I recently attended a concert that included a piece of music by Harry Partch (1901-1974). Some of the attendees, though they were people interested in and aware of contemporary music, had never heard of the composer. This reminded me of two things. First, I’ve been around longer than some. Second, Partch isn’t the usual sort of star in the firmament of modern “serious” music. Could he be instead a pulsar, fading in and out of awareness?
Harry Partch is one of the few creators who can fairly be said to be a true original. Indeed he can seem almost sui generis. He invented and scored for his own instruments, and held to almost none of the musical conventions his generation inherited. On the other hand, he wasn’t conceptual or distinctively cerebral in his iconoclasm the way, say, John Cage was. With his 43-tone scale and seemingly infinite appetite for absorbing and recasting 20th-century American cultural touchstones and quirks, Partch created works that remain living things, typically exist in multiple forms, and still surprise us.
Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Volume 3 is an exceptional new album from the ensemble called Partch, which sustains and propagates the composer’s legacy. The album even expands that legacy, as it includes works never before recorded.
It begins with “Ulysses at the Edge of the World,” a relatively late work (1962) written for (but never performed by) Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Featuring guest musicians Dan Rosenboom (trumpet) and Ulrich Krieger (baritone saxophone), it’s the selection most aligned with the more usual strains of avant-garde 20th-century music, in part because of the presence of traditional instruments.
Things get rapidly weirder with Twelve Intrusions, whose spoken-word texts by various poets are delivered in a way that harks back to Dada and Surrealism. They’re an expansive introduction to the unique sonic palette Partch created. His invented instruments provide the soaring slides of “The Crane,” the spattering arpeggios of “The Waterfall,” the microtonal bends of “The Wind,” the strange cartoonish background to “The Letter,” the haunting trippiness of “The Lover,” and so on.
The final “Intrusion,” “Cloud Chamber Music,” features Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls, voices, Adapted Viola, Guitar III, marimba, kithara, and Native American deer-hooves rattle and is built on a traditional Native American chant Partch had transcribed from a 1904 Edison cylinder (included on the album for reference).
“Windsong” (1958) is the first recording of the full version of a piece written as a live soundtrack to a film by avant-garde filmmaker Madeline Tourtelot. Purely as music, it’s astoundingly powerful, with exceptionally sustained drama – an aspect of Partch’s work that’s sometimes overlooked. For me, it’s the album’s brightest highlight. It’s recorded, as is the whole disc, with loving care by ensemble member and Partch devotee John Schneider (who also wrote the informative liner notes) and performed by a dedicated troupe on instruments crafted to Partch’s specifications by equally dedicated artisans.
Schneider describes Sonata Dementia as Partch’s first abstract instrumental work. Composed initially in 1949, it uses instruments Partch had just invented. He said at one performance that “I am always a little hard-pressed to find words to give any verbal validity to this piece of music.” But the titles of the three movements certainly give voice to the dominant moods: “Abstraction & Delusion,” “Scherzo Schizophrenia,” “Allegro Paranoia.” Like the Intrusions, these feel like poems, though they’re mainly instrumental, poems of sound and feeling.
A special treat is a newly rediscovered recording of a live performance by the composer of Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from 1941, including his spoken introduction. Partch accompanies himself in this folky mini-suite on his Adapter Guitar I, humorously reciting graffiti he found written on a railing by hitchhikers hoping for rides from Barstow, California. It’s the album’s rawest embodiment of Partch’s engagement with the gritty Americana of his time, and will likely be a joyful surprise to Partch aficionados. It also makes me imagine that people like Richard Thompson, and not just avant-garde innovators like The Residents, were aware of Harry Partch.
Hitchhiking’s not in vogue any more, but weary immigrants and refugees are the stuff of daily news reports. One wonders what Harry Partch would have made of the 21st century’s paralyzing American dilemmas. One things’s clear though: His music continues to speak to us. Partch, the ensemble, makes sure of that.