Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island

by Michael Schell

Partch and musicians for “The Dreamer That Remains.” (1972, photo by Betty Freeman.)

No one lives up to the American Maverick sobriquet better than Harry Partch (1901–1974), whose hand-built instruments and 43-tone scale will be on display once again at this year’s Harry Partch Festival on May 11–13 at the University of Washington.

But as much as we admire the uniqueness and audacity of Partch’s career (see Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick and Meet the Instruments of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium), even a gadfly like Partch has his influences—however disparate and contrarian they might be. Let’s take a look at a few of the raw ingredients that fed the cauldron of one of music history’s most unusual thinkers.

Neighborhood Roots

Partch spent much of his childhood in rural Arizona Territory where his neighbors included the Pasqua Yaqui people, who at that time were refugees from the ethnic cleansing policy of the Díaz regime in Mexico. Though Partch’s contact with the Yaquis must have been limited, as an adult he could remember hearing their music—the origins of a lifelong sympathy and appreciation for Native American culture.

In 1933, Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal style was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. Partch’s own intoning voice technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.

Canción de los Muchachos (Isleta Pueblo), reprinted from Enclosure 3: Harry Partch.

One of the transcribed songs from an Isleta Pueblo resident impressed Partch so much that he quoted it years later in his short piece Cloud Chamber Music (which will be performed at the Festival’s closing concert). The tune is first heard on the Adapted Viola starting at 2:18 in Partch’s own recording:

A Mexican Maverick

Partch wasn’t the first modern composer to explore microtones. The 1920s, for instance, had seen a minor heyday of music based on quarter tones: intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a keyboard tuned in conventional equal temperament. A few manufacturers even designed new instruments for this 24-notes-per-octave system. One of them was a piano that inspired Ives’ Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, one of the few enduring masterpieces of this vogue.

Partch with his Kithara II in 1959. (Photo by Danlee Mitchell.)

One man who leaped wholeheartedly into the interwar microtonal craze was the Mexican composer-conductor Julián Carrillo (1875–1965). Carrillo postulated a system that he called trece sonido (“13th sound”, meaning that it went beyond the usual 12 notes per octave) where the scale was divided not just into quarter tones, but into eighth and even sixteenth tones (creating, at least in theory, a 96-tone scale).

Partch mentions Carrillo’s work in his book Genesis of a Music, which, in addition to describing his own music and instruments also includes a fascinating and opinionated survey of intonation systems from antiquity through the mid-20th century. But being obsessed with acoustically pure intervals, Partch disdained any system based on equal temperament (with its irrational frequency ratios). And history, abetted by the difficulty of procuring instruments adapted to the trece sonido, has largely consigned Carrillo’s output to the novelty bin.

Nevertheless, Carrillo’s best-known piece, Prelude to Christopher Columbus, bears a striking resemblance to some of Partch’s mature compositions. Written in 1922 for soprano, flute, strings, quarter tone guitar and a special sixteenth tone harp, it was known to Partch through a Cuban recording made in the early 1930s, and later through the publication of its score by Henry Cowell in 1944. Listen to the microtonal plucked string tremolos and glissandos at 4:00 of the above video, and compare them to the similar timbres at 5:23 of Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.

Meanwhile, Back in the Old World…

Partch had European influences too. There was the drama and music of Ancient Greece, as best Partch could grasp it from the scholarship of the day. And there were the very first European operas, developed around 1600 by such now-obscure foot soldiers as Peri and Caccini, eager to build a new and expressive technique for declaiming texts with fidelity to their natural contours and rhythms. To Partch’s way of thinking, things went downhill soon afterwards, derailed by such blasphemies as bel canto singing, equal temperament, and abstract forms like sonatas and symphonies.

Detail from “The Dreamer that Remains” (1972).

Europe finally started emerging from the Dark Age of the Three Bs around the turn of the 20th century. The sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) impressed Partch as a workable middle ground between overwrought operatic singing and accompanied rhythmic recitation (whose “inharmonic relation between instruments and voice” he found objectionable). Partch was also impressed by the simple and austere vocal writing in Satie’s Socrate (1919) which, though sung, closely tracks the natural flow of its French text.

