Many contemporary composers have been described as iconoclasts but few really are the rugged individualists they are often portrayed as being. Harry Partch(1901 – 1974) may be one of the rare exceptions. Influenced by his study and interpretation of ancient musical models, Partch decided to firmly break with the European musical tradition. He devised his own tuning system with a microtonal division of the octave into forty three notes and then designed and built a whole series of instruments to utilize his tuning. His music was influenced by ancient music, folk traditions from around the world and the dramatic inflections and gesturing of the human voice. His music does not have that “out of tune” quality that many often experience with microtonal music. This is largely due to Partch’s music being primarily based on rhythmic and melodic gestures rather than chord progressions surrounding a melody. Partch’s work was not just about his tuning system and his instruments, it was about his re-imagining of music itself.
Harry Partch commented that his work was like ancient ritual but in modern terms. He often used the word corporeal to describe his work and I have to admit that even after several decades of listening to his music that I didn’t really appreciate what that meant. It wasn’t until I watched a DVD of a performance of his piece “Delusion of Fury” that my appreciation of his work really started to click. For Partch, like many non-European cultures every aspect of the physical performance of his music was as important as the sonic result. I would recommend that readers take advantage of things like Vimeo and YouTube to see, as well as hear live staged performances of his work.
Partch wrote “The Bewitched”in the early 1950’s. He described it as a ballet satire. The piece has only been produced a few times. It is ten scenes based on everyday American life plus a prologue and epilogue. The story revolves around the idea that the world needs a serious dose of reality and that a witch goes around and appears in each of the scenes using her ancient magic to deliver a much needed bit of self-awareness to each of these everyday situations.
This recording of “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording from 1980 at the Berlin Festival. For full effect use your headphones or ear buds to get a sense of what it must have been like to be sitting in the audience for this performance. As you can see from the video clip from this performance, the ensemble, the soloists and the dancers are all together on the same stage, all completely engaged in Partch’s ritual. And as you can hear the ensemble gave quite a spirited performance!
In addition to releasing “The Bewitched” Nuema has re-released a very rare recording of Partch’s “U.S. Highball”. It is a work from 1943 and is the story of a transcontinental hobo trip set in Partch’s unique speech music style. It’s a story Partch knew well, as he lived the hobo lifestyle for many years. This recording of “U.S. Highball” is from 1946 and was originally released by Partch on his own label in an edition of 100 records on red vinyl. It’s a really interesting performance and a rare glimpse into one of Partch’s earliest works. Both recordings are highly recommended !
Chris De Chiara