New England's Prospect: Tracking Devices

New England’s Prospect: Tracking Devices

The sound of trains runs through Harry Partch’s music, the wheeze and whine of whistles drifting over and beyond the settled grid of equal temperament, the percussive cycles phasing in and out like the rods and wheels of a locomotive.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.
Photo from the original Gate 5 recordings of Harry Partch’s music. Special thanks to Sedgwick Clark.

The sound of trains runs through Harry Partch’s music, the wheeze and whine of whistles drifting over and beyond the settled grid of equal temperament, the percussive cycles phasing in and out like the rods and wheels of a locomotive. At last week’s “Harry Partch Legacy” symposium, jointly presented by Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory, both Kyle Gann, in his keynote address, and Philip Blackburn, in a multimedia tour of Partch’s biography, highlighted the same passage from Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, a stream of sixteenth notes progressively subdivided into groups of seven, then six, then five, the music picking up speed while still chugging along. Blackburn’s audio tour of Partch’s influences started off with the keening and clack of the Southern Pacific line. Or is that just the celebrity of Partch’s biography forcing its way in? He was, after all, the great hobo composer, someone whose itinerant existence, first riding the rails, then jumping from place to place, job to job, situation to situation—Blackburn’s punctuating timeline of years and cities began to resemble a railroad timetable—makes a tempting mirror to the open-road unfettered ambition of his musical innovation.

The three-day conference (September 19-21—I attended most of the first day’s proceedings), organized by composer Brian Robison, aimed to be a catalyst within the academy, a spur to a greater dissemination of Partch’s music and ideas. The presentations and lectures were forward-looking, either towards new horizons in microtonal music, or new efforts to realize Partch’s works and schemes. The concerts mixed Partch’s music with newer works inspired by him, both in microtonal language and, on Thursday night’s concert (which I missed), in utilizing Partch’s specially designed musical instruments.

The instruments were there, of course, Partch’s custom-built orchestra of fanciful machines—the Cloud Chamber Bowls, the dulcimer-like Harmonic Canons, the enormous Bass Marimba looming at the back of the Jordan Hall stage like some sort of mysterious ancient monument—transported from their current home at Montclair State University along with their keeper, Partch votary Dean Drummond. And the audience was one largely familiar with Partch’s credo: the jargon of just intonationflowed fluent and free, thick and intimate with various partials and ratios.

But Partch’s legacy also seemed very much a work in progress. The portrait that emerged was of a composer still better known by self-made reputation and theories than by his music—Genesis of a Music is still better known and far more widely available than any of Partch’s scores. Much of the discussion surrounding Partch specifically dwelled on difficulties—of performance, of interpretation, of scholarship. The sense was that Partch and his music remain problematic, in ways both good and bad. This is not necessarily a bad thing—comfort and ease bring their own sins—and might even be a compliment: the other eternally problematic composer who often came to mind was Richard Wagner, good company (on balance) for a visionary. “Harry Partch Legacy” made its case for adding Partch to the list of exalted musical troublemakers.


The place where Partch’s influence is still felt the strongest is in American microtonal music—both in technique and attitude. The latter traces its origins to Partch’s inimitable writing; Gann mused how Partch’s furious rhetorical style—combining “an overflow of recondite detail with an action-packed vernacular”—encouraged generations of American microtonalists to adopt the same anti-establishment, us-versus-the-world stance.

Issues of microtonal theory abounded, from the grand to the practical. Gann reminisced about programming Partch’s 11-limit diamond—overtones up to the 11th harmonic, arranged into Partch’s 43-note scale—into a synthesizer and then letting the intervals loop until they were in his ear. Partch’s system becomes a baseline, a catechism from which adherents can derive the confidence to venture into higher partials: 13th, 15th, 17th. Jon Wild, from McGill University, gave a highly technical presentation on ways to derive scales from a 13-limit version of Partch’s diamond, and then approximate those scales with multiples of a single ratio, analogous to mean-tone tuning. One wonders what Partch would have thought of the result—a tempered, transposable cousin of a Partch-like collection.

