“The great cathedral of modern music, erected in trial and labor and pain through most of the Christian era, is a safe and beautiful sanctuary,” Harry Partch once wrote. “Its one sad aspect is that it seems to be finished.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “in the wild, little-known country of subtle tones beyond the safe cathedral, the trails are old and dim, they disappear completely, and there are many hazards.”
Partch (1901-74), the startlingly original American composer who will be the focus of a rare three-day festival this week, devoted himself to that art of subtle tones, and to living beyond the safe cathedral.
He was an inventor of scales and of instruments, an emancipator of consonance, a lively wit who trained his critical intelligence on what he viewed as the stale conventions not just of the compositional craft but of classical music culture itself.
Wherever Partch looked, he saw music’s creative possibility foreclosed by a blind faith in European traditions, in the divinity of Beethoven, in the genius of men like Toscanini. He wryly tallied the bewildering numbers of recordings of the Fifth Symphony, he assailed the “rampant formality” of enormous concert halls with their “brisk robots on stage,” and the music education models he saw as systematically stripping music of its “ancient magic.”
Partch dreamed of returning music to classical Greek ideals of tuning, of restoring its spirit of communal ritual and theater, and of creating a corporeal art that addressed itself to both mind and body. His critiques of musical culture could be quite trenchant yet they often read as if delivered with a mischievous glint in his eye. Partch once called for “a period of comparative anarchy, with each composer employing his own instrument or instruments, his own scale. . . .” Or as he succinctly summarized in 1942: “I feel that more ferment is necessary for a healthy musical culture. I am endeavoring to instill more ferment.”
As Partch saw it, a great obstacle to music’s true evolution was the division of the octave into only 12 equally spaced notes. As he once put it, the contemporary composer was like a painter trying to evoke the complex glow of a sunset with just a few unmixable colors. Instead of 12 notes, Partch wanted an octave with 43 notes, a just-intonation scale refined enough to track the inflection of the human speaking voice. And because the existing instruments could not produce the music he heard in his head, Partch decided to build his own. The first was the Centaur-like Adapted Viola, fashioned by attaching a cello’s fingerboard to the body of a viola, enabling the string length necessary to produce the desired gradations in pitch. And the instruments got only more fantastical from there.
The wondrous Partch instrumentarium endures as the composer’s most recognized achievement. Each was designed to have its own charisma, to join the music’s sense of theater, and he gave them memorable names like the Chromelodeon, the Diamond Marimba, the Spoils of War (which uses actual shell casings), and the Cloud Chamber Bowls. At the same time, because there is only one full set of original instruments and it lives in Montclair, N.J., Partch’s beautifully strange music has been consigned to a position of respected obscurity. One almost never hears it live.
That’s also what makes this week’s festival, co-presented by New England Conservatory and Northeastern University, such a noteworthy event. Under the custodianship of the composer Dean Drummond, Partch’s instruments will be trucked to Boston for the occasion, enabling the first local performance of this music in many years, possibly its first ever.
Like other young aspiring American composers, Partch toured Europe in the early 1930s. He met W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, but when he returned, the country was deeply engulfed in the Great Depression. With the musical establishment showing little interest in this largely self-taught composer, Partch found himself living as a hobo, sleeping in fetid shelters and under open skies, wandering up and down the West Coast. If his art had brought him to the cultural margins, he lived for eight months at the social margins, in what he described as “a sea of chaotic humanity.”
Even then, Partch kept his ears open, setting the words of his fellow transients to music in a journal he later destroyed, though a copy survived. In 1940, a few years after his hobo period had ended, Partch came across a smattering of hitchhiker graffiti on an isolated highway railing in Barstow, Calif. These small graphite postcards — rambling thoughts, hopes, and obscenities from the country’s outsiders — had a gritty authenticity for Partch, the whiff of an authentic Americana. He heard music in them.
The resulting piece, eight short vocal settings grouped under the simple title “Barstow,” is a kind of microtonal Dust Bowl ballad, by turns poignant, raw, biting, and droll. The stylized German lieder tradition Partch had rejected seems, well, the stuff of a distant continent, which was part of the point. In his final arrangement, the texts are declaimed mostly in a natural speaking style above the woody plinking of Partch’s personal percussion and the curdled consonances of his proprietary chords.
“Barstow” will be performed at NEC on Wednesday evening, on a program that also includes excerpts from “17 Lyrics of Li Po,” among the earliest of his surviving works, a bewitching song cycle based on translations of eighth-century Chinese poetry, scored for voice and Partch’s Adapted Viola. The following day’s concert will feature Drummond’s ensemble Newband, with more Partch alongside other works. Friday’s concert is titled “After Partch,” with music by microtonal composers he inspired.
In later decades, Partch’s interests naturally evolved toward the more corporeal pursuits of musical drama and dance, and it’s unfortunate that none of the stage works will be part of this week’s festival. Still, in addition to the concerts, the free public events will include a Partch symposium, a workshop, a documentary screening, and a keynote address by the composer and critic Kyle Gann, adding up to one of the most enticing new music gatherings of the fall season.
It’s also just welcome attention for a figure who ultimately expanded the set of choices available to American composers. “There is surely room in this great wide West for more than one philosophy of music,” as he grandly put it.
If that seems by now a truism, which it does, Partch helped make it so.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.