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

Drummond formed Newband soon after Partch's death, and took a cue from his mentor, exploring alternative tuning systems on his 31-tone zoomoozophone, which Drummond built in 1978. But it wasn't until 1990 that he acquired Partch's instruments and became custodian of Partch's legacy in all its cumbersome glory. Not only does Newband stage full-blown performances of Partch's music-dramas using the instruments, but Drummond also lends them out to other composers to write for, as well as to other experimental instrument builders to replicate. "I encourage people to come to our studio with camera and measuring tape, if they wish. The last thing I want to do is monopolize the instruments and be the only set in the world. It's my goal that the availability of the instruments is enlarged, not kept small."

Not surprisingly, with an increased interest in alternative tuning systems over the last several years, there has as a consequence been an increase in the number of experimental instrument builders. "Alternative tuning systems is a hot topic these days," agrees Point Reyes instrument builder Bart Hopkin. But Hopkin, who is the founder of the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments, is quick to point out that there are other reasons why people decide to build their own instruments. "I think a lot of it has to do with the process of discovery. You stumble on a sound that really intrigues you and you decide you want to work with that sound. I think that God created a world full of more interesting sounds than I could ever dream up."

Hopkin is one of 10 West Coast experimental instrument builders who will be performing in the world premiere of Beth Custer's Vinculum Symphony at Yerba Buena in September. While Custer, a local composer and clarinetist, has never had the desire to build anything herself, she's been interested in alternative instruments ever since finding a Harry Partch record at a garage sale in 1978. "I started realizing that there are other instruments than the ones I grew up with in an orchestra," says Custer at a cafe in Bernal Heights. Through the years, Custer has collaborated with several of the instrument makers participating in her symphony, including local experimental composers Tom Nunn, Peter Whitehead, and Brenda Hutchinson, among others. But it wasn't until 1996, when she was working with Seattle-based experimental instrument builder Trimpin, that she thought of combining traditional and nontraditional instruments in a composition. "He had these MIDI-controlled music boxes," Custer remembers, "and he would play the MIDI boxes and I would walk around them and play my clarinet. That was the first time I paired a real instrument with an experimental instrument."

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 there came the idea of the Vinculum Symphony, written for 20 chamber musicians and 10 experimental instrument builders. "Vinculum," explains Custer, is a Latin word meaning a bond of union. "So my concept is to unify the traditional with the experimental. What I really liked about the idea is that these guys don't usually play together -- they play their own music, individually." Once Custer got Yerba Buena interested in her project, she visited the artists' studios and helped pick out instruments for the symphony. "There's a mix of everything in this," she says. "Percussion, strings, MIDI, some recycled materials, bamboo, wood, metal, glass instruments, clay flutes -- even recycled lampshades."

Custer presented three concerts at the Headlands Center for the Arts last fall to try out her ideas. Each concert featured a quintet of traditional instruments and two experimental instrument builders, with the music partly scored and partly improvised. Two of the concerts can be heard on her new CD, in the broken fields where i lie. She came away from the concerts with a new sense of what the symphony should entail. "I like to write pretty melodies," says the eclectic composer, whose clarinet pieces are inspired by everyone from Kurt Weill to Ennio Morricone. "And what I realized from putting these concerts on in the Headlands is that these guys are great improvisers, and that I should just bring that out in the score so they can do what they do best."

But what about the Partchian dilemma of creating music for experimental instruments that only the instrument builders know how to play? "As long as you have a Beethoven-esque notion as to what musical immortality is," explains Hopkin, "it's going to be hard to make these things work, and you're going to have a bunch of problems. But if you think of musical instruments as being more like sculptures than like instruments -- in other words, you can easily have one of a kind, you make it, there it is, and that's that -- then you don't have to worry about whether other people are going to learn to play this thing or if a repertoire is going to develop."

Oliver DiCicco, one of the musicians involved in the Vinculum Symphony as well as founder of the alternative recording studio Mobius Records, agrees. "I think it's great that there are people out there with their own vision, pressing forward regardless of whether there's commercial success or not. I think that's the definition of a true artist. Everybody who's out there experimenting and creating new things is really trying to find something unique, trying to find a way to express their own voice."

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