Thursday, October 23, 2008


I've been thinking about Harry Partch for the past few days. Found this lovely photo this morning, one I'd never before seen. I'd been thinking about sui generis musicians, those who are virtually the sole occupant of their stylistic categories, who though widely revered, have few aesthetic descendants. No one, of course, can be 100% so. Partch had something in common with Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee and of course drew heavily on Southeast Asian and African traditions as well as a smattering of American folk forms and blues. But really, is there anything that sounds remotely like "Delusion of the Fury"? (I don't know--is there?)

His decision, in 1928 iirc, to burn his previous compositional output (he was born in 1901) and to design and construct his own instruments in accord with his own musical conception, of course, went a long way toward this uniqueness. Such a wonderful decision! Should happen more often...Can't help but compare it, in terms of resolution and abandonment of prior "knowledge" to AMM in 1965.

Perhaps as a result of this singular kind of move, you don't hear too much "Partch" in other musicians outside his direct orbit (people like Danlee Mitchell or Dean Drummond which music, in my experience, almost inevitably comes off as a pale imitation. Not bad, but without the pure juiciness of Partch). This might be appropriate though. Someone with a deep appreciation for Partch shouldn't, really, end up producing music that sounds at all like his. They should, though, be as stubborn, expansive and dedicated.

His name doesn't come up as often as it should these days, amongst the eai crowd, doubtless as there's little if any direct connection to post-AMM music, certainly less than the NY School. But Partch and Cage appreciated each other and post-Cageians could learn a thing or two.

Thinking of Partch vis a vis eai, I find myself thinking of Jeph Jerman, realizing I should get around to listening to more of his work. That desert quality....

But any other recommendation in the spirit (somehow) of Partch would be appreciated...

8 comments:

Doug Holbrook said...

Partch was such a rara avis...I don't think anyone else is close, even in spirit..

Early Cage perhaps? They were both tinkerers and inventors..

Caleb Deupree said...

How about Hal Willner's Mingus tribute, which used Partch instruments?

Herb Levy said...

There's not a lot of contemporary music that sounds like his, but a couple of trends in music of the last fifty years that have clearly been influenced by Partch's work come to mind.

The use of just intonation tunings rather than equal temperament (& the related interest in music of other cultures that use just intonation) and the growing number of composer/performers who have invented their own instruments are the main ones. It's certainly possible that both of these directions would have happened anyway, but Partch's example probably helped to move them along more quickly.

Brian Olewnick said...

Caleb, Yeah forgot about that one. Hit and miss to the extreme, imho, I think my favorite piece from there is Chuck D's.

Herb, good points. Maybe it's less the technical nature of his innovations that I'm thinking of and more, as Doug put it, his spirit; perhaps that kind of naivete, the notion that he, as a 20th century American, could plunge into African and Asian myth without looking like an idiot (though he might well have been self-mocking to a degree) is something that's no longer possible. Which is probably a good thing, nonetheless it's fascinating that he was able to do so, at least with respect to my reaction to his work (others may, as far as this goes, think him a buffoon).

But I think, to some extent, he was able to uncover the a certain amount of universality to the folk tales and myths he reconstructed, enough so that he didn't come off as a plunderer of exotica, probably in no small part due to his hobo experiences and the story-telling world therein. I still find his "Barstow" very moving in that regard, the carved inscriptions kind of an initial generator of a modern mythos.

Rambling here...back to work.

Anonymous said...

When I first encountered Kagel's Der Schall on KCR, I had no idea what it could be, and was shocked when the announcer named what had been playing. My initial impression was that sounded like a hybrid of the Art Ensemble and Iskra 1903. The I found out that Greg Kelley had listed it among his "19 Recordings" (http://wlt4.home.mindspring.com/adventures/articles/list-kelley.htm) and that the work was available free for download via Ubuweb and the Avant Garde Project. I've listened to it dozens of times now, and must say that it's my top recommendation for anyone who loves Delusion and wants something in the same ballpark in terms of a menagerie of thrilling timbres that add up to something satisfyingly _complete_, much more than the sum of its parts. It's not dramatic in the way that Delusion is, but I believe Kagel did consider it to be one of his "instrumental theater" works.

My other recommendations are scattershot. Sun Ra's Strange Strings sounds like maybe Partchian outtakes, but for me the sum isn't greater than the parts in this case. But who knows, everyone's mileage varies, etc.

There's that one-minute passage half-way through "Congliptious/Old," where Roscoe is playing languorously and there's like an off-tune guitar and some kind of improvised moaning/chanting in the background. To me that's always seemed like something out of Harry's soundworld.

A quasi-opera I've discovered recently struck me as having a similar kind of "endearing/whimsical/naive" quality as Delusion. This is Scott Wheeler's The Construction of Boston, a recent live recording as Naxos. The setting of English isn't as drab and self-conscious as many contemporary English music-theater works. I could see someone who digs Blitzstein finding this piece worthwhile.

One CD I've never heard but whose description has always sounded intriguing to me is Christopher Tree, Live at St. John the Divine. Invented percussion instruments, solo, afaik. Rich alternate musical universe? Hippy or proto-New Age stuff recorded for posterity? Who knows...

Alex C.

Brian Olewnick said...

Thanks, Alex! Always meant to check out more Kagel; I'll put that one on the list.

I have Strange Strings (vinyl) and I've never been quite sold on it.

Wouldn't surprise me at all if Mitchell had some Partch knowledge. I've only listened to Congliptious about 500 times, but I don't recall making the connection--doubtless my own ear clogs!

Don't know the Wheeler or Tree, but sounds interesting, thanks much for the recs.

Jon said...

Tim Barnes is the one who put out that Christopher Tree disc, I can lend it to you on Sunday if you want, Brian.

I never got that into Partch, maybe I came to him too late. Strange Strings is a good call, though, I like that record a lot.

Massimo Magee said...

Brian, there's something on its way to you in the post from me, I hope you don't mind, but I thought you might find it interesting

it won't take up much of your time ;)

Massimo