And then there’s Carl Orff. Partch admired the archaic directness of the text settings in his Carmina Burana (1935–36). But it’s Orff’s musical adaptations of Greek dramas—works largely unknown outside the German-speaking world—that display the most tantalizing similarities to Partch.

The first of them, Antigonae, was premiered in Germany in 1949, a couple of years before Partch’s first big theater work, Oedipus. Antigonae was not produced in the US until 1968 though, so the earliest exposure Partch seems likely to have had to it was a 1955 recording on Columbia Records. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two works are remarkable, and the similarities would continue as both composers independently built their catalog of ancient drama settings: Orff with Oedipus the Tyrant (1959) and Prometheus (1968), and Partch with Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960, an adaptation of The Bacchae) and Delusion of the Fury (1964–66, based on a Noh drama and an Ethiopian folk tale). All of these works emphasize the theatricality of ritual, which for Partch was a key element in corporeality: an integrated and meaningful artistic experience spanning multiple disciplines.

Production still from Partch’s “Oedipus” at Mills College in 1952. (Photo by Carl Mydans, Life Magazine.)

The first act of Orff’s Antigonae is a good showcase of these seemingly Partchian traits: the use of intoning voices and recitative (often on a single pitch), and the percussion-centric orchestra. Orff even calls for some new mallet instruments of his own design (conceived for his music pedagogy approach called Orff Schulwerk) to go alongside six pianos and a chorus of winds and double basses. One can compare Orff’s duet between Kreon and the Messenger with Partch’s duet between Oedipus and Tiresias, or the percussive jigs in Act I of Antigonae and the opening of Partch’s Revelation.

But Orff’s instrumentarium uses conventional 12-tone tunings, inhabiting a sound world established by Stravinsky in Les Noces, whereas Partch’s inventions reflect his legacy in the American tradition of percussion music (to which he was directly linked through his friendship with Lou Harrison), which emphasized an individualistic, build-your-own ethic.

Synthesis

Vaughan Williams said that art, like charity, should begin at home. And it’s when Partch drew from his own scraggly biography that he created his most admired works. The apogee of “hobo Partch” comes in The Wayward, a personal portrait of Depression-era Americana that includes the compositions Barstow, The Letter, San Francisco, and U.S. Highball, and which will comprise the centerpiece of the Harry Partch Festival’s evening concerts.

The Wayward masterfully combines borrowed concepts of the sort we’ve seen above with ideas that only Partch could have come up with: the custom tuning system and instruments obviously, but also the dialogue, themes and sonic evocations of a particular subculture that he had uniquely assimilated.

Partch’s ability to integrate both Classical and vernacular elements—to bridge, so to speak, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, may be what most deeply defines his legacy. However wide one’s influences may range, it’s often the intimacy of authentic experience that produces the most compelling art.


The Harry Partch Festival is May 11-13 at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

New Music for May: Joshua Roman, JACK Quartet, and a Microtonal Music Fest

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

New music flyer May 2018 FINAL

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: avant-garde piano solos, Eastern-European cimbalom songs, a dark ambient memorial, and more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Live Music Project: 4th Annual Lecture-Concert
The Live Music Project celebrates its 4th birthday with a scintillating lecture from a cyborg, a centuries-spanning solo violin performance by Mikhail Shmidt of the Seattle Symphony, a ticket giveaway, and the most adorable cupcake toast this side of the Cascades.
Tues, 5/1, 6:30pm, Naked City Brewery & Taphouse | $30

DXARTS: Points vs. Fields
UW School of Music faculty performers Cuong Vu, Ted Poor, Richard Karpen, and Juan Pampin perform an ephemeral new improvisation for trumpet, drums, piano, and live electronics, programmed alongside Bernard Permegiani’s classic exploration of the meaning of sound itself, De Natura Sonorum for loudspeaker orchestra.
Tues, 5/1, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$15

