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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



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Harry PARTCH (1901-1974)
Enclosure 5 ... On an Ancient Greek Theme [224:55]
CD1 [72:51]
1. Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World (1955) [6:29]
2-8. Revelation in the Courthouse Park, after “The Bacchae” of Euripides (1960) [38:53]
9. Introduction to “King Oedipus” [7:43]
10-13. King Oedipus (1951, start) [19:39]
CD2 [76:13]:
1-15. King Oedipus (conclusion) [61:48]
16. Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725) - Menuet [0:53]
17. Douglas Moore (1893-1969) - Come Away, Death [3:02]
18. Come Away, Death (1942) [2:46]
19. By the Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137) (1931, re. 1955) [3:39]
20. Introduction to “The Bewitched” [4:05]
CD3 [75:51]
1-12. The Bewitched (1954-5)
Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World (1971 Orion LP, Jack Logan, trumpet); Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960, University of Illinois, Gate 5 Records, Issue F); Introduction to King Oedipus (KPFA-FM, 1954); King Oedipus (1952, Allen Louw: Oedipus; Rudolphine Radil: Jocasta; Mills College premiere with W.B. Yeats libretto); Johann Krieger: Menuet (1950, Partch + Ben Johnston); Come Away, Death (from December, 1942); (1997, Didier Aschour and Vincent Bouchot); By the Rivers of Babylon (137th Psalm); (1961, Gate Five Records); Introduction to The Bewitched (A Dance Satire) (1959, WNYC); The Bewitched (1980, WDR-Köln). Full details in note at end of review.
rec. 1942-1997, various locations. DDD
INNOVA 405 [3 CDs: 72:51 + 76:13 + 75:51]

What follows is perhaps not so much a review as a discussion - of aspects of Partch’s philosophy and its dramatic fruit - that happens to incorporate a CD review. I make no apology for this, except to you who say, “Yes, I already know about that. I just want to know if this set is worth buying!” The short answer to that is “yes”, so you can now take your leave and dash off to your nearest CD e-shop. Others, if they are at all intrigued, can settle down to a good, long and - I hope! - reasonably edifying read ...
You know how it is: you meet someone, eventually you get talking about matters musical, and inevitably you start to “trade names” of composers you particularly like. On such occasions, I am wont to toss in the name of Harry Partch. Almost invariably, I get one of two responses - either, “Who the hell is Harry Partch?” or, “Wasn’t he the bloke who wrote music in a 43-note scale, or something?” As it happens, in respect of the latter question the answer is, “Well, he is - and he isn’t!” The reason becomes apparent if you listen to Disc A, track 9 (5:26 onwards) of this Enclosure 5. There you’ll hear Partch himself, recorded in 1954, bluntly dismissing that notion as being “about a one-tenth truth, perhaps”, and affirming that, “If I have ever emphasised the number, I certainly have not done so for a long, long time.” Hmm. That depends on what you mean by “a long time”. In his book, Genesis of a Music, first published just five years earlier, Partch had managed to give the overwhelming impression that his 43-tone monophony was the cornerstone of his entire life’s work!
So, did Partch have a communication problem between, on the one hand, his left hand and on the other, his right? Believe it or not, the answer is “He does - and he doesn’t!” It’s certainly true that his 43-tone monophony was indeed the fundamental tool of his trade, but, as is the way with all fundamental tools, it was only the beginning of what he was about. His fundamental tool, by its very nature, incorporated all the musical scales known to man, barring only the Johnny-come-lately tempered ones. He based his monophony on 43 simply because that was the level in the justly-intoned hierarchy broadly corresponding to the human ear’s capability to resolve tones and intervals. By a similar token, the 43-tone monophony encapsulated all the musical tones inherent in human speech. At rock bottom, Partch’s development of the 43-tone monophony was a direct result of his early preoccupation with “speech-music”, which is the central subject of Enclosure 2 (see review).
Otherwise, the “43” had about as much deep significance as the marking “1 m.” at the end of a one-metre rule: you aren’t limited to measuring only things that are 1 m. long - you can measure things that are shorter or even, with a bit of juggling, things that are longer. As Partch explains in the track, he sometimes used more than 43 notes to the octave and sometimes fewer - for example, 19, 5, 4 or, for that matter, even 8. Most importantly he emphasises that his music does not, nay can not, sound the way it does because it is written in 43 notes to the octave: “I am the guilty party, not 43 tones.” Nor, I should add, can we try to lay the blame at the feet of his unique instruments - even when one of his works is adapted for conventional forces, such as the string quartet version of US Highball (Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch, see review), the qualities that define “Partch” persist, as surely as those of JSB survive the tender ministrations of Leopold Stokowski, the Swingle Singers or Walter/Wendy Carlos!
