Enclosure 3: Harry Partch
compiled by Philip Blackburn
American Composers Forum
I was first introduced to the instruments of Harry Partch by Hal Wilner’s Weird Nightmare, a multi-artist tribute to Charles Mingus, where he used the so-called “Partch instruments” to great effect. The fact that it took so long for me to even hear the man’s name shows how sadly neglected this important American composer’s work is in our culture’s general musical consciousness.
Enclosure 3 is a collection of Partch’s letters, newspaper clippings, photos and other miscellaneous materials. Blackburn’s role as compiler is strict; nowhere through the main text does Blackburn interject with editorial comment or conclusion, or for that matter, apology. As a result, the book is a fairly chronologically linear (though, appropriately enough, eccentrically compositioned) overview of Partch’s life and work. The whole picture, the gestalt, emerges only after careful and deliberate study. Forays into alternate tunings and instrumentation are not uncommon; Partch’s fervent dedication and calculated genius was.
Not content with simply developing a 43-tone scale (current tradition holds Western music to a twelve-tone scale), Partch proceeded to design and construct a staggering variety of instruments to support it. The theory behind his division of the octave seems simple enough, mathematically, but difficult to approach from a musically emotional standpoint without accompanying audio. More visceral is the sight of Partch’s instruments, amazingly inventive contraptions whose nature is vaguely familiar but whose design and execution clearly show the man’s creative genius, equal parts musician and engineer. Seen through Partch’s 43-toned glasses, the marimba, the double bass, the koto and many others take fantastic, intriguing proportions. Were these instruments imagined and built before the days of CAD and composite materials? History tells us it’s possible, yet I’d like to see someone attempt this feat today.
Partch’s work often transcended music, veering into theater and dance. As expected, these projects, involving far more resources than his compositions and instruments, often met with roadblocks from the close-minded. Several letters (and accompanying scripts, programmes and such materials) attest to his difficulties with his work being misunderstood and even ridiculed. Still, through it all, it is clear that Partch’s dedication was to his music and art, and not to the general public’s acceptance of it. Handling derision and smirking complacency with articulate aplomb, Partch’s letters to cretinous editors and frightened “patrons of the arts” show that though his concepts may have been alien to many, their creator was merely a man looking for others who could appreciate them as he did.
Equally impressive to Partch’s work is his dedication to its preservation. Included here are Partch’s instructions for the construction and maintenance of several instruments, and tips on their play. The level of detail is such that these texts, along with the included photographs, could serve as blueprints for the aspiring constructor.
I hesitate to call this a coffee-table book. Lovingly designed and implemented, this hardcover, though sharing many characteristics of books designed for casual scanning, is difficult to grasp with scattered reading. Partch was a complex person, artistically speaking; glances at Partch’s Harmonic Canons and Diamond Marimba might intrigue further reading, but true comprehension of the magnitude of Partch’s vision eludes quick grasp. Reading this text is like opening what you think is a bedroom door, only to find it leads to an entire mansion’s worth of rooms. This volume’s limited print run will make it difficult to peruse at your local bookstore, but I can guarantee that if you’re interested in music — or at a more general level, creative thought — that questions the common and expected, you will become fascinated with the life and work of Harry Partch. American Composer’s Forum, 332 Minnesota Street, E-145, Saint Paul, MN 55101; firstname.lastname@example.org