Monday, December 06, 2004

Hall of Heroes: Harry Partch

I must have been about 16 when my piano teacher introduced me to the music of Harry Partch. She had this old box of two vinyl discs and a book documenting his instruments. She put the needle to side one and my naive teenage ears were electrified by those intoxicated first words: "The creative artist shows himself naked... the more vigorous his creative act the more naked he appears. At times, totally vulnerable." The voice oozed with bitterness and stubborn adherence to personal principle. It was immediately appealing.

After the recorded introduction of the instruments and the personality of their creator sides 2 - 4 then presented evidence of the full maturity of Partch's rich universe in the form of Delusion of the Fury.

Since then I've had the privilege of studying with a former student of Partch (James Tenney) as well as the experience of hearing the original instruments played live. I've read, re-read and then read again his Genesis of a Music, Bitter Music, Bob Gilmore's excellent Harry Partch: A Biography and the incredible scrapbook of material in Philip Blackburn's Harry Partch: Enclosure 3. I can't imagine having a portable mp3 player without loading it up with The Bewitched, 17 Lyrics of Li Po, Delusion of the Fury and Revelation in Courthouse Park.

As a composer working with alternate tuning systems the appeal of Partch's work with just intonation is obvious. But this doesn't take into account the full magnetism of Partch's larger aesthetic. His life story in and of itself takes on mythical proportions as it resonates with my own sensibilities.

After reading "The Sonic Search for Kolob: Mormon Cosmology and the Music of LaMonte Young" by Jeremy Grimshaw I began to develop a new concept of Partch as a unique heroic figure. Part of the article comments on the "phenomenon" of "lapsed" Mormon composers being so strongly drawn to just intonation theory. Being one of these composers I began to see some strong parallels between the figures of Partch and Joseph Smith.

Growing up Mormon means hearing the Joseph Smith story many times. As a young man Joseph Smith was troubled by the variety of conflicting religions and decides to pray in a quiet wooded area to ask God for a direct answer. He is then visited by the father and son and learns that none of them are true. With the aid of direct revelations and celestial visitations Smith then restores the "true" religion to the world in a life marked by persecution, controversy and martyrdom.

I'm skeptical of the particulars of contemporary Mormonism. There is an undeniable appeal to the radicalism of posing impossible questions to a void and expecting an answer in return. It's particularly sad/ironic that contemporary Mormon culture places such a premium on downplaying the very "radical-ness" of its doctorine and history. This is exactly the element that should be celebrated. There's such a pervasive public image anxiety toward portraying the mainstream Mormon culture as blandly middle-class. One can't help but think "mainstream church" culture has abandoned the image of Lehi's dream by releasing the iron rod of "truth" in favor of joining "mainstream culture" in the nearby building filled with the very people mocking those hapless souls still clinging to that silly rod. These PR campaigns of downplaying radicalism are ostensibly geared toward increasing membership. Such membership comes without regard for understanding or contemplation of the rich doctrine and history. One is instead asked to "feel" belief without actually pursuing an independent study of it. The standardized lesson manuals stand in stark contrast to the audacious solitary young man asking for direct answers to life's riddles. The initial answer to Smith's question of which church to join was "none of them are true." "Truth" is lost or diluted over time as generations drift further away with each iterative practice. This is a strong parallel to Partch's aesthetic stance that western music lost its way when tonal syntax became codified in the wake of J.S. Bach.

Partch found his "revelation" in the form of Herman von Helmholtz's On the Sensation of Tone. There Partch discovers the "truth" of just intonation and abandons the pervasive "false" practice of equal temperament. In doing so he "restores" an older practice to western music. His life is filled with persecution (much of it self-inflicted) and controversy. Both figures resort to creating their own "radical" reinvention of their respective fields. One required building new instruments, notation and compositions to realize an uncompromisingly complete "corporeal" universe. Which is not unlike starting a new church complete with new scripture, new mythology and new practices. Each introduced something new that draws strength by "reclaiming" something ancient.

The music of Harry Partch is an audible fulfillment of radical credo. A trail blazed by a mix of carpentry, composing, writing and uncompromising vision in spite of economic hardships and institutional hostility. This is how Partch comes to occupy such an important position in my personal "Hall of Heroes."

In the 20th century composers were increasingly faced with the question of harmonic expansion. Equal temperament had helped to facilitate tonal modulation, but it had also painted composers into a corner of finite tonal/sonic resources. Arnold Schoenberg found one solution to this problem that embraced equal temperament for what it is and paved the way for non-tonal musics. Harry Partch recognized another solution through re-evaluating tonality through the lens of just intonation. Additionally, John Cage managed to solve the problem of being "painted into a corner" by simply removing the walls that contained harmonic conception in the first place. It is my opinion that Shoenberg, Partch and Cage represent a "trinity" of important harmonic innovations that will carry forward in the century just begun. The 19th Century left behind harmony as a claustrophobic cell built upon willfully mis-tuned thirds crumbling under the heavy load of romantically motivated chromaticism. The 21st Century opens with an open space and an ethic that values sound over dogma.

Beyond harmony, this trinity represents innovation on several other parameters as well. Shoenberg's "atonal" music was born of the "expressionist" movement and he blazed new directions in musical expressiveness that eventually pushed 19th century ideals beyond their logical breaking point. Partch applied lessons learned from Chinese theatre and Noh-plays toward a pursuit of corporeal expression that is ritualistic and human. Cage brought his study of Zen Buddhism to bear upon composition and ego-less expression. All three broke past the narrow confines of Romanticism's emotional expressiveness that have likewise presented the 21st Century composer with an open field of expansive expressional intent and non-intent.

Social parameters have not advanced as cleanly as innovations in harmony and expression. Today's audience is a bit like the crowd gathered in the building of Lehi's dream. Saddled with the demons of expecting 19th Century sentimental expression or 20th Century empty spectacle diversion they seem hostile toward the innovations being pursued by those holding fast to that iron rod. Shoenberg espoused a strangely appealing and shameless brand of elitism. Partch worked toward a rediscovery of Bacchanalian revelry. And Cage promoted a beautiful and idealistic form of anarchy. I suspect that an unfathomable amount of social innovation was lost when a hit-and-run driver cut short the life of Cornelius Cardew in 1981. And the continued contributions toward social ideals expressed in the works of Frederic Rzewski needs to be recognized. There's only so much the composing community can do in the face of larger social realities. Social evolution will progress at its own pace despite powerful efforts to hold it back. It again holds to the early Mormon ideal of truth being a radical act that stands apart from a world that has lost its way.


1 comment:

Jerrie said...

Excellent essay.