Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Dreamer that Remains

The composer Harry Partch was born in 1901 in California to missionary parents who had recently returned from China. He spent most of his boyhood in southern Arizona and New Mexico. It's not going far wrong to imagine him, as a child, living on the set of an old cowboy film. He played piano in the cinema and his juvenalia included “Death in the Desert”, a story with piano accompaniment. He went on to study music conventionally, writing two movements of a piano concerto which he later destroyed.

I first came across Partch's name at school. Most books on twentieth-century music then afforded him a photo and a couple of paragraphs. Nobody played me any of his music though and there was none to be found in the local record library. I discovered it later thanks to a friend's CD of his last work, The Dreamer that Remains.

The Dreamer, scored for voice and ensemble, was made for a film about Partch of the same name by Stephen Pouliot. He describes returning to a small town of his childhood to find that the easy-going street life he remembered had been replaced with signs that forbid loitering, “even in public parks, where a couple of people want to lighten the darkness with a little loving.” Partch, who was gay, wanted to show two men in a park at this point but the idea was vetoed. Instead we're shown a boy and a girl.

What follows is extraordinarily comical: “even the cadavers in the funeral parlour – they, too, are forbidden to loiter”. The aforesaid cadavers then sing a chorus, which begins:

Let us loiter together / and know one another...

The moment is straight out of that zany world of American comedy that includes The Simpsons, The Flintstones, Sgt. Bilko, et al.

Partch is famous for developing an unusual scale. Most Western music is written using a 12-note chromatic scale – the seven different white and five black notes of the piano keyboard. To cut a long story short, this scale is a compromise which has evolved over time and Partch came to the conclusion that he needed to unpick the work of this evolution. Expressive vocal melody as he conceived it required the voice to exploit smaller melodic steps. His scale is often referred to as a 43-note scale, but this is slightly misleading: what he developed was a means of accurately constructing scales using first principles. He first put these ideas into practice in a series of settings of the Chinese poet Li Po, for voice and adapted viola. The choice of poet is significant: although a lot of what he wanted to achieve sprang from Western (particularly Ancient Greek) culture, foreign influences on Partch's music are to be found over the Pacific as well as over the Atlantic.

If you make music using an unusual scale you need instruments to make it on and most traditional Western instruments are tied to the conventional chromatic scale. The adapted viola -he fitted an ordinary viola with a longer neck- was the first of Partch's many projects in instrument building. He followed it with an adapted guitar and, over time, a whole orchestra of fantastical instruments (with equally fantastical names), which work as effectively on a sculptural as they do on a musical level.

Although famous for his scales and instruments, the aspect of his music which perhaps mattered most to Partch -certainly later on- was what he called its corporeality. By this he meant that a performance of his music had to involve the whole body: the performer had to express themselves in movement as well as sound and the overall effect had to be seen as well as heard.

Partch was a difficult man to get on with. He found it very difficult to come to terms with life and never stayed anywhere for very long. For a while he lived as a hobo, an experience which became the basis for one of his most famous works, U..S. Highball. For most of his life he moved from place to place relying on grants, the generosity of supporters and the interest of educational establishments. A major headache was finding homes for his growing collection of instruments and a pool of performers who were capable of both playing them competently and getting along with him.

Hearing The Dreamer that Remains prompted me to explore his music further. I soon latched on to a few personal favourites. Windsong, the music for a short film, Daphne of the Dunes, is a compelling, hypnotic piece. Eleven Intrusions has an approachable simplicity about it. In U.S. Highball, remembered fragments of the speech and graffiti of the hobos Partch rode the trains which float like ghosts over train-like (but never too trainlike) musical textures, a moving memorial to a lot of largely-forgotten people. If you want to dance like crazy when there's no-one else about (or even if there is, if you feel uninhibited), stick on Pollux from Plectra and Percussion Dances, full blast!

There are some really good photos of Partch instruments on the website of an ensemble who still perform his music, Newband.

You can play virtual versions of the Partch instruments yourself here.


John Hayes said...

Fanastic post-- your write-up, the links, the video. Really well-done, & thanks.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thank you for saying so. I've felt quite passionate about the neglect of Harry Partch, although I accept that if you invent your own scales and instruments you can't expect mainstream musicians to trot your pieces out every week!