But there was also an undercurrent of tension, the technological distance between microtonal ideas and their realization. Even simple technology: Gann, at the outset, raised one of the great barriers to Partch scholarship, the sheer difficulty of deciphering and transcribing his tabulature-based scores. And how to move forward? Translate the scores into Ben Johnston’s microtonal notation, as Richard Kassel did in his critical edition of Partch’s Barstow? Some other system? Keep Partch’s notation, and supplement it with guides to the instruments? During a question and answer session, Gann tangentially—but tellingly—noted that his favorite tool for managing MIDI tuning (a program called Little Miss Scale Oven) was in danger of obsolescence, its creator wearying of having to update the software for ever-proliferating operating systems, an obsolescence that, Gann admitted, would leave him at a loss. At what point should the technology settle into a user-friendly if imperfect standard? It felt like a distant echo of the dilemmas that drove Partch into instrument construction, but also a brush with the danger of the development of the system and its tools becoming an end in itself.


Maybe inaccessibility and distance is part of the attraction of Partch, the appeal of unexplored territory. He is a self-made cult composer, one who practically ensured that an extra mile of pilgrimage and fealty would be required for in-depth engagement. Performing Partch’s music requires something akin to a rite of initiation. You need to develop the discipline to approach matters of temperament and tuning with something approaching Talmudic dissection. You need to decipher esoteric texts—the scores. You need access to the relics—the instruments, or (as composer Bradford Blackburn recounted in his presentation) you need to muster the devotion to build your own. Along with Partch documentarian Jon Roy, Philip Blackburn (no relation) presented a video exploring the backgrounds of the 1969 and 2007 productions of Delusion of the Fury, including interviews that made plain how unhappy Partch had been with the earlier production, and how unhappy Drummond had been with the latter. Blackburn compared those productions with the preparations for Kenneth Gaburo’s 1980 Berlin production of The Bewitched, the performers spending the first rehearsal on the floor, naked, psychologically readying themselves to embrace Partch’s concept of corporeality. “There’s a lot of inculcation and indoctrination that needs to happen,” Blackburn said.

As with Partch’s own pronouncements, corporeality was a concept much discussed if only (or, perhaps, because) loosely defined. Everyone agreed that it was a concept that increasingly guided Partch, shaping his musical development, his move toward larger extravaganzas and more driving rhythms. What exactly it was, though, seemed to hover just out of grasp. A level of engaged athleticism on the part of the musicians was part of it—more precisely, a level of noticeable athleticism, the instruments designed more and more so that the physicality of playing them became theatrically manifest—and, certainly, a responsibility of each performer to center the performance in the body, to energize the musical texture with an individual energy.

But, on the other hand, such corporeality, such individuality, could come into friction with the composer’s authority, and Partch was as tyrannical a composer as any, demanding loyalty to his instructions, even in extra-musical regards. Blackburn’s presentation had another prominent ritornello, Partch’s dismay at failures to strictly adhere to his vision on the part of collaborators in his later, large-scale music-dramas: The Bewitched, Revelation in the Courthouse Square, Delusion of the Fury. After hearing Blackburn recount Partch’s dressing-down of choreographer Alwin Nikolais over his work on the original staging of The Bewitched, I looked up Partch’s initial instructions to Nikolais, which turned out to be a scene-by-scene mulligan stew to test the range of any dancer: Imitation of Cantonese music hall; Eighteenth-century formality, with satiric twentieth-century expressionism in some parts; East Indian, with some tumbling; A formal solo, with modern dance farce at the end; and so on. Much of the list, like many of Partch’s libretti, could be read as a recapitulation of Partch’s early stylistic and cultural influences—Blackburn noted that Partch’s recruiting of members of the University of Illinois gymnastics team as extras for Revelation could be tied to the acrobats Partch would have seen in visits to Chinese opera performances in 1930s San Francisco—but also shows how Partch’s gesamtkunstwerk could strain at its margins, in a way destined to alienate specialists in other art forms.

Those large-scale works, with their purposefully mashed-up mythologies and symbols, also seem to be at odds with Partch’s call for narrative clarity, his criticism of “abstract” music. In his video interview, Drummond expressed doubt that much of Delusion—with its ying-yang, Noh-drama-plus-African-comedy plot at times expressed solely through dance and music—would be perceived by most listeners as anything but abstract. Partch’s decision to present the surreal events of The Bewitched (such as scene 5, “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room”: “Through their failure a basketball team becomes feminized, and as women, realize the triviality of the defeat, and begin to dance in praise of Hermes”) via a libretto made up entirely of nonsense syllables presents a similar barrier. The works almost try to communicate through sheer conviction alone, as if Partch’s belief in the power of such mythological vocabularies will somehow shine through and carry the audience past an abstract experience. They sometimes have the feel of a kind of reverse-chronology cargo cult: reenacting the rites, even in the absence of context or collective knowledge, will somehow recreate the original power. Video excerpts from the original production of Revelation did, at times, feel like a grand free-for-all, circuses from multiple eras thrown together for the thrill of it, but at the work’s big dramatic moments, Partch’s dramaturgy, both musical and theatrical, could turn defiantly conventional, standard, archetypal.