Having scotched Everyman’s Easy Answer to what Partch was “about”, the question remains: just what was Partch’s “trade”, what philosophy defined his art and guided him towards his goals? That can be summed up in one word: corporealism. In purely practical terms, his idea of corporeality corresponds pretty well to the OED definition: physical, material, of the “here and now”, as opposed to spiritual, ephemeral, of the “ivory tower”. In Partch’s philosophy music, for example, is not something rarefied that drifts mysteriously out of the ćther to slip, without touching the sides, directly into our cognitive cortices. No - music is an integral part of an immediate, dramatic, visceral experience.
However, as a philosophy, Partch also implicitly imbues his idea of corporeality with rather more meaning than does the OED! Again in Disc A, track 9, Partch makes an attempt to enlighten us. Basically, he’s saying that, whereas (for example) balletomanes will declare the dance as being the most important aspect of ballet, and opera buffs will pronounce singing as paramount in opera, in a corporeal production all the artistic elements - words, dance, music, costumes, sets, lighting (have I missed any?) - are of equal importance.
However, they are of equal importance because they are of “lesser” importance! In Partch’s philosophy, “drama” is more than just a synonym for “a play” - in effect, “Drama” with a Capital “D” is the Lord of the Arts, to which each subordinate Art pays tribute in equal measure. This turns what might otherwise have been a fine distinction into a world of difference. Again taking the musical perspective, Partch’s corporeality for instance requires that the musicians and their instruments, far from being safely tucked away in their cosy pit, will be up there on the stage. In passing, that’s partly why Partch gave his instruments imposing stage presence. However, his is no common or garden “on-stage band”: the instruments are actually - and often hazardously! - part of the dramatic territory through which move actors and dancers, whilst the musicians themselves are in costume, enacting their music, playing dramatic rôles as well as instruments .
And so it runs, right across the board, although first among equals necessarily comes “the word”. As words are the most potent purveyors of explicit meaning, the corporeal rule is: words must be intelligible. Partch frequently indulged in diatribes about the way words are used in classical forms like opera and oratorio where, entirely subservient to music, they are invariably twisted, more often than not out of all recognition. Although he was by no means unique in this respect, Partch was perhaps the most successful at melding words and music - simply because he made music not just subservient to words, but entirely subservient to words. For the most part Partch regarded singing as an instrumental process - so, when he wanted a voice to sing he would, typically, leave out the words.
If there seems to be an odour of Ancient Greece in all this, that’s because there is. His study of Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone ignited and fuelled his antipathy towards the “impurity” of tonal temperament, and led directly to his Speech-Music. Another significant fascination was the Arts of Ancient Greece, in which he found the “pure”, inclusive dramatic philosophy to complement his tonal desires. Gradually the two converged, becoming as peaches and cream, and evolving into his particular brand of corporealism. Yet, Partch was most definitely not in the business of trying to recreate “authentic” ancient Greek drama; quite the contrary, like any other artist worth his salt he wanted to express his own times and his own experiences.
The main works in Enclosure 5 - King Oedipus, The Bewitched, and Revelation in the Courthouse Park - illustrate what could be called his “middle period”, where the relatively intimate, monophony-based buds of Speech-Music, fertilised by the burgeoning Ancient Greek influence, begin to blossom into fully-fledged corporeality. Immediately, as listeners, we have a problem: inherently a sound recording, to use Partch’s description, “lacks half the take”. Strictly speaking, we cannot have a “corporeal experience” unless we are there, in the living presence of the performers - and, let’s face it, to some extent this is true of any performance, otherwise why would any of us bother to go to a concert hall or theatre? So, if a film (or DVD) is but a shadow of corporeality flickering on the screen of an AV system, then is not an audio-only recording nothing more than a shadow of a shadow? Well, yes! - but the fabled “bottom line” is that “half the take” is better than no “take” at all, and even a shadow of a shadow is always an improvement on utter, unremitting darkness.
In his thoroughly informative booklet essay, Philip Blackburn tells us that Partch had hankered after setting W.B. Yeats’s translation of King Oedipus ever since 1933. In 1934 Partch had met Yeats and demonstrated his Speech-Music to the poet. Yeats was ecstatic - it turned out that this subtle union of words and music was something he had been dreaming about for years. Not surprisingly, then, he was all for Partch’s suggestion of a Speech-Music setting of King Oedipus. This was to have been for ptolemy (Partch’s prototype microtonal reed-organ), viola, guitar and double-bass. However, for various reasons - including wandering homeless as a hobo - Partch didn’t get round to King Oedipus until the beginning of the 1950s. By this time, sadly, Yeats had been dead for a dozen years, but happily Partch had come on by leaps and bounds, having completed and written up his theoretical work, and developed a substantial number of instruments. In the end, he did Yeats proud, scoring the work for a much-expanded ensemble combining eight of his own unique instruments with clarinet, soprano saxophone, microtonal cello and microtonal string bass. Whether these last two were physically “adapted” I’m not sure - Partch’s physical “adaptations”, for example of guitar and viola, were pretty drastic!