Emerald City Music: Metamorphosis
A season-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial ends with a special multimedia feature on the iconic conductor, plus performances of two composers whose work he championed during his lifetime: Strauss and Beethoven.
Fri, 5/4, 8pm, 415 Westalve Ave, Seattle | $40-45
Sat, 5/5, 7:30pm, Evergreen State College Recital Hall, Olympia | $23-$43

Matt Shoemaker Memorial Concert
Longtime friends and collaborators of the late Matt Shoemaker perform works in his honor ranging from experimental noise to sound art, dark ambient, and beyond.
Sat, 5/5, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Town Music: JACK Quartet with Joshua Roman
Cellist Joshua Roman joins forces with the JACK Quartet to perform his new piece Tornado, inspired by his roots in Oklahoma. Works by Jefferson Friedman, John Zorn, Amy Williams, and Carlo Gesualdo complete the program.
Thurs, 5/10, 7:30pm, Seattle First Baptist Church | $15-$20

Harry Partch Festival
Experience the handmade microtonal instruments of Harry Partch in this sprawling three-day music festival featuring new works composed for Partch’s instruments, as well as rarely-performed works from the composer’s archives. Master classes, demonstrations, and lectures, complete this homage to a uniquely American artist.
Fri-Sun, 5/11-5/13, Various times, Meany Theater | $10-$60

Portland Cello Project
Equally at home in rock clubs and concert halls, Portland Cello Project reimagines classical favorites and contemporary hits alike for their famous choir of cellos. Expect everything from Bach to Coltrane to Radiohead.
Tues, 5/15, 7:30pm, The Triple Door | $26-$35

Seattle Art Museum: John Cage’s Themes and Variations
John Cage is best known as one of the leading figures of the 20th century avant-garde in music—but much of his work crossed boundaries into performance art, theatre, and even visual art. His sculpture Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel recently joined the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. Learn more about his contributions to both art and music in this conversation with curators Catharina Manchanda and Carrie Dedon.
Wed, 5/16, 6:30pm, Seattle Art Museum | $10

Peter Nelson-King: Post Avant-Garde
Multi-instrumentalist and modern music rabble-rouser Peter Nelson-King presents an eclectic program of individualist piano music from the 1980s, featuring works by Robert Beaser, George Benjamin, Peter Sculthorpe, John Tavener, Augusta Read Thomas, Charles Wuorinen, and more.
Thurs, 5/17, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Pro Musica: Sacred Ground
Explore the intersections of music, spirituality, and the natural world in this program of nature-inspired works by Tõnu Kõrvits, Hyo-Won Woo, and Healey Willan.
Fri, 5/18, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38
Sat, 5/19, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38

Nat Evans: Flyover Country
Composer and interdisciplinary artist Nat Evans uses his family history across the last three centuries as a lens to look at ecological destruction, genocide of indigenous people, capitalism, and food systems in the United States.
Sat-Sun, 5/19-5/20, 8pm, The Grocery | $5-$20

Mostly Nordic: Finlandia
The Emerald Ensemble perform Jean Sibelius’s beloved hymn to Finland alongside 20th century works by Finnish composers Einojuhani Rautavaara, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, and more.
Sun, 5/20, 4pm, Nordic Museum | $25

Music of Remembrance: Gaman
A world premiere by composer Christophe Chagnard explores the experience of Japanese immigrants who were forced into internment camps in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Combining traditional Japanese and classical Western instruments, the piece brings a powerful story to life through the words and images created by three artists and poets during their captivity in the Minidoka camp.
Sun, 5/20, 5pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $30-$45

The Westerlies
Far from your typical brass band, this Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet is known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. The band returns to the West this month for a one-night-only performance in Seattle.
Wed, 5/23, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $5-$15

Frequency with Yura Lee: Dialogues
Guest violinist Yura Lee joins members of Frequency (violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim, violist Melia Watras, and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir) for duos by Berio, Maderna, Ravel, and Watras. Also on the program is Dohnányi’s Serenade for string trio.
Sun, 5/27, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$20