Saturday, May 23, 2015

Harry Partch Happenings

by Andrew Granade

Harry Partch, 1967

William Gedney Photographs and Writings
David M. Rubenstein Library
Duke University
When Harry Partch died in 1974, many believed his legacy would die with him. Ben Johnston, Partch’s student and an eloquent exponent of just intonation, warned in a 1975 speech that his death “underlies the urgency that something else has to happen: the rescue of his life-work, which could easily slide into oblivion.” Johnston’s fears were justified. Partch’s musical achievements were more connected to his personal presence than almost any composer I know. His music was written in just intonation for instruments of his own creation using a tablature-based notational system distinctive to each instrument. The instruments were fragile, requiring such constant upkeep that during rehearsals and performance he was tuning and repairing them daily. His typical procedure for mounting one of his music theater works was to train the musicians by modeling the approach and stance for each instrument, so they would not only play the right pitches, but be mindful of the visual impact of their performance as well. As you can imagine, productions of his theatrical works during the 1950s and 1960s were built on his personal charisma, his dogged drive to create his art without compromise, and his corporeal presence, to borrow Partch’s term for the music he sought to create. Without Partch around to fulfill all these roles and more, there was a real possibility his art would fade into legend.

Fortunately, the determination of Partch’s heir Danlee Mitchell and a sturdy handful of musicians and scholars kept Partch’s music, aesthetic, and legacy alive. Although materials were scarce and opportunities to hear his music rare, there was a steady stream of Partch related happenings starting in the 1980s. From a landmark 1980 production of The Bewitched at the Berlin Festival, to Newband’s performance of The Wayward at the 1991 Bang on a Can Festival, to the publication of Innova’s Enclosure series and Bob Gilmore’s biography in the late 1990s, every few years found another moment where Partch popped up in the cultural fabric. However, these isolated incidents could not have prepared anyone for the torrent of Partch-related materials and events from the past three years. Consider the following:
  • In September 2012, Brian Robison organized the first conference on Partch’s music: The Harry Partch Legacy: Microtonal Constructions and Intercultural Dialogues. Hosted by Northeastern University, the New England Conservatory, and the Goethe-Institut Boston, the conference treated participants to three days of concerts on Partch’s original instruments, sessions delving into Partch’s theories and history, and workshops by Dean Drummond (then the instruments’ curator) and members of Ensemble musikFabrik.
  • In August 2013, Ensemble musikFabrik opened the Ruhrtriennale with the European premiere of Delusion of the Fury. Even more remarkable than the group dedicating themselves to learning the work was that in order to do so, they reproduced Partch’s instruments:


The resulting performance was so successful that the Edinburgh International Festival invited the Ensemble to bring the production to the King’s Theatre in August 2014, and the Lincoln Center Festival has invited it to New York in July of this year.



  • In April 2014, David Lang, the 2013-2014 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, curated a six-concert series he called “Collected Stories” because it divided its programs “not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell in order to see how the story and the composer work together.” To open the series, Lang put together “Hero” which paired Benjamin Bagby’s performance of Beowulf with Partch’s The Wayward, performed 70 years to the day after its premiere in Carnegie Hall under the auspices of the League of Composers.
  • Last October, the University of Rochester Press published my book Harry Partch: Hobo Composer, a detailed examination of Partch’s Americana works from historical, cultural, political, and musical perspectives and only the second monograph on the composer’s life and music.
  • In February of this year, PARTCH, an ensemble headed by microtonal guitarist John Schneider, which has been reproducing Partch’s instruments and recording a series of renowned albums for Bridge Records, won the Grammy for Best Classical Compendium for “Plectra and Percussion Dances.”
  • In November of last year, Partch’s original instruments headed across the country to their new home at the Harry Parch Institute, University of Washington. For the past fifteen years, Montclair State University hosted Partch’s instrumentarium. But after Dean Drummond’s death in 2013, Montclair decided to let the instruments move to a new home. In October 2014, the University of Washington invited the Partch Institute for a two-year residency with Charles Corey “coordinating performances of Partch's works and setting up a program to teach students and the public about Partch's life, music, and philosophies.” In January, Corey set up eleven of Partch’s instruments to create an ensemble that will perform selections from Eleven Intrusions, And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, and other pieces in a concert on May 26, 2015. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a fruitful new period for Partch’s creations.
And there is more to come. Filmmaker Jon Roy is at work on a documentary called Bitter Music: The Life of Harry Partch;  Charles Corey and the University of Washington have ideas for more public performances and even summer workshops; and new scholarship is appearing all the time. In Stephen Pouliot’s graceful documentary The Dreamer That Remains: A Portrait of Harry Partch, filmed in the years leading up to Partch’s death, the composer exclaimed: “I would choose to be anonymous. Of course! I’m thinking of those fantastic cave drawings in southern France and in northern Spain, at Altamira I think it is. And there’s no author there! And what a treasure they are! And who cares who did them, how many thousands of years ago. Of course, I’m not saying that anything I do is going to last that long. But who cares what the name was!” Despite that self-effacing statement, it seems that the world increasingly does care about the man who created some of the most expressive, earthy, and deliriously idiosyncratic music of the 20th century.

Andrew Granade is Associate Professor of Musicology and Chair of Composition, Music Theory, and Musicology at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri, Kansas City.


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