Philip Blackburn gives us a clear indication that the resulting drama was nevertheless very much a transitional work, effectively a “Speech-Music play” through which Partch was starting to feel his way towards his ultimate, corporeal goal. This is something that resonates through Partch’s absorbing programme note for the original production, a note which is substantially reproduced in the CD booklet. King Oedipus gives you a strong impression of this evolution at work. At the start, the Speech-Music style predominates, but gradually, as the drama approaches its devastating climax and in a manner broadly similar to Bitter Music (see Enclosure 2), the musical content takes over - presumably this is what Partch meant by the music being “conceived as emotional saturation”. A really neat example is CD A track 12, which starts with intense choral/instrumental music over which an actor speaks. This immediately rams home, far more effectively than any amount of explanation and argument, exactly what Partch got so right and Schoenberg, comparatively speaking, got so wrong.
Clearly, though, the speech cannot be entirely natural: the actors and musicians must observe some common rhythmic reference, otherwise words and music would decline disastrously into waffle and muddle. In this recording, this “baseline” seems to surface through a tendency towards rigidity of line and metre, a form of declamation that sounds a bit like “old school” Shakespeare. That’s fair enough when there’s music in the air but, in the longish stretches where there is no music, surely the actors could have exercised a little more, well, freedom of speech? This problem of rigidity runs a little deeper, extending to dynamic expression. The sort of thing I mean is if, say, a character gets angry, he tends to continue at the same level of anger right through, whereas we all know that even an angry man is likely to ask a question at a “lower”, though still vehement, vocal pitch than he used for a previous exclamation (this is a pretty relevant example - there are many angry men in this play!).
That said, though, there is dramatic expression a-plenty, and we have to bear it in mind that these folk were, almost to a man, being asked to do something that was completely “outside their boxes”. Philip Blackburn relates, for example, that Allan Louw (Oedipus) apparently had never even heard of Harry Partch before he was asked to take part, and of the work’s manuscript commented, “I’d never seen anything like it in all my life.” Yet - and with a smidgen of reflection, this comes as no real surprise - he found that what was required of him came naturally, without any significant, deliberate effort on his part. He makes the most of a bass voice so impressively deep it would have had Moussorgsky weeping tears of joy - his pronouncement of “Woe! Woe is me . . .” (CD B track 13) is literally as blood-curdlingly black as old sump-oil.
However, there was one cast member for whom this “new style” was “old hat”. Rudolphine Radil (Jocasta), once an acquaintance of Mahler, had performed in Partch’s very first public concerts in 1931, which lends some significance to the fact that her mode of delivery differs that of all the other actors. When there are instruments playing (e.g. CD B track 4), she tends to “touch” the notes, bringing the merest, but nonetheless clearly perceptible, singing edge to her voice. Radil seems to be, very subtly, “meeting the musicians halfway” which, strictly speaking, doesn’t accord with Partch’s prescription. However, as Partch himself was the musical director and obviously didn’t do anything about it, I guess he must have approved.
Of course, the main interest here is not the acting, since that should remain pretty much as it would if there were no musical component, but the impact of Partch’s peculiar musical methodology. Philip Blackburn suggests that, “Those who judge Oedipus by the standards of later works (such as Delusion [of the Fury]) will be disappointed.” Well, I have, and I’m not! In those later works the balance of equals shifted. The element of ritual, which Partch seemed increasingly to regard as an important part of corporealism, became further to the fore. Correspondingly, Partch tended to shift the narrative accent increasingly away from words and towards mime. In its turn, this left a vacancy that was filled - nay, had to be filled - by music, and to my way of thinking this is why Delusion in particular stands up so well as “pure” music (though I doubt that Partch would have thanked me for saying that!).
Nevertheless, in its own way, the music in Oedipus is utterly enthralling. When the instruments do creep - or sometimes “slam” - in, there’s no mistaking the extraordinary degree to which they enhance the drama. This much smacks you in the face right from the off: instruments blend with a wordless chorus (CD A track 10) in a chanted line that would be exceptionally beautiful, were it not for the searing astringency of its harmony. Already, you have a feeling that something’s “up”. Soon after, when Partch’s instruments generate one of those uniquely “creepy” atmospheres, haloing King Oedipus’s words, “Children! Descendents of all Cadmus! Why do you come before me?” you are equally sure that it’s rather more than a mundane moan about municipal maintenance.
