Remembering Harry Partch June 24, 1901 - September 3, 1974.
"Just intonation is the best intonation" - Lou Harrison.
From the Editor: Harry Partch and The Just Intonation Network
I never met Harry Partch. At the time of his death, in September 1974, I was aware of his music and instruments, and had at least heard of Just Intonation, although my understanding of the subject was rather shaky, and I had not yet attempted my first just composition. Nevertheless, if Partch had not lived, had not built his instruments, written and recorded his music, and written "Genesis of a Music", it is unlikely that I would have spent the past nineteen years composing music in Just Intonation, and it is just as unlikely that there would be a Just Intonation Network or 1/1.
I first heard of Partch and his music in 1969 when I was a student at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles (later incorporated into Cal Arts). There was a class called "music participation" aimed at non-music majors, in which the students made instruments and attempted to make music with them. Two Partch students visited this class, showed one of the films, and attempted (not very successfully, as I recall) to explain Partch's theories. The beauty of the instruments and their exotic sounds were very well received, but this business of "whole number ratios" was decidedly not.
We were a bunch of hippie artists, deeply convinced of our own genius, and committed to the ideals of spontaneity and intuition as the road to musical expression, and we were not about to be sidetracked by a lecture on arithmetic; as I recall, we gave our visitors a rather hard time about this. ("What a bunch of obnoxious brats we were," a friend from that era recently remarked.) Nevertheless, Partch's music definitely impressed me, and soon thereafter I purchased a copy of the Columbia "World of Harry Partch" LP, which is still in my collection. The idea of Just Intonation however poorly understood, was filed away for future reference.
In the fall of 1974, I moved to San Francisco to begin attending New College in Sausalito (coincidentally, one of Partch's old habitats). Shortly thereafter I met Henry Rosenthal and Dale Soules, and we began working together in the embryonic stages of what was to be Other Music. It was not long before Just Intonation became a regular topic of discussion, though these discussions would not have won any prizes for clarity. By a fortunate coincidence, however, in the summer of 1975, Lou Harrison offered his "Intonation in World Music" course as part of the "Center for World Music" summer session in Berkeley. I enrolled in this course and thereby finally came to clearly understand the fundamentals of Just Intonation. In addition, I had the opportunity to perform in a concert on Lou and Bill Colvig's first American gamelan, which experience further convinced me that Just Intonation was essential to my future musical direction. (It should be noted that Lou Harrison first learned of Just Intonation 27 years earlier from Partch's "Genesis", so the Partch connection was operating on more than one level here.)
In the fall, I shared my new-found knowledge with the other members of Other Music, and we undertook a group study of "Genesis of a Music". After some experiments with tubular metallophones in 1976, we built the justly tuned American gamelan heard on the "Prime Numbers" and "Incidents Out of Context" LPs in 1977. Other Music ceased performing or recording as a group in 1984, but continued its existence as a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation. In response to the growing interest in Just Intonation resulting from the advent of digital synthesizers with user-programmable tuning, the core members of Other Music founded The Just Intonation Network in 1984.
I don't know if Harry Partch would have been pleased, amused, or annoyed by the existence of the Just Intonation Network, or whether he would have chosen to be a member--he certainly does not appear to have been much of a "joiner" (in the organizational, as opposed to the carpentry sense)--but I cannot help but think that he would be pleased that a great many more people are discussing, debating, and, most important, "making music" in Just Intonation than did so in his lifetime. D.D. (David Doty) pp. 2,17.
"Harry Partch was the most important first musician of "the west" to reclaim the art of music from the industrial revolution- -from that world enforced market interchangability of instruments, tuning, and status. It was as an individual artist that he built instruments, tuned them, and wrote for them memorable musics. He was exemplary and inspiring." --Lou Harrison
Book Review: Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos. Harry Partch; edited by Thomas McGeary. 1991, University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-01660-2
The United States is perhaps unique among countries that have a European-derived art music (I'd include here Japan, Korea, Australia, and South America) in that our culture has spawned an "outsider" tradition, one that has maintained a precarious continuance over several generations now.
There are two fundamental aspects of this tradition: (1) a rejection of the conservatory model of what constitutes proper musical practice; and (2) a profound social alienation. Among composers this second quality often is diluted through the necessary social interactions that music-making entails (poets and writers have much less need for such); and it has become further diluted through the easy economic seductions of the academic life.
At this point in time, we might even say that the "outsider" in American music has become an endangered species, due to the political machinations of our academic monolith, an extremely insidious form of cultural Stalinism insomuch as it operates within the context of an apparently democratic and "free" system. In the United States, the only thing "artistic freedom" means is the freedom to starve.
"Bitter Music", the new collection of Harry Partch's autobiographical and theatrical essays and libretti edited by Thomas McGeary, is the single most important text for understanding this tradition (which like Varese's modern composer, "refuses to die"!). It is a profound testament of loneliness and courage, and as such provides guidance and moral support (more so than the highly technical "Genesis of a Music") for any composer who might choose to follow such a path.
