Keynote Address for the 2012
Harry Partch Conference in Boston
By Kyle Gann
I am honored to be here, and humbly so, since I am well aware that there are many musicians more expert in Partch's music than I am, and some of those people are in this room. I feel a deep connection to Partch through Ben Johnston, who worked closely with Partch in the 1950s, and with whom I studied composition for four years. Partch died when I was a teenager, a few months after I became aware of him. I have never had access to his instruments. I know no more about his life than I read in Bob Gilmore's excellent biography and Andrew Granade's more detailed articles. I have seen several of his operas performed in the flesh, but most of them I have heard only on recording. I decipher the tablature of his notated scores only slowly and with difficulty. But I am pedagogically a grandson of his, so to speak, and as someone who has written widely about American music, I will take pleasure in trying to place him within that tradition.
"The creative person shows himself naked. And the more vigorous his creative act, the more naked he appears - sometimes totally vulnerable, yet always invulnerable in the sense of his own integrity... This thing began with truth, and truth does exist."
Like many of you, I first heard those words four decades ago, coming from a vinyl record on the Columbia label. It was difficult to know what to think about this crazy old man who wanted to overthrow the whole history of music theory, and who suggested that his musicians perform half naked, adding, "and I do not care which half." I was attracted to the music and to the audacity. I was also frustrated because most of his scores were not available, and I had no way to relate, for myself, the theory to the results. Like Partch himself, and to quote him, I was going to "hold everything [he said and wrote] in abeyance until each assertion ha[d] had an individual seminar with [my own] powers of concentration, logic, and perception." The music was partly inaccessible to me, on one hand because I couldn't see it live as it was intended, on the other because I couldn't bring my usual analytical skills to bear on its notation. But I was certainly intrigued, and when a friend gave me Genesis of a Music, I read what I could understand of it.
This was around 1973. I didn't think very much at the time about the microtonal aspect, which seemed just like a side-effect of Partch's eccentricity. Today, however, I speak as a microtonalist myself. After I finished my doctoral work I sought out private lessons with Ben Johnston, whose music I found deeply affecting. Though I loved Ben's music, and Ben, I said to myself at the time that I wasn't going to get involved with microtonality, because it was a lot of work for very little reward. I was certainly right that it was a lot of work, that there is no denying. Ben never encouraged his students to get involved in microtonality, but in looking at my music he simply mentioned how beautiful one of my chords would sound if you tuned it correctly, and he reeled off the ratios. Since in high school I had possessed an effortless talent for a certain level of math, I immediately recognized that I could do what Ben was talking about. At the tragically late age of 28 I heard an iron door swing shut behind me, and I was on the microtonal side of it.
What I quickly found was that Partch provided a pedagogically expeditious entree into that world. His 43-tone scale was a quick introduction to not only the exotic intervals based on the seventh and eleventh harmonics that I needed to learn to hear, but also the more mundane five-limit commas and wolf intervals that were part of the basic history of European tuning. As soon as I could find a synthesizer with user tuning capabilities, a Yamaha DX7-IIFD, I tuned it to the 43-tone configuration Partch used on his Chromelodeon and began looping sequences from it to train my ear. First I needed to learn to distinguish the differences among five-limit intervals, like 9/8 and 10/9, and 3/2 and 40/27, that have been central to all tuning difficulties of the last thousand years. I made a MIDI loop on the crude sequencing programs of the late 1980s and listened to pairs of those intervals in the background, for hours on end, until I could identify them without fail and in many cases even sing them myself. Then I set about the task of learning the seven- and eleven-based intervals which were new to Western practice. On a long strip of poster board I made a chart of Partch's scale correlating it to the keyboard keys, which I taped on to my DX7, and which I have been transferring from keyboard to keyboard now for over 25 years. I have since found many thrilling harmonic effects that I couldn't achieve within Partch's 43 tones, but it took me several years to get a good sense of all the tones that were already there.
As I began reading more and more of the literature of tuning and temperament, I also came to realize that Genesis of a Music is by far the best one-volume textbook on the subject. Bob Gilmore says that Partch wrote it for the twenty-year-old version of himself, and it certainly works better for young people than any of the books that have arisen from doctoral dissertations on the ancient Greeks or old English keyboard music. Chapters 15 through 18 offer a concise history of tuning and temperament with all pedantry banished, all eccentrics given equal treatment, and all available colorful details emphasized. Chapters 7 through 11 build up in a logical fashion the structure of Partch's scale, and then at the end resoundingly dismiss many of the practical objections that seemed damning in the 1930s, but that today's student would hardly be aware of.