Still, that might just be a sign of how far we have to go to catch up with Partch. For all their frustrating, naïve grandeur, Partch’s seeming contradictions—individuality vs. authority, narrative vs. abstraction—nevertheless have a whiff of the Hegelian about them, a sensation that the friction results from a too-narrow field of view. It might be why, as his music evolved, he cast his net wider and wider.


In that regard, it was interesting that the best glimpse of the core of Partch’s aesthetic came at Wednesday night’s concert, a concert including only small-scale works by Partch, a concert that was, at least on paper, the least stereotypically Partch-like of the conference. The pieces by Partch himself were early works, in the intimate confines of Williams Hall—the menagerie of instruments stayed across the way—but, especially in contrast with the other works on the program, one could hear that Partch’s crucial concern had been there all along.

The two newer works both drew on and bypassed the Partch legacy. Manfred Stahnke’s Ansichten eines Käfers (“Views of a Beetle”) comprised six miniatures for guitar, selective de-tuning of the open strings and the equal-tempered fretboard negotiated into an approximation of sixth-tone microtonality. Despite the exotic intervals and a programmatic conceit that seemed to echo Partch’s multicultural fascinations—the beetle being given a Taiwanese wife, an Indonesian family, and an African drum teacher, bringing corresponding world-music touches into the musical discourse—both the piece and Robert Ward’s performance seemed more of an exercise, a study in generating such sounds rather than a compelling assemblage of them. Gann’s The Unnameable was more diverting, with Won-Hee An’s keyboard triggering just-intonation microtones in tandem with a pre-recorded, drum-machine nostalgic percussion track, barely moving harmonies nevertheless consistently looping around into distant relatives of prog-pop ♭VII-I cadences. The whole thing was both gently meditative and charged with the sinus-rattling buzz of its tuning scheme, something like a 13-limit retooling of the plagal serenity of Brian Eno’s early ambient albums.

But both were, in their own way, what you might call well-formed pieces, built around specifically musical structures: motives, progressions, forms. The transition to Partch’s own compositions was a little startling. A set of eight of the Seventeen Lyrics of Li-Po, Partch’s earliest surviving essay in speech-music, made the music seem almost defiantly subordinate, the soft-spoken microtonal inflections of John Schneider’s adapted viola so closely tailing his vocal intonations as to fade into shadow. In the Li-Po settings, or the December 1942 trio of songs (Schneider switching over to adapted guitar), or Partch’s Psalm 137 setting By the rivers of Babylon, the effect was so consistent that it was the places closest to traditional musical setting that seemed the most out of place: the falsetto evocation of the title instrument in the Li-Po “On Hearing the Flute in the Yellow Crane House,” the just-intonation analogue to major-minor contrasts in “The Rose” (the third of the December 1942 songs), the lamenting vocalise in the center of Babylon.

Schneider’s aim was to recreate the sound of Partch’s own early performances, when he would bring his microtonally modified viola and guitar to women’s clubs and artistically inclined salons. Schneider’s mastery of and comfort with the scores was evident, though his voice didn’t always have enough power to sell the dramatic intent. He was at his best in his reconstruction of the earliest, voice-and-adapted-guitar version of Barstow—settings of highway graffiti, probably the most famous of Partch’s hobo-inspired works—a milieu more congruent with Schneider’s understated, wry-troubadour mien.

But Barstow, too, stayed in the memory more as a collective experience than as any sequence of musical events. And that, I think, is what Partch was after for the rest of his life. The corporeality, the extravagant instruments, the ever-more-epic folkloric mash-ups: what they all have in common with those early pieces is the extent to which they go in constantly, inescapably keeping the audience aware that they are witnessing a performance, a rite, a ritual. The effort in bringing the music to life is not only made an inseparable part of the experience of it, it’s made paramount—which is why Partch guaranteed that the realization of the music would require more effort than most. It was, maybe, an echo of his days on the rails, the hobo’s pride in taking jobs that no one else would, the faith that the nature of the work was never as important as the simple fact of working.

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