Partch, 1942: An Essential Historical Document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.

New Depths of Hindustani and Medieval Music in a Debut Album by Composer/Cellist Chris Votek


Microfest Records 22

Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.

And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.

Chris Votek with this cello. Photo Credit Hannah Arista from composer’s web site

So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.

Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.

The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.

Neelamjit Dhillon with Chris Votek. Photo credit Kat Nockels from the composer’s web site

Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.

While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.

Bach Without the Wax Paper: Mak Grgic Playing on a Well-Tempered (Kirnberger III) Guitar


Microfest Records MF 19

Microtones and alternate tuning systems are increasingly one of the most significant streams in new classical music as well as in the revisioning of old classical music to capture the sound of the music in its original milieu, which is not current performance practice. In the liner notes John Schneider says that hearing Bach in 12 tone equal temperament (current performance practice) is analogous to “exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.”

That image conjures for me a childhood memory of my mother bringing home some of the promotional gimmicks by one of the Chicago based supermarkets. It involved prints of famous paintings with a wax textured surface to imitate the look of oil paint on canvas. It’s a tortured metaphor for the present recording but it speaks of “cheesy imitation”. The present recording is one of an increasing number of recordings done with the scholarship of the very complex area of tuning, the surprisingly varied types of scales devised to solve harmonic complexities that occur due to the physics of sound itself. And by so doing, placing earlier efforts as “cheesy” by contrast.

In fact, Schneider (who kindly sent this disc to me), is one of the scholars at the forefront of recreating the musical scales as they existed at the time of the compositions so to get a clearer idea of how it must have sounded at the time. Toward that end one can now obtain guitars capable of being tuned to the subtleties of the scales. Another such disc was reviewed here. In fact guitarist Dan Lippel, in that recording played one of Mr. Schneider’s guitars.

I am working to learn more about the fascinating field of alternate tuning systems to better understand the various tunings in the flow of new music that comes to my desk. But listeners need not concern themselves with these details. The curious fact for this listener is that, on first hearing, the subtle differences in tunings were not immediately obvious (Well Tempered Kirnberger III on this recording). A better trained musical ear would doubtless hear these differences much sooner than I had but I have noticed that I have begun to hear these subtleties having been listening to this disc and some of the similar efforts on the aforementioned Lippel recordings and other titles on Mr. Schneider’s fine Microfest label. It seems like a sort of learning curve in which my brain learns to process these sounds and to hear them as more natural rather than altered.

I apologize for all this chatter but this album is not just about Bach, it is about hearing Bach as he heard it, freed from the shackles of the dominant western paradigms of how to tune a scale. It is a revelation but a gentle one whose radiance is clearer in the light of the retuning of the scale, removing the “wax paper” of the familiar western tuning to reveal a clarity not heard since the composer’s time. It is analogous to the 2018 restoration of the Rose Window (1210) in Chartres Cathedral bringing light in ways not seen in a very long time.

The fine Slovenian guitarist, Mak Grgic is a new name to this writer but one I hope to hear from again. In his selection of repertoire as well as his distinctive playing he makes a compelling and loving case for this music. His well organized web site details his work as musician, teacher, musicologist, composer, and international performer. This release is (by discogs) his seventh appearance on CD and his second recording for Microfest Records.

These are apparently Grgic’s transcriptions, not the “usual suspects” one might expect from a new Bach recording with the exception of the Cello Suite in D. This is apparently a very personal selection of music chosen with curational care. I’ve included a photo of the back cover to show the unique selections.

The Rose Window depicts the revelation and the final judgement of mankind. The present audio document is a gentle revelation but doubtless not the final word on Bach. But the scholarship is fascinating and the sound simply gorgeous. The wax paper has been removed.