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Harry Partch, eccentric genius.

By Damon Krukowski

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  The holiday season doesn't usually bring such recondite pleasures, but this year it's a bonanza for fans of composer Harry Partch (1901-'74). The new-music label CRI has just released a four-volume series of archival Partch recordings, most reissued from the rare LPs he made for his own Gate 5 Records. And the American Composers Forum, a nonprofit group based in Minnesota, has completed its ambitious Enclosures series of material drawn from the Harry Partch archives, with a huge biographical scrapbook called Enclosure Three: Harry Partch.

Partch is perhaps best known as a great American eccentric -- the composer who lived as a hobo (during a period he called his "personal Great Depression") and who built his own orchestra of instruments that play in "Just Intonation," a microtonal system that assigns 43 tones to the octave rather than 12. These instruments -- a kind of outsider-art gamelan -- are so colorful and almost cartoonish that they often seem to overshadow the legacy of Partch's work. What the newly available materials make clear is that though Partch's personal eccentricities may have been even more outrageous than anyone knew, his music is more subtle than most of us thought.

His output from the 1930s and 1940s, which had been extremely difficult to find before these releases, is a particular delight, and it will surprise all but the most knowledgeable Partch fan. These works -- documented on the CDs of Enclosure Two: Historic Speech-Music Recordings from the Harry Partch Archives, and on CRI's volumes one and two -- are structured along Partch's ideas about the rhythms of speech, their form determined by vocal lines much in the manner of Renaissance music. The results are as unexpected as the words Partch chose to set, which include those of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Po as well as Partch's fellow hobos.

Eleven Instrusions (1949-'50), originally released as a five-record set on 78s and now included on volume one of CRI's CD series, is an especially exciting discovery, with its Eastern-tinged arpeggios, its Wild West sprechgesang, and the ghostly knocks and bumps that characterize Partch's percussive instruments. But all the early vocal works are wonderful. In these spare, brief pieces, Partch (doing his own singing) sounds less stridently eccentric and more like an American Webern -- strange but also lyrical, with a flawless and utterly unpredictable sense of harmony. After all, 12-tone was once considered as odd as 43.

Volumes three and four of the CRI set, and the films included on the video collections Enclosure One and Four, document Partch's later work, some of which has already been available on CD. In these extended pieces, many written for the theater, Partch leaned heavily on percussive rhythms and repetitive figures; as a result some seem to prefigure American Minimalism of the '60s and '70s. But it is Partch's peculiar vision of theatricality, based on his ideas about the ancient Greeks, that dominates the structure of these pieces. Choral voices, sudden shifts in mood and tempo, and jump-cut construction characterize this later music, which was often conceived of as just one part in a grand drama to embrace dance, film, costume, even gymnastics. The videotapes -- which also include some fascinating documentary footage -- may therefore be the best way to experience these pieces.

Yet the best documentary portrait of Partch is not on film -- it's the new book Enclosure Three: Harry Partch, edited by Philip Blackburn. Partch kept scrapbooks all his life, and Enclosure Three is a sort of "scrapbook of scrapbooks," made up of letters, reviews, performance programs, lecture notes, personal photos, and even receipts. It's a crazy-quilt portrait of Partch's life. And what you learn, above all, is that Partch was not only eccentric, he was a bona fide crank. He hated everybody. He was far from isolated -- in fact he met and/or corresponded with a seemingly endless list of luminaries: Anais Nin, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Kenneth Anger, Henry Miller, Virgil Thomson. But at some point, he alienated every single one of them. Here is an account, written by an eyewitness, of a typical encounter between Partch and poet W.H. Auden: "Auden said, 'Nonsense.' P. said 'Poop.' Auden said 'Pure nonsense.' P. said 'Pure poop.' It ended with Auden calling P. a despicable, mean man, and walking out."

Not exactly a duel of glittering wit, but Partch reduced everyone to his preferred level of engagement. Thus despite his (surprisingly frequent) public successes, he led a bitter life. In an afterward, Blackburn reveals that in 1973, the composer was diagnosed with latent final-stage syphilis -- one symptom of which is the psychotic behavior he frequently exhibited. Blackburn cautions that we shouldn't turn Partch's life into "the biography of a spirochete," but this fact is one of the many indelible impressions one takes from Enclosure Three. Partch's behavior seems to have been as consistently terrible as his music was surprising and beautiful.


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