I knew of and had seen the documentary on YouTube but only found the Daphne of the Dunes video today, when I came to post the post. They are really good. If you view the documentary at YouTube (click on "YouTube" in the bottom right corner)you can easily find the subsequent parts in the "related videos" list on the right.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating, Dominic. I loved the dance piece, both aurally and visually. What costumes! Like Rebecca Horn body extensions. The music seems to echo the same gamelan influences that drive so much of Glass's and Reich's more percussive pieces, although without the concentration on a steady rhythmic pulse.

I've known about Harry Partch for years. A pal of mine at Goldsmiths' in the '60s was a deeply eccentric BMus student and together we put together a concert/event using home-made instruments inspired by the idea of HP's music. But of course at that time data was very limited and we were drawing on what tantalising glimpses of HP's work that we could uncover.

So many thanks for this post, Dominic. I feel inspired all over again!


Dave King said...

I'm with John, a really exceptional post. Stupendous.

Poetikat said...

I had never heard of Harry Partch. That sense of isolation reminds me of the men from Apted's film, 7 Up --one of the sequels where we find one of the men is living in a small hut in the middle of nowhere. It fascinates me, those who choose to live on the fringes of society.
The music in the first video sounded like a dripping tap on a steel drum. It was certainly hypnotic.

Excellent post! It puts me in mind of the song, "Hobo's Meditation" (Jimmie Rodgers) recorded by Trio - Linda Rondstadt, Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton?


Ernesto said...

I left you an award on my blog, Dominic.

And yes, fascinating post.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

patteran: You make me back to when I was studying for my MusB. Some of us got together and performed Cornelius Cardew's Treatise complete with Cardew-like quotes from Mao - sounds a similar kind of thing!

DK: Thank you.

Poetikat: It's nice to know someone else has now heard of -and heard Harry Partch! Don't know either 7 Up or the Hobo's Meditation - yet.

Ernesto: Many thanks! (Have you come across the composer Conlon Nancarrow: a US composer who moved to Mexico? A contemporary of Partch he wrote a lot of frenetic music for player piano).

Ernesto said...

Damn, I lost my comment. I was saying yes, back home I have his Lost Work Last Works CD somewhere. It always saddened me he was not more recognized in Mexico. He was almost totally ignored by the Mexican cultural establishment. A recognition of his work by Mexican musicians and critics is long due. Maybe I should write something...

Back in 1999-2000 when I had my sound art project I became interested in his piano works. Unfortunately all those tapes were lost... :(

Ernesto said...

I loved this.

Contemporary electronica owes so much to this. Now I feel like remixing ;)

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Most fascinating - thanks for this post and video, Dominic. I knew about Conlan Nancarrow (his name alone is music!) but less about Partch. I find their unorthodox 'outsider' approach very congenial but am not always in tune with the results of their creative thinking. I'll must look deeper into it.

Denise Burden said...

Fascinating post. Love the Daphne of the Dunes - I keep playing it. The choreography is amazing.
The music itself reminds me of when I was in China. I remember going to a park in Kunming (Yunnan provine in the South) and seeing lots of old men in Mao jackets playing some very strange looking instruments. It sounded similar to Partch. I don't know enough about music to say why - maybe its the different notes on their scales.
Also I thought it sounded like the sounds of insects and wildlife you hear at night when you are in the Tropics - sort of primordial noises. Anyway, thanks Dom, for bringing it to everyones attention.

Dominic Rivron said...

Ernesto - thanks for the Nancarrow link. It's amazing - and its not a piece I knew.

Natalie - I think the way to get on top of the sound they make is to keep listening. I do think one can usually acclimatise one's ears - especially when one has the will to do so. If you succeed, there's a lot of "difficult" 20th century music which is frankly addictive!

I also think it's very interesting that the human brain is quite open to "difficult" visual art, but often struggles with "difficult" music.

Denise - it's probably the instruments as much as anything that causes Partch to remind you of Chinese music. Have you tried playing the Partch instruments online? (One of the links at the bottom of the post).

Lyn said...

I'm pleased to tell you to pick up an award at my blog! Thank you..