Taking Partch

Twenty-five years after experimental composer and instrument builder Harry Partch died, his music and ideas have found a living legacy in the Bay Area

American composer Harry Partch was a true individualist. Abandoning both the form and tonality of the 300-year-old symphonic tradition, the maverick composer and theorist set out to explore uncharted regions of sound and performance through the creation of his own highly unusual, highly sculptural instruments. The music world rejected him, and critics of the day called Partch crazy -- some even compared him to Don Quixote. Partch, though, was far from a madman who tilted at windmills; rather, he was a visionary genius who heard music in them.

Still, it took a good 10 to15 years after Partch's death in 1974 before the iconoclastic musician and one-time Bay Area resident began to gain the recognition he deserved. Now, however, with a Partch revival in full swing, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is celebrating the composer and his legacy as part of its "Sounds Like Art" multidisciplinary arts festival, which runs from Aug. 28 to Nov. 7 and examines the relationship between sound and contemporary art.

Partch's life as a musician was a haphazard one. Born in Oakland in 1901, he spent most of his youth in isolated areas of the Southwest. As the son of missionary parents, he was exposed to a wide variety of the world's music as a child, and was already composing by his midteens. But by the time he reached his 20s, Partch had grown dissatisfied with conventional ideas of what music should be. So, at the age of 28, he took all of his classical compositions -- including a string quartet, a piano concerto, and a symphonic poem -- and destroyed them. It was, he described in his influential book, Genesis of a Music, "a kind of adolescent auto-da-fé -- the burning of fourteen years of my music in a big iron stove -- a confession, to myself, that in pursuing the respectable, the widely accepted, I had not been faithful."

Harry Partch, happy to strangle anybody who called himself his pupil, in Sausalito circa 1954.
Fred Lyon
Harry Partch, happy to strangle anybody who called himself his pupil, in Sausalito circa 1954.

From then on, Partch began to actively compose and perform in a new style built on two basic premises: the idea that all music should derive from the spoken word, and a system of what he called "just intonation," in which pitches are tuned to the simplest and purest musical intervals. Partch felt that the standard system of 12-tone equal temperament was far too limiting, keeping composers from exploring other forms of musical consonance and dissonance. "Composers can think only in equal temperament for just one reason: because it is all they have got to think in," he said in Genesis of a Music. "Music systems are made valid -- and workable -- by significant music."

So in 1930, Partch set out to create such music -- and quickly realized he'd need new instruments to do so. At first adapting guitars and violas to play his compositions, the composer soon began to build new instruments to suit his new, 43-tone tuning system. Extravagantly designed and named -- cloud chamber bowls, boo, spoils of war, crychord, zymo-xyl, bloboy, and the quadrangularis reversum were a few of Partch's creations -- the instruments were one-of-kind sculptures that were both visually engaging and sonically surprising. Many of the largest pieces were conceived and built in the Bay Area: at Mills College in Oakland, in Sausalito, and in Gualala on the north coast, where Partch lived for several years in the 1950s before moving to San Diego.

For 16 years -- from the early 1930s, when he traveled the Depression-wracked country as a hobo and itinerant worker, through the 1940s, when he took teaching jobs and residencies at several Midwestern universities -- Partch's music involved him playing one instrument by himself. But as he matured, his work moved away from the solo song form and took on grandiose, theatrical proportions. His dramatic compositions -- including Oedipus, The Bewitched, and Delusion of the Fury -- often had Greek inspirations, and featured Partch's instruments as the visual focus, with the musicians taking on the additional roles of singing and dancing. In the style of Wagner's epic notion of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), Partch labeled his compositions "corporeal music: Including the whole body, the whole person, the whole mind."

The dilemma that came with Partch's death in 1974 -- and was exacerbated by the newfound interest in his work in the 1980s and 1990s -- was how to give mainstream music lovers the opportunity to hear his unusual compositions. There were a handful of recordings, to be sure, newly rereleased by CRI. But Partch's lavish music-dramas were meant to be seen as well as heard, and with only one set of instruments in existence and hardly anyone who knew how to play them, performing these works seemed like a formidable if not impossible task.

Enter Dean Drummond, founder of the experimental music ensemble Newband. Drummond was a 16-year-old trumpeter when he was introduced to Partch, who was then 65. "I knew that I had discovered something that was important to me," recalls Drummond from his home in New York. "I actually plagued him with questions and he said, 'Read my book and then come back and ask questions.' So I did." It wasn't long before Drummond became a member of Partch's ensemble, playing the percussive eucal blossom for four years, then acting as the composer's assistant for two more. "When he died," Drummond says, "I was still in my early 20s. So he and I knew each other when he was at the climax of his career and I was at the very beginning of mine."

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