Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Harry Partch - The World Of Harry Partch (1969)

Anybody who's been a party to any sort of music writing at all knows that well-worn descriptors like “unique” and “original” are by and large a fucking joke. Ninety-nine percent of everything that's ever had that title slapped upon it fell so short of deserving the honor that terms like that are cheap, tawdry husks of the higher creative impulses they supposedly describe. This isn't to say that unique forms of creative expression are impossible, but they require a retreat into either the feral or the cerebral that most people are unwilling to attempt (though the nagging optimist in me would suggest that anybody is capable, given the proper motivation). The former has birthed well-loved aesthetic concepts as disparate as grindcore or (the lamentably-titled) outsider art, and it often seems that artists who fly by the seat of their pants in the direction opposite that of convention are often afforded more appreciation than those who take a more studious route. And while the more carefree approach might be more immediately gripping and viscerally satisfying, there is something to be said for those whose intellectual pursuits place their creative output in a league beyond anybody else's.

A prime example of this is Harry Partch. Partch studied composition from a very early age, amassing a substantial body of work for an artist as young as he was. He grew impatient with the limitations of the equal-tempered scale, the basis for the vast majority of Western music, and began to look towards microtonality, a process of dividing the octave scale into smaller components – his most famous take on this being the forty three-note scale (the equal-tempered scale is divided into twelve notes), though he employed a substantial number of variations on this. These ideas were all expounded upon in his 1949 book Genesis Of A Music, a product of twenty-six years of writing, that railed against the numbing conventions that centuries of inculcation in the equal-tempered scales had produced, instead favoring the ratio-based tuning scales of Greek philosophers like Pythagoras.

The problem, however, is that the majority of musical instruments from the Western world were designed for the twelve notes of which its music is most commonly comprised. Partch's necessity then spurred his inventiveness and an arsenal of odd instruments was born, pieces with monikers like the Cloud Chamber Bowl, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl that occasionally drew inspiration from violins, pianos, and marimbas, but often bore no resemblance to anything that had come before. He was, as he humbly put it, “a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry,” the builder of strange creations, as much sculpture as functional musical instrument. The music for which these had been produced was equally staggering, both in the breadth of the influences from which it drew and for just the sheer peculiarity.

Partch pulled from a variety of sources over the course of a life filled with extremes. His lifelong engagement with Pythagorean tuning was possibly the most readily apparent of his sources, but the hobo graffiti that he witnessed riding the rails during the Depression held as much sway over his later work. Prior to his destitution he had consulted with William Butler Yeats regarding an experimental opera treatment of Yeats' translation of Sophocles. His homosexuality, in an era in which it was largely considered aberrant (at best), was occasionally touched upon. The influence of music from Polynesia, India, and Africa occurred decades before the West began to look seriously towards those cultures' music.

What he did with those influences is the notable part, because few are easy to spot. Partch had his precedents, but his take on those elements had no direct predecessor. It's an eerie, sensual music, one that reaches across large swaths of the temporal and the geographical, plucking disparate strains of the arcane and blending them into a seamless whole, a junkyard opera on the edge of perception, a subversion of rarely-considered social fundamentals, a leap forward into a distant past. Disorienting and disarming, it is among the only bodies of work that deserves the tag “unique.”



Anonymous said...

Now that's a fucking ILLCON POST!!!!!

The Thing That Should Not Be said...


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Steven said...

I've had this record for a few years now. A difficult but intriguing listen from a true American treasure...Yeah, I'm still reading the Contraption.

Shelby Cobras said...


This really is an excellent write-up. You new writers must have something to prove.