Of course, film music - and let’s not forget that, in his youth, Partch was himself a silent film accompanist - serves much the same purpose. Hence, anyone could be forgiven for asking, “So, what’s the Big Deal?” The Big Deal is this: film music, or for that matter any other kind of incidental music, is not harmonically bound to the tonal and rhythmic content of the actors’ vocal inflections. What’s more, as long as such music is in equal temperament, even if the trick were tried it would at best be a coarse approximation - “about a one-tenth truth, perhaps”! Partch’s “incidental music”, however, is rooted in and grows out of the soil of those vocal inflections. In a very real sense, his music acts like a spotlight, illuminating the emotive harmony inherent in the actors’ voices.
So, how well does the recording convey this drama? Overall, rather well! Generally, the sound is quite detailed and clear, especially considering that it was taped on the fly, in a resonant acoustic, at the work’s first production (1952, Mills College in Partch’s home town of Oakland, California). Occasionally the recording does get caught out by the penetrating sounds of the cloud-chamber bowls, and near the end becomes a bit overloaded and congested (CD B, track 14). Yet, there are surprisingly few tape glitches and only the occasional hint of pre-echo. Curiously for a mono recording, I did notice some intermittent stereo imbalance (CD B, track 1)! This slight wavering of the relative channel levels of course won’t be a problem if your amplifier can be switched to “mono” - otherwise, like me, you can just grin and bear it.
What really puzzles me, though, is why the end of CD A is faded out, and the start of CD B faded in with some overlap. CD B track 1 ends on a pause in the action. At a little over five minutes long, it could easily have been accommodated at the end of CD A. This would have obviated the need for any fading and overlapping. More importantly, it would have considerably diluted the disruption of the dramatic flow. [See Footnote]
But don’t let these minor matters put you off! This “shadow of a shadow” of Oedipus is still gripping drama, and a superb record of what amounts to something of a turning-point in the career of a genius. Partch himself was a bit dissatisfied with Oedipus, feeling that he’s somehow let a sense of classical antiquity predominate over modern relevance. This was at least partly due to the formal style of Yeats’s text which, if anything, is striving to create that very sense and is - again at least partly - responsible for that “rigidity” I mentioned. However, one of those little quirks of fate ensured that this wouldn’t happen again. Partch had proceeded with his setting of Yeats’s poem confident in the knowledge that he had the author’s written permission. Unfortunately, that didn’t cut any ice with the long-dead poet’s agent - the bloke not only refused Partch’s request for licence to publish the Oedipus recording, but also vetoed all musical settings. Consequently, for the planned production in Sausalito, Partch had to do his own translation - and thus happily awakened a latent talent for writing libretti.
Mind you, he wasn’t exactly profligate with his newly-awakened talent. In his next major dramatic effort, The Bewitched, the human voice just makes a lot of noises! Superficially, I suppose that “contrary” might seem a more appropriate term than “profligate”. However, when you think about it for a moment or two, what we have here is really a very radical departure - which makes it all the more puzzling why, to the best of my knowledge, Partch has ventured no explanation of it. I would guess - and it’s no more than a guess - that Partch felt that he’d got his fingers mildly burnt by the linguistic style of Oedipus. Consequently, before going any further with word-setting, he first took a step back, and in the “inarticulate” balance of the corporeal compound tried to fully establish his desired sense of the modern vernacular. Very pointedly, Partch not only sets his drama in some sort of vaguely “urban limbo”, but also subtitles the work “A Ballet Satire” (my italics).
By all accounts The Bewitched is exceptional even amongst the extraordinary. This is equally true of the production enshrined in this recording, a live performance given in Cologne (1980) by the Partch Ensemble during its first foreign tour. From a couple of first-hand recollections given in the booklet it emerges that the entire production team lived, ate and breathed the work for fully six months of often utterly unorthodox preparation. The upshot was that, in spite of the absence of words, director Kenneth Gaburo produced an outstandingly successful demonstration of the validity of corporealism, unsurpassed even by the man himself. The question is: does anything of this come across in the recording’s “shadow of a shadow”?
The answer is “yes”. As I listened, I found myself becoming increasingly conscious of the intense physicality of the music. This emanates from more than just the obvious aural evidence of foot-stamping and vocalisations: there is an unaccustomed sense of the musicians, like the Witch and her voice, being part of their instruments rather than just playing on them - that involvement of the players’ whole bodies that Partch had advocated. This feeling isn’t easy to describe, and quite how I get it from a sound-only recording I’m not at all sure. Nevertheless, there is something beyond what you get from “conventional” musicians, including jazz-men, although the latter do come closer than most. In this respect, particularly intriguing are the booklet’s quotations of clarinettist Bob Paredes’s recollections, which include his realisation that “the music was an extension of voice . . . and the tuning system was a call to arms on behalf of the . . . issue of voice, as the body’s primary sound”.
