Sunday , July 21 2024

Play Along With Partch

Companion site to “American Mavericks” series produced by Minnesota Public Radio offers opportunity to play eccentric musical instruments virtually online:

    American Mavericks (, a new Web site focusing on unorthodox classical composers, allows visitors to hear [Harr] Partch’s music, read one of his manifestos or, by tapping on a computer keyboard or moving the mouse, play virtual versions of 20 of the unusual instruments that Partch himself devised. These include the Chromelodeon, an organ-like instrument with unconventional tunings, and a marimba made from two dozen light bulbs.

    While the virtual instruments give anyone a chance to sample Partch inventions that are rarely played in public, they raise questions about the authenticity of such digital recreations. Still, the virtual instruments provide an entertaining introduction to the prickly Partch, who died in 1974. Richard Kessler, executive director of the American Music Center in New York, said, “The opportunity to interact with the instruments, the opportunity to learn about the tuning systems, the opportunity to be put in touch with Partch – it’s pretty extraordinary.” [NY Times]

I tried it – it’s very cool.

    The Web site, which went online in May, was produced by Minnesota Public Radio as a companion to “American Mavericks,” a 13-part radio series celebrating Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Steve Reich and other iconoclastic composers of the 20th century. In the New York area, the hourlong programs are being broadcast on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on WFUV-FM (90.7 on the dial) and will be carried later this year on WNYC-FM (93.9).

    The programs can also be heard at the site, where the audio is augmented by interviews with 60 composers, more than 12 hours of exclusive recordings of concert performances by the San Francisco Symphony, and interactive features like the Partch instruments. The site also offers two channels of continuous music, a “smooth” one for easier listening and another labeled “crunchy” for more challenging material. “We asked ourselves what would it look like if the radio show were about the Web site and not vice versa,” said Sarah Lutman, senior vice president for cultural programming and initiatives at Minnesota Public Radio.

Progressive classical music needs a home on the web – maybe this will be it.

    The American Mavericks site is the latest attempt to find a home on the Internet for progressive classical music, which is played sparingly in concert and on the radio. Sites like Art of the States , sponsored by WGBH radio of Boston; the American Music Center’s NewMusicJukebox ; and Kalvos and Damian’s New Music Bazaar continually document the breadth and vivacity of American musical creativity in a way that, given its relatively tiny audience, no concert promoter or station manager could possibly afford.

I reviewed this contempoary classical concert March 5, 2002:

    Rockin’ With CCS
    I don’t get out much lately; that’s just the way it is for now, but my brother’s friend Sean is the principal flutist with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony so I headed downtown on the coldest night of the year for an 8pm performance entitled Time Windows.

    The CCS specializes in “music that dares to explore.” In fact, if they do say so themselves, “Over the past twenty-two years under the visionary leadership of founder and artistic director, Dr. Edwin London, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony has steadily climbed to the summit of new music’s Mount Olympus.”

    In other words they specialize in challenging contemporary classical music, with an emphasis on brand new music. Over the years the “distinguished new music ensemble in residence at Cleveland State University” has performed over 160 world premieres. Last night’s performance featured not one, but two virgin pieces out of the four performed in a sprightly hour-and-thirty-minute show.

    In the broadest sense I am oriented toward popular rather than “classical” music, but I love the astringent ardor of artiness, novelty in general, and can always appreciate extraordinary musicianship of any flavor. Besides, in the best public arts tradition, CCS’s shows are free and held in the charming Drinko recital hall, so I had little to lose.

    In celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday, the show opened with Arthur Berger’s “Chamber Music for 13 Players,” an angular “neo-classic twelve-tone” piece from 1956 with lots of flute squiggles from Sean (who is damn good, by the way). At only nine minutes long, the interesting-if-random-seeming burps, fulminations, squiggles, and noodling shot by quickly.

    The second item was the world premiere of an exceptionally lovely and evocative piece created for CCS by young (b. 1959) L.A.-based composer Eric Muhl, entitled “Consolation.” Dreamy, slow, ambient, the contemplative composition “scored for chamber ensemble with solo violin and piano” was influenced, according to the composer, by the events of September 11.

    As the final preternaturally quiet note trailed off into hushed infinitude, the nearly-full house of musicians, composers, students, and passers-by who had stumbled in out of the cold, sat for a frozen moment, visibly moved. The model-thin blonde composer bounded down the steps to the performance space below; the audience burst into cathartic applause, overcome by what had just befallen them. The musicians seemed astonished as well and applauded with equal enthusiasm.

    The remaining two pieces were interesting but inevitably anticlimactic after the Muhl triumph. David Taddie’s “5 Haiku,” another world premiere, was written for soprano Christine Schadeberg, who performed it capably and pleasingly, though it too seemed a bit random in a contemporary, Asia-influenced way. The show wrapped with Howie Smith’s “Time/Windows,” featuring smoking trumpet soloist Ray Sasaki, whose lyrical, buttery tone at times evoked New Orleans, at others, somewhere much farther away. The next CCS show is March 25; I’ll be there.

I wasn’t, but that’s another story.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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