Dial Tones

Bang a Gong: Harry Partch on one of his musical contraptions.

1997, THE YEAR of electronica's glorious ascension into elevator music, has proved a strangely wonderful period for Americana. The Smithsonian reissued Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Rounder began releasing an extensive series of prison and field recordings culled by the late historian/archivist Alan Lomax. And now we have a feast of Harry Partch. The CRI label has put together a remarkable four-CD collection of recordings by the obscure, but hugely influential, musician-composer-singer-inventor. Simultaneously, Dr. Phillip Blackburn, of the Minneapolis-based American Composer's Foundation, has assembled Enclosure 3 and 4, an overwhelmingly elaborate scrapbook of Partch minutiae, and a videocassette, which includes a 1971 production of Partch's theater piece, Delusion of the Fury. More recordings will be released as part of the Enclosure series later this year, and 1998 will bring Bob Gilmore's long-awaited biography.

Harry (1901-1974) was no whistling Hillbilly, no toothless mountain dulcimer player--he was a classical musician of all things. But his music is as American as any in its structural petulance; his major invention is a microtonal tuning system so eccentric--packing 43 discrete intervals into an octave!--that he had to construct his own (rather eccentric) instruments to try it out on. He was also a flamboyantly gay persona (long before they started dropping all those double entendres on Friends) and a self-made hobo who criss-crossed America by rail in the 1930s, setting the writings of other train hoppers to music. The clickety-clack of trains is woven throughout his work, along with Chinese folk songs, "Ten Little Indians," and--as with the music of his predecessor Charles Ives--the kitchen sink.

The obvious Amerihistorical touchstone here is Walt Whitman's I'll-keep-singing-about-the-body-electric-until-you-shut-me-up pioneer spirit. Partch believed in a version of the aesthetes' democracy we don't see much of anymore. And this goes some ways toward explaining the political reasons for his interest in odd tuning systems, such as "just intonation," in which the smallest note is next to the largest. His scales contain socio-philosophical properties, the particulars of which he explicates on Enclosure 3 in his American home-spun manner, demonstrating them on his Chromelodeon, a wheezy reed organ of his own invention.

"Well," asks the aging Dinosaur, Jr fan, "what does this man mean to me?" Admittedly, it's been hard to hear Harry in recent years; only a few of his major works have been available on CDs (of varying quality), and some of the CRI issues are going out of print. But his influence will be obvious to anyone who has ever danced around to the bonk, plink, and rattle of a Tom Waits record. Indeed, one might argue that Waits, between piano-bar blowziness and art-opera chic, has cast himself as a hetero-Partch--although Harry preferred more of a bell-like fussiness in the vocal department. One might draw an analogy between Partch and the modern-day lucky kids who get to embrace the loser lifestyle by choice, not proxy; Partch had no trust fund and few patrons. Likewise those who have chosen the DIY and lo-fi roots ethos owe much to Partch, particularly the experimentalist toilers (Tortoise, Jim O'Rourke, Stereolab) who create their own instruments or revive old electronic boxes.

Partch's instruments--with names such as the Boo, the Zymo-Xyl, and the Diamond Marimba--are certainly more impressive than some newfangled rewired tennis racket with a rhythm box. And their presence is almost as theatrical as the aforementioned Partch-authored theater piece, Delusion. In fact, these devices seem to take up as much time on stage as the play's action itself. Delusion's results are mixed. Originally released by Grove Press (distributors of the late-'60s art-porn sensation I Am Curious Yellow), it attempts to evoke Japanese Noh and African folk tales, though Partch's sardonic perversity often lends it a hammer-horror/Halloween feel. It is, for better or worse, a product of the late '60s. But those instruments! They'd fill any pretentious Chicago post-rocker with envy. Right now the original inventions are in the possession of the experimental collective Newband, which performs Partch's work on rare can't-miss occasions.

Despite all the esoterica, the music Partch made through his creations is entirely accessible. Compare him to other "classical" musicians, if you will. Brahms's Lullaby elegantly puts you to sleep; Harry Partch mesmerizes with percussive roundelay, and a dissonant lyricism--as aurally enveloping as any flavor-of-the-month techno-variant or indie-oddity you'd care to name. And it's warmer to boot. A great deal of this music sounds as it it's being performed in your (extremely spacious) living room. And much of the space on these CDs is taken up by readings of his direct, if precious, diary entries--with musical accompaniment, of course. Born later, Partch would have made a living recording books on tape.

Yes, his populism may date him. But is that his fault or our own? His was a "classical" music of the player piano and the pot-bellied stove. Part of his major opera, The Bewitched (volume four of the CRI collection), is an adaptation of the Oedipus myth that takes place in a locker room occupied by a defeated basketball team. Nowadays director Robert Wilson would turn that scenario into a 10-hour opera and hobnob with the society folk afterward. Partch might look askance and say, as he once did, "Life is too precious to spend it with important people."

 
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