The most remarkable essay is the title one, "Bitter Music," a 130-page journal of Partch's "homeless" (a word that permanently entered our vocabulary in the 1980s, the era of "greatest peacetime prosperity") wanderings through various hobo camps in California in 1935. Partch himself destroyed all copies of this journal, but miraculously one copy survived on microfilm and turned up a couple of years after his death. Why he destroyed it can be gleaned from a statement he made in a note to Lou Harrison in the 1960s: "There is a fine line between bitterness, which must be avoided, and strength." But bitter in this context refers not so much to Partch's personal bitterness but to a sour taste, a rot and wasted human potential, at the very heart of our culture.
In terms of both style and substance (qualities which became confused in the 1980s), this is a marvelous journal, one which completely stands on its own as a literary work (and is a generation ahead of Kerouac's "On The Road" and "Desolation Angels". The most immediately striking thing is the mixture of text and musical notation--language transcending the written page and bursting into song at every opportunity. The journal also fills us in on significant aspects of Partch's emotional and creative formation that previously we could only guess at.
An important section is his recollection of the trip in early 1935 to England and Ireland to meet Yeats. This journal once and for all proves Partch's steadfast dedication to music, from the very beginning; and shows that he was not a hobo who wrote music, but a musician who through economic poverty was forced to become a hobo. It also demonstrates the resilience and beauty of American "street" culture; and suggests that this, indeed, is a more vital domain than the stuffy, rarified culture of our concert halls and universities.
There is a great deal of emotional pain, and the despair of poverty, in this journal, too. Having experienced some of that also, I was deeply moved to read this. There are passages where a sense of recognition makes you want to laugh--or cry. Page 61, where he begs for work and food and debates whether to ask for such as a human being, or as a "composer", is a classic example.
The other main subject dealt with in "Bitter Music" is Partch's concept of theater. Unlike various recent "wunderkind" of American music-theater in the 70s and 80s, Partch has never been fashionably "hip" nor beloved of arts administrators (though such phenomena are more an unfortunate product of our own era than of Partch's). Yet his work constitutes one of the most significant contributions to American theater (and music-- he refused to separate the two) in the twentieth century.
At the same time, one is forced to admit that there is a flawed element in Partch's theatrical work. I myself have never seen a Partch theater production; but my friends who have--all passionate admirers of Partch's music--have universally expressed disappointment (except for those who saw the 1954 production of "Oedipus" on the beach at Sausalito--a legendary event in "pre-beat" San Francisco).
There are two main reasons for this, I think: (1) his being radically ahead of his time; and (2) his inability to collaborate easily with people. Partch's theatrical vision is often profound and sometimes hokey--what is called for is a daring re-interpretation of Partch's theater, to push it up to par with the music, for which it certainly has the potential. Danlee Mitchell may have been too close to Partch to do this; perhaps someone like Dean Drummond, with his recent revivals of Partch's work in New York, my be the one to bring this about. But what fabulous text and libretti are contained in this book-- this should be required reading for theater people as well as musicians!
What "Bitter Music" ultimately resounds with is LIFE-- twentieth century American life with all its crazy, wonderful and heartbreaking contradictions. Partch writes (p.233):"But nothing could be more futile or downright idiotic than to "express" this age. Or any other age. The prime obligation of the artist is to transcend his age...to use its materials at the same time that he transforms them into magic. What this age needs more than anything else is an effective antidote".
"Bitter Music" is a magically effective antidote to this age. It is one of the essential books on American music, along with the writings of Cage, Ives, and a select few others. In Partch's own words (on the lecture record accompanying "Delusion of the Fury"): "The creative man will rise above; he will transcend the mutilations. For every deeply sincere offering, there is a corresponding deep and sincere hunger...True creativity is present; it is here because Man is here in this true, deep self, unmutilated."
"Bitter Music" is one of the most powerful and moving statements of that principle that I have ever encountered. Read it, and gain courage: the courage "to keep on keepin' on." --- Peter Garland pp.16-17
NOTES FROM A SEMI-INCOMPETENT PERFORMER ON THE SURROGATE KITHARA (1953) by Lynn Ludlow.
My late father, John E. Ludlow, was editor of Caxton Printers, Ltd. in Caldwell, Idaho, in the late 1930s. As a publishing house supported by sales of text books and school supplies, Caxton's specialized in books of regional Americana. Harry Partch mailed a manuscript of a proposed book about his many experiences as a hobo, a Depression-era experience shared earlier, and with great discomfort, by my father. Then Harry arrived in person. He was carrying a violin case.
Melda, my mother, asked him if he played the violin. Not really, he said. Instead of a violin, the case held his toiletries and a change of clothes. "It's much easier to hitchhike," he told me many years later, "if you're carrying a violin case."
