Harry Partch was neither a faculty member nor a student. He came to Mills at the invitation of Speech and Drama Professor Arch Lauterer in order to present a single event--the premiere of a theater piece called Oedipus--which he performed March 14-16, 1952. There were reasons however to think that he stayed longer.
In actual fact, he did: to train student participants, he moved into a Lisser Hall studio in July 1951. He did not leave until February 1953, almost a year after the performance. Nor did he do so willingly: Thomas McGeary's introduction to Bitter Music, a collection of Partch's writings, says he was "forced" to go. He could have had several reasons for not wanting to. Being at Mills may have represented a kind of renewal: he had been born in Oakland, taken to Southeastern Arizona at the age of three and been homeless since the age of twenty (thirty years before). Or, still homeless, he may have had no other place to go: after leaving Mills, he set up housekeeping in an abandoned naval shipyard in Sausalito and, some years later, in a Petaluma chicken hatchery.
The visit produced a permanent link between Partch and the College. It was Oedipus which first realized his ambition to evolve a "corporeal" (or "tactile") music generated by an integration of speech, movement and instrumental sound, linked to ancient Greek drama and serving ritual/magical purposes. It set into motion, said historian Jacques Barzun, "the most original and powerful contribution"23 ever made to dramatic music on the American continent. It brought Partch national attention for the first time. (To focus the attention, he assembled an array of self-created instruments made out of spruce, glass, metal, and bamboo: positioned on different levels above the Lisser Hall stage, they served as both an orchestra and, played by Mills students in black tights, an extraordinary decor with movable parts.)
Thereafter, he extended his idea of corporeality to five other works, two of which were related to his Mills College stay. Plectra and Percussion Dances was written on campus during the summer of 1952. To some extent, so was The Bewitched (A Latter-Day Ritual Designed to Defertilize the Machine Age for a Period of Seventy-five Minutes).
Soon after the performance of Oedipus, a broadcasting representative came to see Partch and invited him to produce a recording of sound effects--music for airplane crashes and murders in the park--which he said would make a lot of money. There was something "fascinatingly repulsive" (or "repulsively fascinating") about the suggestion, Partch noted.24 He went to work on it, but was unable to keep a straight face. He did "music to accompany a United States Senate filibuster" and then, giving the project up, incorporated what he had done into The Bewitched. (The names of the scenes, he reported in Bitter Music, took him back to Mills College. One was entitled Three Undergrads Become Transfigured in a Hong Kong Music Hall and another A Lost Political Soul Finds Himself among the Voteless Women of Paradise.)
There were other connections as well: his most dedicated disciple was Ben Johnston who, following Partch's advice, became a Mills student. Nor was it only Johnston who, taking up the just intonation which characterized Partch's music, showed his influence: so did Mills graduates Ezra Sims and Martin Bartlett and faculty members Lou Harrison and Terry Riley.
Castor and Pollux, one of three parts contained by Plectra and Percussion Pieces, is an allegory of rebirth during which the inseminated eggs take 234 beats to hatch. (The sixteen minutes worth of steady pulse might also have hatched the motor rhythm used by Riley's In C twelve years later.)
The final part, Even Wild Horses, contained abstracted samba, rumba, conga and ¤a¤iga dances and something Partch called an Afro-Chinese minuet (because an African-sounding marimba had been paired with a Chinese guitar in order to play a pentatonic melody) anticipating the eclectic works produced by Mills grads William Bolcom, Stanley Silverman and Peter Gordon a decade later. (But a real congo drummer would have been offended by his use of Latin dance titles, Partch said. Well, so be it, he continued: having antagonized "classical" musicians for the previous thirty years, why shouldn't he burn the rest of his bridges?)
The second of the Plectra and Percussion Pieces was called Ring Around the Moon. Partch said he was certain that people would consider the music guilty, "drunk or not"25(after reading a news report about a court clerk who said to a defendant, You are charged with being guilty: are you drunk or not drunk?)
His parents were missionaries who had served in China for ten years, suffered doubt and, resigning their posts, returned to the United States. But, retaining the will to do good, his mother visited jails, complained about their conditions, and brought home prostitutes to spend the night. (His father brought home hoboes, but insisted that they work. Partch said he was unable to recall his mother making similar demands.)
He was born in 1901, soon after their return. Because his mother suffered from poor health, the family moved to Arizona several years later, settling on the outskirts of Benson, a railroad town with three hundred residents and eleven saloons. Life in the Wild West bore unpredictable results: Partch taught himself to play reed organ, mandolin, cornet, harmonica and violin, and reacted with passion to the sounds of Hebrew chants, Chinese theater, and Congo ritual, which he called "shafts of intense life."
At the age of fourteen he was composing seriously and making a partial living bell-hopping and playing the piano in a local silent movie theater. By the time he was 22, he had written a symphonic poem, a piano concerto, fifty songs and a work for string quartet. When he was 28, he burned everything up in a pot-bellied stove in New Orleans, calling the act a sort of adolescent auto-da-f‚--a confession to himself that, in pursuing "the respectable" and "the widely accepted," he had not been faithful.
In 1929, he created an Adapted Viola (on which he could finger microtones) by lengthening the instrument's fingerboard. In 1934 he made an Adapted Guitar. ("I am not an instrument-builder," he announced in Genesis of a New Music, "but a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry."27 He did everything else himself as well, producing and distributing the recordings he made of music he had both written and performed.)
Later instruments, becoming increasingly mythical in sound and appearance, included Cloud-Chamber Bowls--the tops and bottoms of twelve-gallon Pyrex carboys discarded by Berkeley's radiation lab, suspended from guillotine-like racks and played with mallets.