Partch did much of his research at the British Museum from September through March of 1934-35. On a sabbatical in 2002 I followed him in there armed with the bibliography from Genesis of a Music, spent a few weeks in the British Museum myself, looked at the same copies of the frail old books Harry had read 68 years earlier, typed them on to my laptop since Xeroxing them wasn't allowed, and imagined that perhaps I was sitting in the same chair in the same room that Harry had sat in! Having seen the originals he worked from, I have always been impressed with how unerringly he distilled their pithiest contents into his book. As Bob Gilmore aptly writes, "It comes as a sobering corrective to the anarchic, irreverent aspects of Partch's creativity to realize how many hours he must have spent poring over Helmholtz's book and leafing through innumerable lesser works, drier than dust, on music theory and acoustics." Harry Partch, p. 60
As much as we think of him as a former hobo and almost an autodidact, Partch's erudition is astonishing and his writing the most energetic in the history of the subject. Over and over he can combine an elegant precision of recondite historical detail with an action-packed vernacular. Passages like the following keep the reader grounded through a circuitous historical exegesis:"Reviewing the long history of liturgical drama... W. J. Henderson declares that modern opera is a child of the Roman Catholic Church. We might also say that resentment is a child of a good solid fist on the jaw." Genesis of a Music, p. 21
As a author of some journalistic training myself, I have always found Partch's writing style remarkably and consistently direct and vivid. He pounds away at his thesis with a macho forcefulness, and yet can also pause to be gracious to an adversary, like the British musicologist Arthur Henry Fox-Strangways, whose theory he's about to deal a knock-out punch. Though he discourses on the loftiest plane about the ancient Greeks and Chinese theory, he never lets us forget where he's approaching them from, as in this oft-quoted passage:"It is very important that [the Kithara player] does not bend at the waist, like an amateur California prune picker, but that he keep the trunk vertical while doing a knee bend. Genesis of a Music, p. 229
Setting the apocalyptic tone for future microtonalists, he can talk of the "fatal day in Halberstadt" in 1361 when the first 12-tone keyboard appeared, which in his words was "selected by some inscrutable destiny to send its descendents over the face of the earth and to make them the procreators of virtually all musical thought." Genesis of a Music, p. 374. It seems incontestable to me that American microtonality has taken the pontifical shape it has, and attracted several generations of evangelical firebrands as its adherents, at least in part because of the furiously good-humored burst of energy with which Harry Partch unleashed it on the world. A mealy-mouthed scholar who timidly suggested that 43 tones to the octave might be a good idea could hardly have left such a legacy. We know Partch is the father of American microtonal composing because so many of his descendants look, or at least sound, just like him.
For years Genesis of a Music was my guide to the inferno into which I had thoughtlessly plunged, but I did not remain within its limitations. Eventually I worked with many intervals that were not present in Partch's scale, but for some two decades I satisfied myself, as he did, with eleven as the highest prime number in my system. Partch was my musical grandfather, and it seemed to me that if he had been happy with eleven, then I should be able to make do with it myself. However, in Genesis of a Music Partch admitted the arbitrariness of stopping with eleven in a striking image:"When a hungry man has a large table of aromatic and unusual viands spread before him he is unlikely to go tramping along the seashore and in the woods for still other exotic fare. And however skeptical he is of the many warnings regarding the unwholesomeness of his fare - like the 'poison' of the 'love-apple' tomato of a comparatively few generations ago - he has no desire to provoke further alarums. (Genesis of a Music, p. 123)
Meanwhile, Ben had already, before I met him, gone up to the 13th, 17th, and 19th harmonics, and he has since ventured as far as the 53rd at least, and I'm not sure how much higher. I never felt comfortable working with unusual intervals until I had learned to feel and anticipate them in my inner ear, and for twenty years, I couldn't bring the 13th harmonic into my sonic imagination. In 2005, however, I wrote a piece called Triskaidekaphonia centered around the 13th harmonic and using a scale of 13-based intervals. As I began to bring these intervals into my ear, I started adding 13 to the Partch otonality of 1-3-5-7-9-11. Eventually, something wonderful happened.
Partch's 11-limit otonality offers a potential scale of the 1st, 9th, 5th, 11th, 3rd, and 7th harmonics. As a scale, rather than as a harmony, that sequence contains a gap of 267 cents between the 3rd and 7th harmonics. As someone who instinctively gravitated to the practice that Partch called "tonality flux," this gap was causing me headaches. As a minimalist by generational inheritance and a chromaticist by acquired musical taste, I was interested in a polyphony that would give me the smallest possible intervals. I actually went pretty far in this direction long before I reread Genesis of a Music and acquired a score of Partch's song The Letter (as transcribed by Adam Silverman), and found that Partch had long since anticipated me and called this phenomenon "tonality flux": the ability to nestle triads within each other's intervals so that the harmony could change radically with the individual lines hardly moving at all. When I shifted from one chord to another, that gap between the 3rd and 7th harmonics was making me jump one of my melodic lines further than I wanted to. When I expanded Partch's otonality one step to 1-3-5-7-9-11-13, I got a full, perceptually continuous seven-pitch scale, and by adding in 15 (which, as 3 x 5, was still within the 13 limit), I had an eight-pitch scale. I certainly wasn't the first to do it; I've been told that David Cope was using this tuning in the 1980s. But I found it tremendously liberating. For me, looking for the most parsimonious possible voice-leading for a kind of minimalist polyphony, the 13th harmonic was the key to completing Partch's system and smoothing it into a seamless web.