This tells us that the principles at work in The Bewitched are effectively the same as those in Oedipus. Voices that appear to be “talking nonsense” are in fact doing everything that they did in Oedipus: all the expressions, inflections and emotions of speech are present and correct - only verbal meaning is omitted from the mix. Within a corporeal fabric this, if anything, helps to liberate the enactment of “metaphor” that is central to the “libretto” of The Bewitched.
As ever, because Partch performances aren’t quite as thick on the ground as those of The Four Seasons, comparative assessment is something of a non-starter. Performance-wise, all I can say is it sounds stunning. Isabella Tercero (the Witch) is a formidable vocal actress with impressive ranges. Yes, I do mean the plural! She traverses the entire pitch range - from about F# below middle C upwards for a semitone short of three octaves - with scarcely a hint of strain. The wide range of styles of vocalisation, from singing through intonation to sheer vocal gymnastics, is something she apparently eats for breakfast. She takes all the “nonsense” that Partch can throw at her and, by the time she’s done, has you believing that it’s a real “language”, such is the range and degree of emotional expression she imparts. Oh - and while she’s at it, although of course we can’t see this, she sometimes has to take on the rôle of “ostensible conductor”.
The musicians also have their work cut out, not only because at one point they’ve a basketball match going on around them, but also because they’re frequently called on to double as the chorus, with a similar though less demanding array of vocal effects to negotiate. What’s more, they do it rather well. However, the most intriguing aspect of the musicians’ performance is the astonishing blend they achieve between Partch’s microtonal, justly-intoned instruments and the conventional piccolo/flute and clarinet. Common sense tells you it shouldn’t even be possible, never mind brought off so brilliantly.
Yet, Partch often made use of conventional, “equal temperament” instruments. Stringed instruments aren’t a problem - guitars can be re-fretted, and the violin family fingerboards can be appropriately marked - and the question doesn’t even arise for trombones. But woodwind have fixed holes, geared to equal temperament. I think the trick is this. A clarinet (say) is only “geared” to ET. By design, the holes in the tube match ET, but the tube itself, by order of the laws of nature, is justly tuned. Hence, in higher registers that match becomes progressively more approximate. The case of valved instruments is very similar. In both cases, the further they go from the fundamental register, the more the players must “bend” the notes to stay tuned to ET. Well, if they can bend onto ET, they can also bend the other way - onto JI. All it takes is skill, practice - and an abundance of both.
That abundance, whilst evident throughout, is nowhere more so than in the Epilogue, in which Partch uses the ruse of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony (and, rather neatly, he uses the ruse in reverse during the Prologue). The Epilogue, given almost entirely to Partch’s percussion instruments - the other players are already drifting away - is riddled with streams of ostinato flourishes, like a fast race in which the lead continually changes. This device, something of a favourite of Partch’s, is one which will cruelly expose even the slightest lack of unanimity. Not here - although these marvellous musicians do manage to expose something else: the cohesive “timbral flux” that is the hallmark of any true family of instruments going about its business.
All this wonderful music-making took place in a less than ideal recording environment. Not only was it genuinely “live” - recorded on the fly - but also the orchestra was far from being tidily arrayed in the pit. In Partch’s own words the instruments were “disposed architecturally and landscapically, so that the dancers would be in, around, among them, occasionally” (and, don’t forget, playing basketball, occasionally!). Such an already hazardous environment would be no place for microphone stands and trailing cables. From the results, I would guess that consequently, and to minimise audience noise, it was miked from close to the front. On the “down” side, this results in some instruments sounding uncomfortably close, whilst others sound too recessed. On the “up” side, the stereophonic recording conveys a lovely depth of perspective, clarity within a resonant acoustic, and has plenty of body to the sound. Overall, the West German Radio engineers have done a cracking job. The CD re-mastering inherits from the master tape some hiss and the odd bit of print-through, but there’s nothing unduly obtrusive, especially when weighed against the spell-binding music and its equally spell-binding performance.
The booklet helpfully provides a detailed synopsis of the action. You’d expect that he work’s twelve distinct sections would map cosily onto the CD’s twelve tracks. Well, rather less helpfully, the booklet’s sectional track cues run 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11! Concerned that I might be missing something, I contacted Philip Blackburn, who “un-witched” it thus, “I was never very good at page turns, and I wouldn't want the deities to be offended by too much perfection. Remove the 2nd 2 and the 2nd 3, start from 1, go to 12, and you should have it all. The text and music are all in there, correctly separated.” Mind you, I’m not at all sure what the great god of Typography must have made of it, are you?
Although he’s taken a step back, the practical elements of Partch’s “Greek theatrical” ideals were still fully utilised - and further developed - in The Bewitched. Now, presumably having “un-witched” himself, with Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960) Partch once more sallied forth into explicitly Greek territory. I do wonder whether, consciously or otherwise, Partch had been nudged by West Side Story, because he similarly re-clothed a classic - Euripides’ The Bacchae - in a coat of modern relevance. Partch, though, went a step further, by dovetailing and overlapping his modern “take” with an enactment of the original tale. In this, although he admitted that he was helped a little by the typically “Greek” styling of provincial American courthouses, what really reinforced the connections was having each pair of parallel parts played by the same person. This overall approach was also a really neat way of evading the snare that King Oedipus had sprung on him.