In spite of my father's enthusiasm, the proprietor of Caxton's eventually decided against publishing the book. Harry must have agreed with him. In one of his moments of despair, according to my mother he burned the manuscript.
Harry's friendship with my mother (and with me and my two brothers, Conrad and Roger) continued long after we moved in 1943 to San Francisco, and later, to Mill Valley. He taught me how to drive. In return, I helped out with "Ring Around the Moon."
The marimbas and kitharas were throbbing away in rehearsal one day on the second floor of the old Marinship administration building at Gate 5 in Sausalito when Harry was becoming more and more agitated about the relentless thumping of a carpenter's hammer in the next-door suite. He was about to go down the hall and start screaming, but the sculptor Adaline Kent intervened. She disappeared for a few minutes. The thumping stopped. She came back and took her seat. Harry asked, "What did you say to the son of a bitch?" Adaline said, "I asked him if he would like to come in and listen to the music with us."
Lynn Ludlow is an editorial writer and op-ed editor for the "San Francisco Examiner." pp.21-23
HARRY PARTCH IN THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PACIFIC COAST by Stephen Schwartz
"I went south toward any god who softly whistled." --"Bitter Music"
One of the sharpest contradictions in the intellectual history of the Pacific coast of North America is that so much that is central to that history remains unrecorded.
It is, perhaps a function of the region's short period in overall Western and European-American History--a little more than 225 years--that our historiography, a natural product of our self-awareness, has developed so little. In any event, it is depressing to see writing about the region constantly limit itself to predictable cliches about the "California dream," the San Francisco Renaissance," or the "left coast'.
Intellectually, the Californias possess a considerable "secret history". To cite a first example, in a set of incidents that have disappeared from virtually all study, Adalbert von Chamisso, the Franco-German romantic poet and author of "Peter Scheigl", a striking account of a man who loses his shadow through a diabolical pact, seems to have been the first European of inspired imagination to visit California. He came as a botanist accompanying the navigator Otto von Kotzbue, on voyages in the Russian Tsar's service in 1816 and 1824.
Chamisso discovered and named the California poppy, today the state's symbol. He and von Kotzbue, who sought to improve relations between the Russian and Spanish (and later Mexican) authorities in California were also among the first non- Spanish Europeans to explore the area just north of San Francisco, now Marin County. But, as noted, Chamisso's visit, which would seem an attractive subject for literature, has disappeared from the memory of Californians.
A century and a quarter later, what I believe to be the "genuinely" radical--I will even say revolutionary--period in California history had its height in the 1930s and 1940s, and centered on a constellation in which the composer and instrument builder Harry Partch was one of its brightest stars.
Partch comes to us out of a background typical for the region at the time of his birth in 1901, but, for that very reason, remarkable when compared with the origins of most of his contemporaries in American intellectual life. His parents came to the West coast, on the "marine borderland" with the Far East, from China, where they had served as missionaries, and they then spent fifteen years on the desert borderland of Arizona and New Mexico. This reach from Asian to Native American culture provided Partch with a special, regional framework for his revolutionary approach to music.
Other figures in a similar line of continuity--a regionalism merging Native American culture, experimental modernism, hoboing and anarchism, and Buddhism--include Alexander Calder, Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, Miller and Rexroth's friend Norman Mini (ex-Trotskyist and later mentor of the metanovelist Philip K. Dick), Philip Lemantia, the visiting surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen (a second Chamisso), and his associate Gordon Onslow Ford. Ford, was of course, a major patron for Partch.
Of these, only Miller has received adequate attention from literary or art historians. Other considerable talents came before or after this group, particularly during the succeeding "Ferlinghetti-Kiebenkorn era", but few stayed, and none had, I believe, the strength of these personalities as sources of radical creativity.
I am, perhaps, not a purely objective viewer of this history; my father, Horace Schwartz, was a participant in Partch's Gate 5 ensemble. Although I was far too young to really know him, my childhood was profoundly influenced by the presence of Partch in the consciousness of my family.
As a historian and poet, I have taken great inspiration from "Bitter Music" [see review, p. 16--Ed.]--mainly from the text of the same title, an accumulation of musical transcriptions, hobo observations, nature jottings, introspection, and almost imperceptible social commentary, which I consider one of the classic texts of the twentieth century American avant garde... certainly of the Pacific Coast regional thought. But the significance of Partch's work remains to be widely recognized.
It is high time we began writing our true history, setting our course by these stars, as Partch did in September 1935, when he wrote: "mood, sky, and circumstance had come to a sure coincidence."
The coincidence remains, in listening to and continuing from Partch's work.
Stephen Schwartz is a writer for the "San Francisco Chronicle" and author of "Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific (1986)." P. 22
typed by Barb. Golden, Oct. 96