No matter how much you read and read about music, you gain no real understanding of it without listening. Just how forcefully that truth applies is demonstrated most clearly by actually listening to Harry Partch’s music, as opposed to reading about it or, indeed, reading Partch’s own Genesis Of A Music.
The Wayward consists of four settings of scraps of stories, letters, fragments of speech and exclamations all derived from observations Partch himself made during his Depression-era nomadic hobo life. The first piece, Barstow, consists of “Eight Hitchiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California”. The second, San Francisco, is “A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Foggy Night in the Twenties”. The third, The Letter, is “A Depression Message from a Hobo Friend”. The fourth, and by far the longest piece, is U.S. Highball, “A Musical Account Of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip”.
All these pieces are for bass and baritone or baritone alone. The instrumentation is entirely of Partch’s creation – the chromelodeon I, kithara, diamond, bass and bamboo marimbas, cloud chamber bowls and other instruments feature in one or more of the pieces. For U.S. Highball, Partch built the bloboy, a bellows, auto horn and organ pipe contraption designed to replicate – very effectively - the horn sound of a train. Scaled to Partch’s 43-tone per octave series, these intruments produce a wonderfully rich palette of sound. A palette that sounds far closer to an Eastern percussive orchestration – such as the Javanese Gamelin orchstra – than any conventional Western small orchestra. Still some of the instrumental passages, such as the cello glissandi in San Francisco, are eerily reminiscent of other 20th century works that play with glissandi, texture and tone color even as they adhere to the conventional 12-tones to the octave. In this particular case Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortileges comes to mind.
But it is in the hearing that all that Partch means by Corporeality comes finally down to earth. Partch’s music surrounds, highlights, transitions, describes and embellishes the words, but the words all always right up front, quite clear even when Partch plays with the pitch and intonation. Art music this may be, but it is closer to a rough hewn country blues performance than any Schubert song. The only work I have heard before that remotely approaches this way of performing is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with its sprechgesang – speech song – but that work lacks the immediacy and apparent lack of artifice you find with The Wayward. Still, it’s small wonder that Partch highlights Pierrot as one of the few Corporeal works in modern classical music in Genesis Of A Music.
Here, too, I can sense Montiverdi’s madrigals and elements of the Renaissance style that Partch regards as one highpoint of Corporeality in the classical music tradition. Now it is quite clear what Partch means. It is absolutely clear that to complement his words in the richest possible manner, Partch’s microtonal scale and instrumentation is entirely apt.
Listening to The Wayward clarifies Partch most wonderfully. Perhaps I should have started with this, but I put it off deliberately. I sought instead to track Partch’s thinking as he came to grips with music, and it’s been an enlightening journey.