A marimba called the Boo was made out of 64 graded sections of hollow bamboo up to three and a half inches in diameter stacked like artillery casings on an oak frame. The Marimba Eroica--the first model was built at Mills and played in Oedipus--was made from four large planks of Sitka spruce and redwood and had resonators which were eight feet long. It weighed three hundred pounds and could play the "F" a third below the bottom pitch of the piano. (Vibrations from one of its low pitches once caused a Cloud-Chamber Bowl made out of quarter-inch Pyrex to shatter.)
The Kithara, a lyre-like instrument remotely related to Greek precedents, has 72 strings, stands eight feet high and is played by two people plucking it with fingers and picks. The Spoils of War are seven actual brass artillery casings procured from army surplus stores. The Whang gun is a steel spring controlled by a pedal which makes a "whanging" sound in treble, alto and bass ranges.
Partch's instruments not only made his music playable but extended its corporeality--its compulsory, ritualistic link to drama, dance and sculpture--moving it closer in conception to Asiatic and African ideals. So did the Dyonisian call he put out for players who were "total constituents of the moment," able to sing, whistle, and stomp their feet, in costume always, or "perhaps half naked." (He said he didn't care which half.)
His mother sang Chinese songs to him. When he encountered the Mandarin Theater in San Francisco at the age of 13, everything sounded perfectly natural. His pieces in fact resembled Asiatic music more than anything previously done in the West except for the percussion music of John Cage. (Ben Johnston, who studied with both composers, called them "surely the central figures of the American experimental tradition." Each dismissed the past totally. Cage began by dispensing with pitch and and ended by getting rid of intention. Partch threw out modern European scales, the instruments designed to play them and the harmonic theory founded on them. Both believed that sound was tied to the gesture that produced it--that music was both spiritual and corporeal. Both were virtuosic dispensers of philosophy and humor.
In 1947, he lived on pianist Gunnar Johansen's ranch at Gualala, California where he built a Bass Marimba. In 1950 he began work on a second Chromelodeon and received his third Guggenheim grant.
He began his series of Gate 5 Ensemble recordings in Sausalito after leaving Lisser Hall, naming both the record label and ensemble after a sign left over from shipyard days (and because, in ancient pictographs, the City is always shown to have four pedestrian gates as well as a fifth one which is invisible and intangible. Entered metaphorically, it offers a route to illusion).
He later moved to San Diego, Oaxaca, Mexico, Santa Fe, Antioch College, the University of Illinois and, in 1963, to Petaluma, where he composed And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma. Thereafter he went to Del Mar, Van Nuys and Encinatas, where he invented new instruments called the Gourd Tree, Eucal Blossom, and Quadrangularis Reversum.
Ben Johnston was given a copy of Genesis of a Music by a musicology student who, von Gunden said, had no use for it.
Intrigued, Johnston wrote to Partch to find out whether he could study with him. The letter, addressed to the book's publisher, was forwarded to Gualala, California. In his answer, Partch said he would accept an apprentice but that Johnston should avoid becoming "biologically trapped." Failing that first lesson, Johnston married art education student Betty Ruth Hall in 1950 while finishing up at Cincinnati.
In August the couple showed up in Gualala and were shown the herdsman's cottage and outdoor privy which had been made available to them. "Roof's gonna leak on you," Partch told Johnston. "I'll show you what to do, but you'll have to do it."28 The first thing I got from him, says Johnston, was a fundamental attitude of "doing it yourself." Describing himself as someone who tended to drop a hammer on his foot as soon as he picked one up, Johnston says that Partch had probably hoped for someone with a skill in doing carpentry or playing percussion or even, simply, "for a fellow drop-out." But Johnston understood just intonation virtually without explanation. Every day he tuned instruments and, in his own words, ran and fetched. He became Partch's gofer.
His questions were often rebuffed, says von Gunden. Haven't you read the book (Genesis of a Music)? his instructor would ask. Partch did, however, teach Mrs. Johnston (who was not a musician) to play the Diamond and Bass Marimbas. Johnston himself learned the Kithara and Donald Pippin, Ben's childhood friend (and, in more recent years, the director of San Francisco's Pocket Opera) played other instruments. All three performed on early Partch recordings available on CRI (Music of Harry Partch) and New World Records (Harry Partch/John Cage).
While he was at Gualala, Johnston enrolled at UC Berkeley (where Lauriston Marshall, Partch's partner in a Guggenhim-funded project seeking to develop an electronic organ able to demonstrate extended just intonation, was head of the Microwave Radiation Laboratory). Because Berkeley did not offer a doctorate in composition, Johnston became a musicology major and--in the midst of a department headed by Manfred Bukofzer, the distinguished author of Geschichte des Englisschen Diskants und des Fauxbourdons and other early music studies--designed a project researching Partch and his music. His standing at Berkeley was tenuous, said von Gunden.
Three months after the arrival of the Johnstons in Gualala, Partch became ill in response to allergic reactions caused by tick bites. To doctor himself, he devised a regime in which he took pills five minutes and two minutes before eating and one minute after. When meals were not ready at the scheduled instant, he became upset (like Mahler, whose wife sent a servant out to watch for his appearance on the street, so that she could put the soup on the table). Despite the meticulousness of the treatment, he began to fear for his health and, six months after the Johnstons' arrival, decided to leave Gualala.
He suggested that Johnston enroll at Mills and got patroness Agnes Albert, a member of the College's Board of Directors, to invite the couple to a dinner at which the Milhauds were expected.
Johnston began classes in the winter of 1951, received an appointment to the Illinois faculty later in the same year, and took his Mills degree in absentia during the following one.