Partch Advocates’ Sensibility Makes Sense Of Bizarre

The Partch ensemble performs Harry Partch's 'Plectra and Percussion Dances' on a new disc from Bridge Records.
The Partch ensemble performs Harry Partch’s ‘Plectra and Percussion Dances’ on a new disc from Bridge Records.

Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances. Partch, led by John Schneider. Bridge 9432

By Richard S. Ginell

No one would dare predict that the iconoclastic composer/instrument builder Harry Partch’s music is going to enter the mainstream of concert music, or even contemporary concert music, any time soon — or any time at all.  That’s a guaranteed non-starter, due mainly to the difficulties of getting conservatory-trained musicians to tackle Partch’s 43-note scale (see a video demonstration below) and the lack of an industry that is willing to manufacture and market his bizarre and often beautiful homemade instruments on a mass scale.

Partch cover 350However, the word on Partch (1901-1974) is spreading slowly, thanks to latter-day disciples like guitarist John Schneider, who has had replicas made of Partch’s instrument collection and leads a dedicated ensemble simply called Partch. They are making headway, too, having recently released a second album of Partchmusik containing the first complete audio recording of Plectra and Percussion Dances. The danged thing actually won a Grammy a few weeks ago for Best Classical Compendium, whatever that means (a compendium of what? It’s a complete work in itself), and was also nominated for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

The work consists of three contrasting pieces, “Castor and Pollux”, “Ring Around the Moon,” and “Even Wild Horses,” and the trilogy is meant to be a multimedia experience combining music, dance, lights, costumes, and props. The joyfully percussive, ritual-like “Castor and Pollux” caught on somewhat in the late 1960s. Columbia Masterworks actually recorded it and it became a demonstration record for sound buffs; it’s been recently reissued on LP. But other two pieces have languished since their 1953 premiere, and only “Castor and Pollux” has been choreographed. I saw a full performance of “Castor and Pollux” as part of the CalArts Contemporary Music festival in Valencia, Calif., in the early 1980s. I recall the athleticism of the performers; a young woman did cartwheels during the breaks when she wasn’t playing.

The Partch ensemble takes “Castor and Pollux” faster than the composer-supervised Columbia group did, with greater precision and more carefully graded dynamics, and the recording has closer, tighter sonics. Yet the Columbia group gets a deeper groove going, and thus has somewhat more vitality. Nevertheless, it’s gratifying that the performance history of Partch’s music is at the point where we can now compare differing interpretations.

A close-up of the keyboard of the Chromelodeon, invented by Partch. (Harry Partch Institute)
The keyboard of the Chromelodeon, which has a 43-note scale. (Harry Partch Institute)

In contrast to the exuberant “Castor,” things quickly get strange in “Ring Around The Moon,” with the adapted guitars slithering like warped pedal steel guitars, topped off by nonsense text delivered mock-pompously at seemingly random moments. It’s weird, fragmented, and disorienting, but it pulls you in. “Even Wild Horses” is a mini-opera as only a mind like Partch’s could conceive, a succession of dances loosely designated as  samba, conga, rumba, even an “Afro-Chinese minuet” based on the tune of “Happy Birthday,” with an occasional text (in French) adapted from Rimbaud.

Partch combines his erudite influences going back to the ancient Greeks with freewheeling contemporary irreverence that borders on the wacky. We are eventually seduced by Partch’s unique sound world, as meticulously re-created and refined by Schneider’s brave band, but are never quite sure whether or not the composer is putting us on at times.

As a bonus track, there is a recording of Partch himself introducing the 1953 premiere of Plectra and Percussion Dances on KPFA-FM in Berkeley. Schneider has a regular show on Pacifica sister station KPFK in L.A., so he must have had access to Pacifica’s massive, one-of-a-kind archive. Partch is dead serious about his work, but also not above a little self-mockery while shedding some light on the motivations and structure of his music.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Harry Partch’s 43 tone scale
from Jon Roy on Vimeo.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.



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