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The Hobo Composer, Resurrected

Commentary: Harry Partch devised a music all his own that virtually died when he did 22 years ago. Now the maverick lives again via CD and a new wave of composers.

June 30, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

No day has ever been sadder in American music than Sept. 3, 1974, the day Harry Partch died in San Diego. However much we may have mourned the loss of other great American composers, however tragic their deaths, we always knew we would have the music. With Partch, we couldn't be sure, and 22 years after his death, we still can't. After all, his work--with its one-of-a-kind instruments, meant to be seen as well as heard, and its reliance on the sound of his own voice--is formidably difficult to reproduce. But now a few new CD releases contain indications that this most maverick of American mavericks may not be lost entirely to us.

Partch was--according to the notes in "Enclosure 2: Harry Partch," a new four-CD set compiled by the Minnesota Composers Forum on the innova Recordings label--"composer, microtonal theorist, instrument builder, writer, visual artist, satirist, philosopher, flunky, musicologist, copy editor, hobo, man of letters, publisher, iconoclast, record producer, eccentric, teacher."

As a composer, he devoted himself to what he liked to call the corporeality of music. For him, music should have its roots in the body (its tones modeled after natural speech, for instance) and should affect the body (deep, deep bass notes, say, that cause the floor under one's feet to resonate). And given the fashionable emphasis of body on all ways of thinking about art and society in today's gender-obsessed world, Partch was a true visionary.

Partch, who was born in Oakland in 1901, was the quintessential outsider. He hated institutions--a few months at USC was practically all it took to turn him against the musical establishment for the rest of his life. He hated the traditional ways of concerts and what he saw as their fake formality. So he lived a famously unconventional life that included years wandering around as a hobo and building his own instruments and fashioning his own musical language.

That language took its cues first from the way we talk. In one of the spoken excerpts that pepper the invaluable innova Recordings collection, Partch complains that the English typically found in music is the kind "that is totally impossible of communication in any place in the British Isles that I know, of anyplace in this country, Canada or Australia. It's a refined and particularly stylized English speech that just distressed and appalled me.

"When I was a hobo, I began studying the hobo speech around me. And this is what I wanted . . . the speech around me and not this strange language sung by people in opera and on the concert stage."

And so Partch created a music all his own. He invented a 43-pitch scale of microtones (as opposed to the 12 tones used by Western music) to better capture the vocal inflections of common speech. He made instruments to play those pitches, fabulous instruments. They include huge marimbas, strange organs, adapted violas and guitars and an array of bells made out of cloud-chamber bowls he got from the glass shop at UC Berkeley's radiation lab in 1950. Partch developed a peculiar singing style, and he produced a new kind of music theater that was based on principles from ancient Greek theater, Chinese opera and heaven knows what else.

Partch was well known to cognoscenti of new music but not beyond, in part because of his own impossibly crusty personality and his uncompromising nature. He left some disciples but not too many: "If anyone calls himself my student, I will happily strangle him," he can be heard saying on these recordings.

All of this makes it nearly impossible to know Partch's work anymore. The instruments are exceedingly fragile and now housed in New Jersey. (Partch once refused an offer from the Smithsonian to produce a duplicate set.) When the San Francisco Symphony inquired about transporting them for its American Festival, which concludes this weekend, it learned it would have cost nearly half a million dollars to do so.

So the best way to get to know Partch has been through his recordings, though few and until now fairly hard to find. They may not be of much use for accomplishing the primary function of corporeal music, but what is found on the new innova discs, rare performances from the '40s, along with the sound of Partch's own voice in his introductions--has lost none of the provocation.

Much of his best-known music is here, particularly "Barstow," eight hitchhiker songs with texts from Depression-era graffiti, a work Partch liked to refer to as his "Hobo" Concerto, and the other hobo work, "U.S. Highball." But there are also rarities such as Partch's rendition of "Yankee Doodle," which must be heard to be believed.

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