World Premieres and a Resurrection: Partch Vol. 3 on Bridge Records


Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.

Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them.  And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression.  He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.

I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music.  Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked.  That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.  And so it continues.  But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.

With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music.  Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right?  Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats?  Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.

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John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture

Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider.  As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these.  They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording.  The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience.  Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research.  Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH.   These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates.  This release is solidly built from the ground up.

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PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat

PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)

The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions.  It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962).  This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it.  It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”.  The piece has been recorded twice before.  For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom.  Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.

Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning.  These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these.  They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.

Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will).  Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons.  Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name.  It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967).  Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.

Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950).  It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected.  There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial.  This deserves to be heard again and again.

Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history.  First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music.  It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.

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Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web

The second bonus is a real gem.  Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942.  This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009.  But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording.  Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.

It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work.  Bravo!!

 

 

 

LA Percussion in High Definition


Having been a bit overwhelmed with a LOT of percussion recordings lately I placed this Los Angeles Percussion Quartet recording a bit further back in my review queue.  My apologies but I did it because I really wanted to give this recording my full attention and then to have something useful to say.

So I listened.  I put this on in my car when making a trip long enough to allow me to hear one of the two discs without interruption.  And I chose a relatively non-distracting drive in which I could actually pay attention to the music without incurring some danger on the road.

Of course the first thing that strikes the listener here is the lucidity of the recording.  Sono Luminus is showing off their signal processing prowess as well as their sensitivity with things like microphone placement and all the things that only great engineers know.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I am not a fan of sonic spectacle for its own sake.  I recall one incarnation of vinyl/analog fetish releases which a friend drooled over but whose content bored me to death.  Fortunately Sono Luminus seems to be steering clear of that sand trap.

This two disc set (well, three if you count the Blu-Ray Audio disc) collects music by largely little known composers (at least to these ears).  But fear not, this is not music that sounds like someone knocked over the stainless steel pot rack at Sur le Table.  Quite the opposite.  This is some intelligent music which compels the listener to stick with each piece and follow its development.  This is apparently the fourth album by LAPQ, the previous three also being Sono Luminus productions.

The first disc begins with the first of two Icelandic composers both of whom were represented on a previously reviewed discDaniel Bjarnason is a conductor and composer and his Qui Tollis, a work of wide dynamic range and a variety of moods from more assertive to more contemplative.  The second work is by the current darling of Icelandic classical music.  I am speaking, of course, of the very talented Anna Thorvaldsdottir.  Her work, Aura, is more consistently contemplative in nature and, like all her work, the listener is rewarded for paying close attention as she weaves magical impressionistic tapestries.

Memory Palace by Brooklyn based Christopher Cerrone piqued serious interest in this listener.  This man would seem to be a composer whose work deserves watching/listening.  This five movement suite for percussion indeed makes for compelling listening as he moves through a variety of moods and isn’t afraid of frank melodic invention during the journey.  This does not strike this reviewer as run of the mill percussion music (not that the preceding two works did either).  Rather this work suggests a distinctive compositional voice worthy of further attention.  Mr. Cerrone’s collection of awards including a Rome Prize and a runner up for a Pulitzer Prize suggests that he will be heard from again soon.

Fear-Release by Ellen Reid is a shorter though no less rewarding journey down yet another compositional path for percussion.  At just short of nine minutes this is a compact movement which relies on a fairly wide dynamic range and strategic use of silences and is a fitting close to the first disc.

The brief, rather poetic, liner notes draw a parallel between the multiplicity of languages found in the Los Angeles area and the multiplicity of musical languages found on this recording.  Indeed these are distinctive voices that extract a wide variety of sound from this percussion quartet.  This reviewer is somehow strongly reminded of Nexus, the Canadian percussion group which dominated the 1990s for a bit.  The similarity is in their enthusiasm and in their musical skills.  LAPQ is a distinct ensemble in its way and is a group that is not shy to be innovative.

I have to say, though, that I could have used a great deal more info and commentary on these compositions.  As one would benefit from multilingual dictionaries in Los Angeles the listener could gain much from learning more about the structure and intentions behind these fascinating compositions.  And, unless I have failed to find them (I looked closely) the liner notes carry lovely photos but fail to name the musicians whose sound was so lovingly preserved.  They are: Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Nick Terry, and Justin Hills.

The concluding work coming in at almost 40 minutes is divided into tracks but is in fact one large movement.  It is probably the most contemplative work here though it has some pretty assertive moments.  I Hold the Lion’s Paw by Andrew McIntosh is a great show piece for demonstrating the range of these musicians.  Though continuous this piece delves through a variety of moods and uses apparently a wide variety of instruments as well.

Fans of percussion will love this disc as will fans of audio porn (there is something erotic about technology for the ears).  This is not easy listening and though seeking innovation makes no moves toward populism.  This is serious music making.