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Taking Partch 

Twenty-five years after experimental composer and instrument builder Harry Partch died, his music and ideas have found a living legacy in the Bay Area

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
American composer Harry Partch was a true individualist. Abandoning both the form and tonality of the 300-year-old symphonic tradition, the maverick composer and theorist set out to explore uncharted regions of sound and performance through the creation of his own highly unusual, highly sculptural instruments. The music world rejected him, and critics of the day called Partch crazy -- some even compared him to Don Quixote. Partch, though, was far from a madman who tilted at windmills; rather, he was a visionary genius who heard music in them.

Still, it took a good 10 to15 years after Partch's death in 1974 before the iconoclastic musician and one-time Bay Area resident began to gain the recognition he deserved. Now, however, with a Partch revival in full swing, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is celebrating the composer and his legacy as part of its "Sounds Like Art" multidisciplinary arts festival, which runs from Aug. 28 to Nov. 7 and examines the relationship between sound and contemporary art.

Partch's life as a musician was a haphazard one. Born in Oakland in 1901, he spent most of his youth in isolated areas of the Southwest. As the son of missionary parents, he was exposed to a wide variety of the world's music as a child, and was already composing by his midteens. But by the time he reached his 20s, Partch had grown dissatisfied with conventional ideas of what music should be. So, at the age of 28, he took all of his classical compositions -- including a string quartet, a piano concerto, and a symphonic poem -- and destroyed them. It was, he described in his influential book, Genesis of a Music, "a kind of adolescent auto-da-fé -- the burning of fourteen years of my music in a big iron stove -- a confession, to myself, that in pursuing the respectable, the widely accepted, I had not been faithful."

From then on, Partch began to actively compose and perform in a new style built on two basic premises: the idea that all music should derive from the spoken word, and a system of what he called "just intonation," in which pitches are tuned to the simplest and purest musical intervals. Partch felt that the standard system of 12-tone equal temperament was far too limiting, keeping composers from exploring other forms of musical consonance and dissonance. "Composers can think only in equal temperament for just one reason: because it is all they have got to think in," he said in Genesis of a Music. "Music systems are made valid -- and workable -- by significant music."

So in 1930, Partch set out to create such music -- and quickly realized he'd need new instruments to do so. At first adapting guitars and violas to play his compositions, the composer soon began to build new instruments to suit his new, 43-tone tuning system. Extravagantly designed and named -- cloud chamber bowls, boo, spoils of war, crychord, zymo-xyl, bloboy, and the quadrangularis reversum were a few of Partch's creations -- the instruments were one-of-kind sculptures that were both visually engaging and sonically surprising. Many of the largest pieces were conceived and built in the Bay Area: at Mills College in Oakland, in Sausalito, and in Gualala on the north coast, where Partch lived for several years in the 1950s before moving to San Diego.

For 16 years -- from the early 1930s, when he traveled the Depression-wracked country as a hobo and itinerant worker, through the 1940s, when he took teaching jobs and residencies at several Midwestern universities -- Partch's music involved him playing one instrument by himself. But as he matured, his work moved away from the solo song form and took on grandiose, theatrical proportions. His dramatic compositions -- including Oedipus, The Bewitched, and Delusion of the Fury -- often had Greek inspirations, and featured Partch's instruments as the visual focus, with the musicians taking on the additional roles of singing and dancing. In the style of Wagner's epic notion of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), Partch labeled his compositions "corporeal music: Including the whole body, the whole person, the whole mind."

The dilemma that came with Partch's death in 1974 -- and was exacerbated by the newfound interest in his work in the 1980s and 1990s -- was how to give mainstream music lovers the opportunity to hear his unusual compositions. There were a handful of recordings, to be sure, newly rereleased by CRI. But Partch's lavish music-dramas were meant to be seen as well as heard, and with only one set of instruments in existence and hardly anyone who knew how to play them, performing these works seemed like a formidable if not impossible task.

Enter Dean Drummond, founder of the experimental music ensemble Newband. Drummond was a 16-year-old trumpeter when he was introduced to Partch, who was then 65. "I knew that I had discovered something that was important to me," recalls Drummond from his home in New York. "I actually plagued him with questions and he said, 'Read my book and then come back and ask questions.' So I did." It wasn't long before Drummond became a member of Partch's ensemble, playing the percussive eucal blossom for four years, then acting as the composer's assistant for two more. "When he died," Drummond says, "I was still in my early 20s. So he and I knew each other when he was at the climax of his career and I was at the very beginning of mine."