The cast includes actors/singers, male and female choruses, drum majorettes, clog dancers, tumblers, a brass band, guitarists, umpteen Partch instruments, and even a pre-recorded tape. Such an eclectic mix immediately reminded me of Bernstein’s Mass, and, sure enough, by the end of the first track I was noting, “Wonder if LB ever [came across] this . . . Get whiffs of his Mass.” Mind you, to some extent this is hardly surprising: Partch was prompted by a striking correspondence between the basic Euripides scenario and two features of modern-day America. These were what he described as “religious rituals with a strong sexual element [and] sex rituals with a strong religious element” - by the latter he meant the pursuit of pop stars by half-crazed, or even fully-crazed, crowds of young women. More particularly, he was prompted by the convergence, in his own mind, of these two distinct things. However, while Bernstein turns levity to disaster then (Glory, Halleloo-yah!) plucks redemption from the ruins, Partch, true to Euripides’s original tragedy, leaves us to contemplate the smouldering ashes.
This recording, made at a performance given at the University of Illinois in 1961, was originally issued on Partch’s Gate 5 label. It is “as excerpted by Partch”. Comprising only about half of the complete work, this can of course do no more than give us the flavour of the piece. Yet, what a flavour! Unlike film or TV programme trailers, most of which completely fail to convince me, these excerpts apparently left me hungry for more, because my final listening note said simply, “An amazing work”. One day, maybe there’ll be a recording of the whole thing, then I’ll find out if it lives up to my expectations! [See Footnote]
Unfortunately, this pro tempore “amazing work” has to seep through the filter of a recording somewhat less exalted than that of The Bewitched. In fact, it sounds as if someone had had a last-minute bright idea, and stuck up a microphone somewhere that nobody would trip over it. The monaural sound is very hissy, although reasonably full-toned - for example, the brass band’s bass drum booms beautifully (CD A track 2) and the subterranean throbbing of the Marimba Eroica (track 8) quite properly comes up through the floorboards. However, the dynamical balance is very dodgy. For example, the Cloud Chamber Bowls, booming like big glass bells, are surely far too close to the microphone, and there is some pre-echo on a huge instrumental outburst (track 8 again) - although to be fair this is a problem with storage rather than the recording process itself. More crucially, often an intoning voice reverberating from the back is all but inaudible behind the accompanying instruments whereas, when such voices are at the front (as in track 7), their words are crystal-clear.
Let the above merely be a warning to the audiophile! If that microphone had not been there, the tape would have been blank (apart, that is, from the hiss), so I for one am grateful for what I’ve got. As with any other noteworthy historical document, the most important thing is that it exists. That it is also good enough for us to actually enjoy - as opposed to just “study” - the contents, to the extent that we (or I, at least) can declare them to constitute an “amazing work”, must be considered a real bonus.
It’s as plain as the nose on your face that the “step back” of The Bewitched had done the trick: Partch had returned to his “Greek” territory with fresh confidence and clearer idea of how to get what he really wanted. The formal, declamatory style dictated by Yeats's stately language is “out”, a vigorous vernacular style is “in”, and this time nary a post-production grumble from Partch. In passing, you’ll find that there is a certain “hippy” aura, which I feel in a goodly number of his works, even in some of the very early ones. Partch, it seems, had already invented “hippy”, or at least the “hippy sound”, years before the flower-power, love-in generation turned up in the Swinging Sixties! As I recall it, at this point the appropriate rejoinder is, “Right on, man!”
Also as plain as the nose on your face is the throat-grabbingly infectious enthusiasm of the performers. They bring out all the revivalist-style hysteria that Partch puts into what I can only describe as “rock ‘n’ roll” episodes - relatively unusually for Partch, there are several really jolly, toe-tapping tunes. Moreover, the brass band plays with a rude, robust, almost anarchic, and utterly refreshing disregard for anything even approaching refinement. There are all sorts of stimulating, imaginative vocal effects, like the yelping chorus singing along with the band (track 2), or the whistling and hissing (track 3). Of particular interest, though, is Freda Pierce (in the dual rôle of Mom/Agave), who at one particular point is required to adopt an operatic soprano style. “Operatic”? Yes - this puzzled me for a moment! It seems to me that Partch is slipping in a sly practical demonstration of the problem with conventional singing. By comparison with intoned words, the operatically-sung words are so incomprehensible that you can’t even be sure there are any.
