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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Harry Partch

posted by on April 18 at 20:44 PM

YouTube has an excellent BBC documentary on Harry Partch, a stubborn iconoclast, visionary theorist, and musical revolutionary.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

What makes Harry Partch great?

Here's an unjustly brief summary: Partch insisted on corporeality - that concerts should break free of the tight shoes, tight coats (and by implication, tight asses) of formal concert life - and merged the roles of musicians, dancers, and actors by fusing dance, drama, poetry, music in his live performances. Partch's book Genesis of a Music offered perhaps the best way out of the so-called problem of tonality and established him as a seminal figure of the microtonal movement. Inspired by Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone and spurred by early attempts at modifying traditional instruments, Partch revived and systematized just intonation unlike any theorist before or since. But wait, there's more.

Partch's insistence on documenting his work makes him one of the earliest 20th century composers to take a direct hand in recording and distributing his own music. Like Sun Ra and his Saturn label, Partch used his GATE 5 label to market his music through the non-traditional channels of mail order and performances. Asserting that music also resides in the act of speaking, Partch championed "speech-music." This insistence that words should not be disfigured by singing techniques that distort the sound and sense of words brings some of his work into the realm of sound poetry, but that connection has yet to be explored.

Most importantly, Partch designed and built his own orchestra of instruments. Some, such as the Kithara, Harmonic Canon, and the Marimba Eroica, were derived from Asian, African, and other ancient instruments. Others are crafty subversions of more recent instruments (Chromelodean, Adapted Viola) or utterly original creations (Cloud Chamber Bowls, Bloboy, Mazda Marimba). Partch's construction of an entire orchestra is a bold rejection of 300 years of Western music and a resounding declaration that music and musical instruments lurk not only in history but in the discarded objects of everyday life. So what does it sound like? The music of Harry Partch is driving, percussive, poetic, satirical, and charged with a vivid urgency that sings and dances. Anyway, enough of my rambling.

Go see the documentary and peruse the official Partch site.

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I fondly recall a woozy summer night at the Caroliner house in SF several years ago where I slept next to one of Partch's instruments that was at the time under reconstruction. Some local theater company (for more on 'theatrical music' as opposed to 'musical theater', please refer to M. Kagel) ought to put on "The Bewitched". Hell, maybe I'll do it.

Posted by levide | April 18, 2007 9:18 PM

Thanks for posting this, Harry Partch's music is beautiful. I used to play his music on the no longer existing Green Cat Cafe stereo...I don't think the customers thought much of it, or my coworkers. Oh well, no accounting for taste I suppose. Fuck it.

Posted by Sally Struthers Lawnchair | April 18, 2007 9:40 PM

I miss the Green Cat.

Posted by Eric Grandy | April 19, 2007 9:37 AM

I do too!

Posted by Tamara | April 19, 2007 1:13 PM

-- this is great, i hadn't heard of him or his work until now... and i am soo bummed i didn't realize i was listening to him while eating spicy tofu scramble at the green cat years ago. i should have brought it up then and been "in the know". bring back the green cat!

Posted by Aaro)))n Edge | April 19, 2007 1:36 PM

You really can't blame customers for not noticing. Partch's music sort of resembles the sounds of the kitchen clanking mixed with skateboards on the sidewalk along with crows cawing overhead. I've read about 100 pages of Genesis of Music, it's thick, dense and incredible, just like his music. I wish I could go on, he's been an inspiration since the 80s, but oh well, gotta get on with my microtonaling. Great post!

Posted by groot | April 19, 2007 3:33 PM

It wasn't that they didn't notice his music, it was that they didn't appreciate it...but like I said, no accounting for taste. Microtonal music on homemade instruments isn't for everyone apparently.

I miss Green Cat sandwiches, spicy tofu scrambles, and pablo's potatoes...but I don't miss working there. Luckily I can just make make these items at home when I'm feeling nostalgic.

Posted by Sally Struthers Lawnchair | April 19, 2007 7:23 PM

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Posted by penis patches | April 30, 2007 12:16 PM

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