Drummond formed Newband soon after Partch's death, and took a cue from his mentor, exploring alternative tuning systems on his 31-tone zoomoozophone, which Drummond built in 1978. But it wasn't until 1990 that he acquired Partch's instruments and became custodian of Partch's legacy in all its cumbersome glory. Not only does Newband stage full-blown performances of Partch's music-dramas using the instruments, but Drummond also lends them out to other composers to write for, as well as to other experimental instrument builders to replicate. "I encourage people to come to our studio with camera and measuring tape, if they wish. The last thing I want to do is monopolize the instruments and be the only set in the world. It's my goal that the availability of the instruments is enlarged, not kept small."

Not surprisingly, with an increased interest in alternative tuning systems over the last several years, there has as a consequence been an increase in the number of experimental instrument builders. "Alternative tuning systems is a hot topic these days," agrees Point Reyes instrument builder Bart Hopkin. But Hopkin, who is the founder of the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments, is quick to point out that there are other reasons why people decide to build their own instruments. "I think a lot of it has to do with the process of discovery. You stumble on a sound that really intrigues you and you decide you want to work with that sound. I think that God created a world full of more interesting sounds than I could ever dream up."

Hopkin is one of 10 West Coast experimental instrument builders who will be performing in the world premiere of Beth Custer's Vinculum Symphony at Yerba Buena in September. While Custer, a local composer and clarinetist, has never had the desire to build anything herself, she's been interested in alternative instruments ever since finding a Harry Partch record at a garage sale in 1978. "I started realizing that there are other instruments than the ones I grew up with in an orchestra," says Custer at a cafe in Bernal Heights. Through the years, Custer has collaborated with several of the instrument makers participating in her symphony, including local experimental composers Tom Nunn, Peter Whitehead, and Brenda Hutchinson, among others. But it wasn't until 1996, when she was working with Seattle-based experimental instrument builder Trimpin, that she thought of combining traditional and nontraditional instruments in a composition. "He had these MIDI-controlled music boxes," Custer remembers, "and he would play the MIDI boxes and I would walk around them and play my clarinet. That was the first time I paired a real instrument with an experimental instrument."

From there came the idea of the Vinculum Symphony, written for 20 chamber musicians and 10 experimental instrument builders. "Vinculum," explains Custer, is a Latin word meaning a bond of union. "So my concept is to unify the traditional with the experimental. What I really liked about the idea is that these guys don't usually play together -- they play their own music, individually." Once Custer got Yerba Buena interested in her project, she visited the artists' studios and helped pick out instruments for the symphony. "There's a mix of everything in this," she says. "Percussion, strings, MIDI, some recycled materials, bamboo, wood, metal, glass instruments, clay flutes -- even recycled lampshades."

Custer presented three concerts at the Headlands Center for the Arts last fall to try out her ideas. Each concert featured a quintet of traditional instruments and two experimental instrument builders, with the music partly scored and partly improvised. Two of the concerts can be heard on her new CD, in the broken fields where i lie. She came away from the concerts with a new sense of what the symphony should entail. "I like to write pretty melodies," says the eclectic composer, whose clarinet pieces are inspired by everyone from Kurt Weill to Ennio Morricone. "And what I realized from putting these concerts on in the Headlands is that these guys are great improvisers, and that I should just bring that out in the score so they can do what they do best."

But what about the Partchian dilemma of creating music for experimental instruments that only the instrument builders know how to play? "As long as you have a Beethoven-esque notion as to what musical immortality is," explains Hopkin, "it's going to be hard to make these things work, and you're going to have a bunch of problems. But if you think of musical instruments as being more like sculptures than like instruments -- in other words, you can easily have one of a kind, you make it, there it is, and that's that -- then you don't have to worry about whether other people are going to learn to play this thing or if a repertoire is going to develop."

Oliver DiCicco, one of the musicians involved in the Vinculum Symphony as well as founder of the alternative recording studio Mobius Records, agrees. "I think it's great that there are people out there with their own vision, pressing forward regardless of whether there's commercial success or not. I think that's the definition of a true artist. Everybody who's out there experimenting and creating new things is really trying to find something unique, trying to find a way to express their own voice."

That's a fitting legacy for Harry Partch, who didn't want people to follow in his footsteps so much as walk proudly in their own. "If anyone calls himself a pupil of mine," Partch once said, "I will happily strangle him. But this is simply the expression of an attitude, and -- amazingly -- in its deeper meaning it is an expression of hope."

Beth Custer's Vinculum Symphony will be performed Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7:30 p.m. and Friday through Sunday, Sept. 3-5, at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Tickets are $13-15 ($10 for the Sept. 2 performance). Newband presents "Harry Partch and His Legacy" Thursday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center; tickets are $13-15. Partch instruments will be on display Sept. 21-23, and experimental instruments curated by Custer will be on display throughout the "Sounds Like Art" festival from Aug. 28 to Nov. 7. Call 978-2700 for more information.

About The Author

Stacey Kors


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