Yet, for all the sheer entertainment value of the brassy band and the strumming guitars, I find myself again, and above all else, in awe of Partch’s own instruments and the skill of their players. I am endlessly fascinated by the way they can creep in and amplify the emotional expression of the voices, and then generate a fearsome intensity of their own (track 7). But most of all I am struck by their incredible ability to create atmosphere. The very start of Chorus One (track 2) is so flesh-crawlingly creepy that it would have had even Bartók gasping with admiration, and I can guarantee that it’ll raise your hackles. It is so mesmerising that the memory of it haunts you through all the fun-filled rough-and-tumble, never letting you forget for one moment that this is all going to end in tears. Revelation, even in this drastically extracted form, is indeed quite a revelation.
The corners of Enclosure Five are padded with several short pieces - we might call them “lollipops” - only one of which is on the “Greek theme”. Through the title and the question posed at the end, Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World loosely - very loosely! - relates Odysseus’s fraught return home to Partch’s own hobo wanderings. Partch had been asked this question many times, and it amused him to imagine asking it of Ulysses: “Have you ever been arrested before?” Other than that, Ulysses is exactly what its subtitle says: A Minor Adventure in Rhythm. Written in the mid-1950s, when Cool Jazz was in the ascendant, it is essentially a jazz-styled chamber piece for trumpet, baritone saxophone and various Partch instruments including his recently-built Boo (bamboo marimba).
It bounces along very jauntily, its basic melodic outlines sticking fairly closely to “chord-tones”, presumably to make it easier for the intended jazz soloists to blend in with the “backing group” of Partch percussion. Jack Logan (trumpet) and Larry Livingstone (sax.) offer some pleasing differentiations of legato and staccato and pump in bags of expressive guile, whilst the percussion playing is as skilful and precise as you would expect from a tightly-knit group of “old hands”. The 1971 stereo recording is close-miked but not dry, sounding clear and clean. The one exception is the voice, which sounds a mite distorted and, to be brutally honest, gives a distinct impression that the cue-card was cock-eyed.
The Menuet, not by Partch but by Johann Philipp Krieger, is a concise curiosity - at a mere 45 seconds, it takes less time to listen to than it does to read about it in the booklet! This arrangement, for Harmonic Canon and Kithara, was made to demonstrate a solution to a problem the piece had with justly-intoned modulation. How does it sound? Well, try to imagine something in the middle of the triangle formed by a harpsichord, a king-sized lute, and a music-box.
The second piece in this Enclosure that isn’t by Partch is Douglas Moore’s Come Away, Death, a song for unaccompanied tenor. Partch admired this for its inherent sense of corporeality, to the extent that in 1941 he made this recording of it, presumably for his own personal pleasure. George Bishop’s sensitive singing can be heard clearly through the dreadful mush of the old acetate. It’s fairly certain that Partch’s own setting of the same words was inspired by Moore’s, and so this 1997 - and much cleaner! - recording by Vincent Bouchot (voice) and Didier Ascour (adapted guitar) is provided for comparison and contrast.
Last, but by no means least, we have Partch’s 1955 revision of By the Rivers of Babylon, which he wrote in 1931. Appositely and happily, and ignoring the fact that here the instrumentation is rather fuller than Partch’s Adapted Viola, this was the very piece that had so captivated W. B. Yeats in 1934. This recording, first issued on Gate 5 in 1962, is still monaural but not surprisingly it sounds much better than the earlier, 1945 recording included on Enclosure 2 (see my review). Moreover, this one is also more confidently performed - I wonder if that had anything to do with it being conducted, which the earlier one wasn’t. Although to my mind she slightly over-reaches herself in the climax, Nina Cutler’s vocal contribution is nevertheless very impressive.
As with other of these Enclosures, Philip Blackburn’s design of the 40-page booklet - and of the CDs themselves - uses artwork from original productions, scores etc. As ever, it is crammed with useful and interesting material, and detailed performing credits. As ever, it is visually an absolute treat, and happily there are not so many of those places where the design obscures the text. One little point, though: why are the Partch instruments and their performers not listed for Revelation? [See Footnote] That minute carp apart, it’s full marks to Innova for their high standard of production which, please note, is something that we’ll miss sorely when we’re all plugged into iPods!
To conclude, many people tend to think something on the lines of, “Poor Harry Partch! All this really great stuff he’s done, and yet you hardly ever hear of him.” Hum. My wife, on the other hand, tends to think, “Harry Partch? Pity he wasn’t strangled at birth.” Ah, well, that’s democracy for you. However, back to the point. In one way, Partch is actually more fortunate than conventional composers, because he never suffers from mundane performances by indifferent, or simply overworked, musicians. By their very nature, his works are almost always performed by folk who are, to muddle my metaphors slightly, champing at the bit to get their teeth into them. Without meaning to diminish the immense dedication that went into the enormous task of finding, assembling, and preparing the materials, that’s why Innova’s Enclosures contain so much stunning stuff. Even a churlish grumble-guts like me is left with precious little to moan about Still, it’s good for the soul have to indulge in effulgent praise of something now and then, and even better to admit that in this respect Enclosure 5 has twisted my arm with a vengeance.
