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Partch’s Music on His Devised Instruments


Partch Keyboard

It may well be said that the “original” instruments movement began with the work of Harry Partch (1901-74), whose music was so idiosyncratic that he had to build an entire body of instruments to play it. This week, on Wednesday, September 19th, and Thursday, September 20th, New England Conservatory and Northeastern University will present concerts at Williams and Jordan Hall featuring, respectively, work for Partch’s earliest-devised instruments, the adapted viola and the adapted guitar, and some of his more famous ensemble works.

Many of Partch’s instruments will travel from New Jersey to NEC with the help of their custodian, Dean Drummond. Visitors will be able to examine them and hear them used in the concert on September 20th, as well as throughout the day’s symposium events. Drummond also will give a pre-concert talk at 7:30 pm.

One of an astonishing and seemingly uniquely American cohort of musical outliers — most of whom (apart from Charles Ives) like Cowell and Cage, seem to have come from the West Coast — Partch, though he spent spent some time at USC and later, Kansas City Conservatory, was basically self-taught; most of his musical education came from independent research.

Therefore he was not beholden to received traditions of musical sound, much less of composition. Born in California to parents who were missionaries in China and spoke Mandarin, Partch grew up in the Southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico, where his aural stimuli included Asian and Native American music, with their microtonal inflections. He learned several instruments and played the organ for melodramas and silent movies, generating his keen interest in music as a conveyor of dramatic movement and as an accessory to speech. Because conventional Western tuning doesn’t correspond to the pitches and intonations of speech, Partch abandoned them, and devised a 43-tone-per-octave system based on, but not slavishly copying, “just” intonation.

Partch’s life took its own interesting turns that became part not only of his music, but his legend. After a stint in Europe, he returned to the US penniless and set out on the life of a hobo, riding the rails and soaking up what he saw and heard. His composition Barstow, a version of which will be on the Wednesday program, sets fragments of writings his fellow vagrants left along the tracks in that eponymous California town.

The only problem with writing microtonal music is that it’s hard to perform on regular instruments unless you mess with them. Partch’s first attempts to do the latter involved extending the fingerboards of a viola and a guitar and effacing the latter’s frets. That was in the 1920s, and from there on Partch became, as he put it, a musician compelled to be a reluctant instrument builder. He had a good eye, though, for he really didn’t have to make these instruments — stringed, percussive, blown — as beautiful as they are. One of the joys of a Partch performance is just seeing the things: cloud-chamber bowls (tuned Pyrex), chromelodeon, diamond marimba, and others usually designed in a flowing Arts-and-Crafts Modernism.

Partch performs. (Partch Institute image)

For most of his life, Partch had to rely on himself and his friends, gathered into something called the Gate 5 Ensemble, to get his music before the public. Now the music has garnered acolytes and some replication of instruments, though the NEC performances rely substantially on the genuine articles. In addition to the music, both NEC programs feature lectures ahead of the concerts, Wednesday’s by Thomas McGeary and Thursday’s by Dean Drummond, whose ensemble Newband will perform on, er, original instruments.

The concert on September 19th in NEC’s Williams Hall is free; the concert on September 20th at Jordan Hall at 8 pm — with the Drummond lecture at 7:30 — is $22; $17 for students, seniors, faculty; free for NEC and Northeastern University students. More information is available at here.

See related reviews here and here.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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