and time, and the daunting nature of the whole enterprise led to lengthy lapses; the project fell somewhere between incredible opportunity and cumbersome albatross. Years passed. Kenneth never had much time; David Dunn, the other collaborator, was far away. I was working on the archives when Kenneth died in 1993; too far along to give up the project and send them to the University of Illinois library, but no nearer to realization of the book. The materials took up residence in my guest bedroom cabinet in Minneapolis at about the time I began working at what was then the Minnesota Composers Forum. Several times I succeeded in astonishing visiting composers when I told them whom they had slept with the previous night.
Gradually the right circumstances evolved. I had the idea of publishing some of the early Partch films and acetate recordings on the Forum's innova label and trying to raise money from pre-sales to print my five-inch pile of photocopies copies as a book, much as Partch had done with his own Gate 5 recordings. Gradually I had made contact with various old friends of Partch, and was delighted to discover that others whose names I knew only from histories and letters were still alive. I was too slow to contact Alwin Nikolais and John Cage, but there were still many who eagerly shared their stories. For months I researched the numerous names in the letters and tried to identify materials and photos. I wrote for permission to reprint texts, obtained an ISBN number, begged for money, and started scanning. Quark Xpress, Adobe Photoshop, and the night security guards in the Forum's building were my constant companions. I created computer fonts based on Partch's handwriting and his typewriter so I could forge the right kind of look. Five gigabytes, two years, and 1,000 scans later, there was a hefty book. And then off to the printers: Mennonites in Manitoba, who I prayed would forgive the odd prurient page.
After months of faulty proofs, a truck showed up last November, too big to fit in the loading bay at the Forum. So all available hands were recruited to carry 1,000 boxes into a bomb-proof bank storage vault, where they (in part) remain, protected by a steel door two feet thick. Each custom-designed box contains a copy of Enclosure Three: Harry Partch - an obligation fulfilled, and my personal homage to Kenneth and Partch. The Harry Partch enigma has been fueled by a paucity of information concerning his life and music. The scarcity of recordings, live performances, or even copies of Genesis has allowed misleading stories about who Partch was and what he stood for to persist. With information scarce and followers doomed to rehash the received myths of Partchlore - encyclopedia entries all seem to quote the same few sound bites - facts of any kind are therapeutic. Grove's Dictionary and its credulous copiers even manage to list his death date as 1976 - where was he for those last two years? (Actually, a medium did contact him during a seance but refused to go further, exclaiming, "What a rude man!") During Partch's life, few writers tried seriously to make sense of his work, and fewer got very far; reading between the lines of many a review, we can discern a vision of the composer as a bum handyman with a 43-tone fixation. Those who met Harry remember with passion the man they encountered - only it seems that he appeared quite differently to different people, according to circumstances, the time of his life, and the mood he was in. The ambition of Enclosures, then, is to let Harry, for once, speak for himself.
As Boswell is to Johnson is not as Blackburn is to Partch: I am trying to lay out the facts and encourage an inductive sensibility. My choice and synthesis of Partch's materials - inspired by the layout, juxtapositions, and ordering of his own scrapbooks - is meant to elucidate certain hidden themes and help readers make connections for themselves. In this way I hope to reveal the remarkable consistency of his creative process: whether he is writing music, sketching driftwood, building a fireplace, or cursing a critic, Partch's personal voice is unmistakable. Perhaps like the intervals of Just Intonation, the true Partch is to be found in the cracks between the keys of conventional narrative. In the pages of Enclosure Three, he is not so much the victim of a musicologist as of a fellow composer.
The world has had too simple a view of Partch. My purpose has been to complicate that view - and the more itches he causes, the better. Voyeurs and scholars alike can now see what caught his eye and his ear. Since the material for the book is drawn almost exclusively from what Partch took the trouble to preserve in his own collection, he has effectively been given the role of curating his own biography. My selection is a subset of his. The very fact that that he chose to keep some of the items, such as newspaper announcements about baseball players kissing or the bizarre Japanese surrender, says as much about Partch as anything else.
The organizing principle behind Enclosure Three has already been an inspiration for at least two other people currently working on bio-scrapbooks; you can try this at home. The series is not yet done; there are still a few recordings out there I am trying to bring back from the edge. With these, and with the great efforts of others such as Dean Drummond of Newband, Jon Szanto of corporeal.com, CRI, and Bob Gilmore, we may finally begin to see what Partch means to American culture.
Although I now find myself daunted, when entering a bookstore, to think of the perspiration and toil that gave rise to all those volumes, I am thankful that I was lucky enough to help bring Partch back into some people's lives. At least as far as the coffee table or library shelf.
Philip Blackburn, 1999