Paul Serotsky


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Vocal/Instrumental Performers and Recording Details (where provided)
Ulysses: Danlee Mitchell (diamond marimba), John Grimes (bamboo marimba, cloud-chamber bowls), Linda Schell Pluth (bass marimba, cloud chamber bowls), Larry Livingstone (baritone saxophone and speaker), Jack Logan (trumpet). Rec. 1971 by Jack Williams/Custom Fidelity Co.
Revelation: Performed by the “Gate 5 Ensemble” of the Univ. of Illinois - John Garvey (conductor), Jeffrey Foote (Sonny/Pentheus), Freda Pierce (Mom/Agave), John Bert (Dion/Dionysus), Elizabeth Hiller (Korypheus), Coryl Randall (Cadmus), Joel Kelin (Herdsman). Details of Chorus of Women, Chorus of Men, Brass Band, Guitarists and other instrumentalists not specified, but can be found in the book Enclosure 3. Rec. 11 April 1961, live performance at Univ. of Illinois Fest. of Contemp. Arts.
Oedipus: Harry Partch (musical director, adapted guitar), Allan Louw (Oedipus), Ian Zellick (Priest, Second Messenger, Attendant), William Derrell Bond (Chorus Spokesman), Robert Hood (Oedipus’s Brother-in-Law), Bruce Cook (Tiresias, Herdsman), Rudolphine Radil (Jocasta), Gregory Millar (Messenger), Elvena Green (Antigone), Margaret Calhoun (Ismene), Alison Berry (Attendant), James Allen Leland (Attendant), Flora Lynn Kirschner (Attendant); Singing Chorus – Ann Arness, Gina Brown, Gertrude Feather, Peggy Parlour, B. J. Ross, Jean Sundstrom, Berniece Fredrickson; Jane van Rysselberghe (marimba eroica), Darlene Mahnke (bass marimba), Barbara Browning (kithara), Ute Miessner (harmonic canon), Patricia Carey (chromelodion sub-bass), Angela Thorpe (chromelodion), Nancy Wiebenson (chromelodion), Sheila Bates (diamond marimba), Elizabeth Brunswick (cloud-chamber bowls), Jackie Fox (cloud-chamber bowls), Dante Zaro (microtonal string bass), Ellen Ohdner (microtonal cello), George Probert (clarinet, soprano saxophone), Marjorie Sweazey (adapted guitar). Rec. Lisser Hall, Mills College, Oakland Calif., 14-16 March 1952.
Krieger’s Menuet: Harry Partch and Ben Johnston (harmonic canon and kithara). Rec. by Harry Lindgren at Gualala Calif., 1950.
Moore’s “Come Away, Death”: George Bishop (voice). Rec. Chicago, c. 1941-2.
Partch’s “Come Away, Death”: Vincent Bouchot (voice), Didier Ascour (adapted guitar). Rec. 1997.
Babylon: Nina Cutler (voice), Evelyn Garvey (chromelodion), Lyndel Davis (kithara), Harry Partch (adapted viola), John Garvey (conductor). Rec. Univ. of Illinois, 1961.
Bewitched: Danlee Mitchell (musical director), Isabella Tercero (Witch), Peter Hamlin (adapted koto), Phil Keeney (spoils of war), Cris Forster (marimba eroica), Randy Hoffman (cloud-chamber bowls), Doug Laurent (chromelodion I), Jon Szanto (new boo I), Dan Maureen (bass clarinet), Donna Caruso (piccolo, flute), Robert Paredes (clarinet), David Dunn (adapted viola), Robin Gillette and Anita Mitchell (kithara II), Ron Caruso (diamond marimba), Gary Irvine (bass marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (harmonic canon II), Ron Engel (surrogate kithara). Rec. by Westdeutscher Rudfunk at perf. in Cologne, Germany, 1980.
Footnote: I have had feedback from Innova on some points. The reason given for the awkward side-break in King Oedipus is that the lengths of these CDs were stretching the capabilities of current CD players, and doing it the way I suggest would have increased the largest playing time by a little over a minute. Hopefully, any future production runs will adopt the more sensible split. A full list of Revelation performers is included in Enclosure 3, which is a large book, due for reissue May/June 2006. Finally, my “expectations” regarding Revelation will be at least partially tested sooner than I imagined: Innova tell me that a new Enclosure 7, a DVD, will be released at the same time. Amongst other things, this will include filmed extracts from the production of Revelation!  [PSe]


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