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Harry Partch: Lyrics and Inscriptions


Last week, Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory of Music teamed up for a three-day conference entitled Harry Partch Symposium and Festival. Wednesday night’s kick-off concert treated a packed Williams Hall to 20 songs by the iconoclastic composer, prefaced by two contemporary works. The intimate solo vocal works chosen mostly antedated Partch’s philosophy of corporeality; they were presented in their original, smallest versions. Throughout the concert, the diverse audience was reminded of the ways that Harry Partch (1901-1974) was not only a great inventor and theorist experimenting with alternate tuning systems but also a great composer, imbuing even his tiniest works with pathos and humor.

Both evening concerts featured instruments made by the composer himself, along with reconstructions of his creations made by current performers. On Wednesday night’s free recital, we heard songs from the early 1930s and 1940s. Partch didn’t compose much from 1933-40 but did collect information for his later “Americana” compositions (including hitchhiker graffiti, transcribed conversations, and philosophical musings in a Whitmanesque tone) and also invented several musical instruments, often based on Just intonation or other extended tunings of up to 43 notes to the octave.

Guitarist John Schneider teamed with musicologist and Partch specialist Tomas McGeary to present an introduction to the concert, and the intimate hall (next to NEC’s Jordan Hall, which was already set up for the following night’s concert of larger works), was full before the official performance started. McGeary has worked with collections of Partch instruments at San Diego State University (under Danlee Mitchell) and at the University of Illinois (under composer Ben Johnston). His The Music of Harry Partch: a Descriptive Catalogue and his Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos are the result of decades of research and interviews with former Partch associates.

McGeary, emphasizing ways in which Partch uses instruments “to provide expressive backgrounds and complements” to the voice, showed examples of Partch’s handwritten scores and presented his ideas of an inner, subjective element in music (expressing wordless rapture and exhaltation through wordless or instrumental sounds) contrasting with an outer, subjective element (often reciting/singing text). John Schneider’s The Contemporary Guitar, published by University of California Press, is the standard text in that field, and he described his re-creation of Partch’s guitars (steel stringed instruments in just intonation).

Schneider, the featured performer on the concert, has an unusual but appropriate way of balancing the levels of the acoustic string work with his singing voice, sometimes sublimating the texted material to the instrumental component of the song. Text, nonsense syllables, and moans merged with adapted guitar (with its six strings grouped into three pairs) and adapted viola in Partch’s own tunings. Schneider presented excerpts from Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po, written between 1931 and 33, and By the Rivers of Babylon in its first, 1931 version for adapted viola and baritone, along with three songs from December 1942 and Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker’s Inscriptions, from 1941, for adapted guitar and baritone. Only in the Barstow collection is there any repetition of text, so the performance calls for something less like a song recital and more like enhanced poetic reading or movie-script with soundtrack. Partch called the 17 Lyrics of Li Po ”song declamations” rather than “songs,” and he recorded himself interpreting them while playing his newly created “adapted viola.” Partch is known to have performed his setting of the 137th Psalm — By The Rivers of Babylon — for W.B. Yeats in Dublin in 1934. Since Yeats advocated “intoning” poetry rather than simply reading it, Partch performed for him to demonstrate “the most ancient of cultured musical forms. … The musical accompaniment, or more properly, complement, in addition to being a harmonization, is an enhancement of the text-mood and frequently a musical elaboration of the ideas expressed.” Throughout By the Rivers, there is a separation indicated in the score between each phrase of text that is notated with note-heads only, without rhythmic lengths; it is followed by sustained vocal pitches intertwined by a viola melody in the same tessitura.

Some of the choices made by Schneider allowed the audience to hear lost or imaginary versions of Partch’s works: the later, more elaborate versions of collections like Barstow that were documented in a widely-collected 1969 Columbia recording and have eclipsed the origins as chamber music. For this conference, Schneider “married the long-lost 1942 guitar and chromelodeon version [of the Barstow songs] with the infectious percussion ritornello from 1968.” Hitchhiker graffiti recorded by Partch on his travels is brought to life through this music, giving us a window into 1930s American life on the Great Plains. For these final selections, Schneider left the stage and moved around the audience, interrupting sung phrases with wry spoken commentary, as indicated by the composer. He used the guitar to imitate passing cars and brought to life the “roadside” context of the original texts through humor and sudden juxtapositions of a variety of singing styles.

In the spirit of contemporary experiments with tuning and musical form, Partch’s songs were prefaced by two contemporary works: the North American premiere of Manfred Stahnke’s Ansichten wines Käfers (Views of a Beetle) from 1991 for guitar solo, played by Boston guitarist Robert Ward, and American composer Kyle Gann’s new work for sampling keyboard solo and computer file,The Unnameable. Both works complemented Partch’s experiments with non-standard tunings.

Bard College professor Kyle Gann, who also presented Wednesday morning’s keynote address, “Partch on the Road: The Kerouac of Music,” contributed a piece that seemed informed by his studies of microtonal music and the music of Hopi, Zuñi, and Pueblo peoples. It combined elements of ambient music — long drones, slowly overlapping and shifting textures — and provided sharp contrast with Patch’s concise, textually-driven works chosen for the recital. The pre-recorded portion of the work was played through a laptop computer placed next to pianist Won-Hee An. It supplied a large-scale structure of organ-like sustained tones and chords punctuated with cymbal splashes and other percussive effects, including sampled tambourine. An played from a large score, weaving mostly right-handed melodies into the texture and synchronizing accented motives with the recorded percussion. Gann, who studied with Ben Johnston, often uses up to 37 pitches per octave, so the tuning and temperament of the work was appropriate to the event.

Stahnke specified that the guitar be tuned “according to a network of pure octaves — in each case, between one open string and its octave fretted on another string. This created a frequency ratio of 7/4, or slightly flatted than a ‘flatted seventh’’ (A “standard” octave ratio would be 8/4 equaling string lengths of 2/1.) Stahnke’s six-movement pieces presented miniature tone poems (“Prelude to the afternoon of a peculiar beetle …and his Taiwanese wife …and his sleepwalking son”), which were mostly interpreted through monophonic finger-picking of melodies interspersed with spacious arpeggiated chords. Pairs of not-quite-matched harmonics sounded like Partch’s speech-song style at times, due to the subtle variations in “unison” pitches. The audience was delighted by the sixth and final movement (“…and his African drum teacher”), which allowed Northeastern University’s Robert Ward to present a virtuosic combination of melody, rhythmic ostinato, and guitar harmonics. This movement was more staccato, with clear, repeated motives overlapped to create a sonic picture of an African drumming ensemble, using the whole range of the re-tuned guitar.

The event concluded with a short encore by guitarist Schneider premiering a selection for the next morning’s Lecture/Recital entitled “Partch’s Americana Works, 1940-1943.” Several symposium papers and workshops explored topics central to works heard in the recital, including “Partch’s Tuning, Beyond 43 [tones per octave]” from Dean Drummond, “A Tone…is not a Hermit: Hobo Political Philosophy” from Graham Raulerson of UCLA, “Harry Partch as the Strangest Kind of Hobo” from Andrew Granade of the University of Missouri at Kansas City), and “Expressive Text Setting in Partch’s Early Vocal Music” from Jason Yust of BU).

See companion review here and related article here.

Laura Stanfield Prichard is a regular pre-concert lecturer for Boston Baroque, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and has recently edited eight orchestral scores for Musikproduktion Höflich in Munich.

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