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.