Partch, 1942: An Essential Historical Document


Microfest MF 20

It is thanks to the ever industrious Guitarist/composer/producer (et al) John Schneider for doing the research and navigating legal quagmires to obtain permission to release this marvelous private recording of a lecture/demonstration of Harry Partch’s musical theories in a sort of lecture/recital given on November 3, 1942 in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. This (apparently stereo) direct to disc recording languished in an archive and has now been liberated and released to Partch historians, fans and friends of new music..

First let me say that the physical product here is both his both a valuable historic artifact and a “fetish level” collectible. And by that I mean it is a hardcover book measuring 6 x 8 inches with boards and spine covered tastefully with images and text. Save for the heavy stock end papers the pages are glossy satin coated pages. They contain the liner notes, relevant texts as well as historical photographs and some fascinating historical material that helps put this sonic document in its proper context. It is a beautifully conceived and executed release on the ever adventurous MicroFest Records. (Of course you can get the excellent recording and the texts, learned liner notes, and historical photos on a pdf file, the recording on a digital file, but collectors will long cherish this museum quality document. Suffice it to say that some of my Christmas shopping is done now.)

This is in effect a sort of appendix to the Bridge Records Volume I, (“Bitter Music” released in 2011) of their visionary complete Partch recording project. Both “Bitter music” and “Harry Partch, 1942” are basically variations on Partch’s work with “speech music”.

Partch’s work here seems to be anchored not only to ancient Greek antecedents for the tunings and the performance practices of poetry but also in the genre of “sound poetry” as practiced in the early twentieth century and even perhaps forward to later incarnations of this genre like Charles Dodge’s pioneering 1980s “Speech Songs” using computerized vocal synthesis algorithms. All are plays on the intertwining of speech and music, the artistic territory that exists between music, poetry, and spoken word.

Partch is connected to sound poetry via his explorations of early Greek culture which had a tradition of performing poetry with music. He is a contemporary of Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (maybe even Bob Dylan), and can be said to be in the lineage of beatniks, folk singers, street theater, sound poets, and an exponent of music theater. And Partch’s work on tunings precedes and informs the later work of Ben Johnston (who played in Partch’s own ensemble) as well as La Monte Young. This hour with the master sheds light on his theories, his art, and his genius which will thrill fans of his work. This is one exciting release.

That “Bitter Music” of the Bridge release (Bridge 9349A) is a contemporary performance version, a faithful realization of a written diary but the present document is a chance to hear the mid-career Partch (the Bitter Music journal dates from 1935-7) showing and telling his audience how its done. Partch did some speaking in a lot of the CRI discs which contained digitally remastered transcriptions of the 78 rpm discs released on the composer’s Gate 5 label but these were largely brief, scripted, and informational comments preceding the recorded performances. By contrast Partch, 1942 is a lucidly informative lecture demonstration with an (mostly) unscripted Partch speaking in his own voice, a professor presenting his research. Partch’s exposition of his theories is well constructed and his musical performances are heartfelt and, well, definitive.

The disc (which sits neatly in a pocket on the inside of the back cover) clocks in at about an hour and, for reasons likely lost to history, the recording begins with the introduction “already in progress”. This single CD contains the material on the four original direct to disc live recordings. The sound is surprisingly good.

So whether you just want to hear the performance or want to own this objet d’art in all its glory this is a fine way to introduce yourself or a friend to this unique American genius.

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