In a certain sense Partch seemed like the Moses who led me to the Promised Land but didn't get to enter it himself. Of course, given the plethora of notes that 13 led in its wake would have caused him to add many more keys to his already abundant 43. Carpentry made his 11-limit tuning possible; the 13-limit needed digital electronics. And even so, I have never succeeded in writing a piece with 43 different pitches. I have always been impressed that Partch could keep them all in his head.
While I'm mentioning The Letter, I take the opportunity to urge us all to fight back against the bad old joke that academic composers who don't understand just intonation love to make about Partch: that all of his music is in the key of G. It is obviously not. To resort to Johnston's notation for a moment, which Partch didn't use but is adequate to transcribe his music, The Letter oscillates between triads on Bb7 and AL, and cadences often on Eb. Scene 1 of The Bewitched contains long passages in F minor and C#, and the piece ends with a solo for the Marimba Eroica, the tuning of which doesn't even contain a G. I hope that all those who attempt to condescend to Partch with this comment get blasted with the contempt they deserve.
At the same time, I am well aware that Partch cannot be reduced, as so many have tried to reduce him, to his tuning system. I will surely not be the last to quote this week his insistence that tuning was a secondary aspect of his work, and his irritated assertion that the number 43 is "in fact the one-half truth of the one-fourth factor," and "totally misleading." Actually, as someone who has spent several decades periodically poring through Genesis of a Music, upon following his scores it often strikes me that tuning, or at least tuning harmonies, was a relatively minor concern in Partch's compositional thinking. So much of his music is percussion-based, so rarely did he sustain novel harmonies, so little time did he devote to the exotic chord progressions that his scale renders possible, that it’s as though he made this wonderful scale for the rest of us to explore, and didn't seek out its full potential himself. It is tempting to think that he must have been motivated by the kind of hypersensitivity to tone that he ascribed to W.B. Yeats: "Such a person," he said, "hears all the tones in the gamut, instead of the seven or eight or twelve our musical fathers have insisted must be our limit." Partch imagined a music teacher saying, "If he doesn't like C# he has D," and translated it as, "He has yellow; why must he be so difficult as to also want vermillion?" Bitter Music, p. 159. He wanted nuance, variety, and the full prism of melodic intonation, but he didn't seem to do much to emphasize the new harmonic language he made available.
As a substitute I will not, however, address Partch's conception of corporeality, which he considered so central to his work. I have never been involved in performing his music, and as someone more fluent in the world of print than the world of furniture, I have never felt terribly corporeal myself. But I would like to address Partch's overlooked contributions to the world of 20th-century rhythm.
Partch does not often write about rhythm, but in a 1952 article "The Rhythmic Motivations of Castor and Pollux and Even Wild Horses," he expresses an envy of popular music that many young composers of subsequent generations would come to share. "The rhythmic practices of the 'populars,'" he writes,are the crux. After I have sat through a couple of hours with a good band in a nightclub, these are a source of both fascination and annoyance. Fascination because the music tends to fulfill a basic need - of both the naive and the sophisticated; annoyance because it goes endlessly on its way, with a strict, limited bong-bong-bong. Almost always without retard or acceleration, almost always without subtle nuance or elaboration...."
The steady, undeviating beat is a feature of all or nearly all primitive musical cultures. It sometimes proceeds for hours, to the point of stupid hypnosis - and stupid is to my mind the adjective. Yet within the frame of a limited objective, perhaps even this - this that annoys my susceptibilities so greatly - is one of the sources of the strength I seek! Bitter Music, pp. 222-3
Due to its vast reliance on percussion and its continual relation to dance, Partch's music does exhibit the steadiest beat of any mid-20th-century music that we could call classical. But the music is never rhythmically tiresome, and the general unavailability of scores has prevented the music world from becoming aware of how much ingenuity Partch devoted to keeping that bong-bong-bong lively. 5/4 and 7/4 are among his favorite meters. Many passages in his music alternate measures in odd and even meters, such as 6/4 plus 5/4, 9/8 plus 2/4, (4+1/2)/4 plus 4/4. His piece Even Wild Horses has a passage in a pattern of 4+3+4+3+4+5 beats, equaling 23 in all. Regarding Castor and Pollux, which has a pattern of either nine or seven beats throughout, he wrote,[T]o get back to the first of the rhythmic elements, the one I questioningly admire, the steady - or steadily implied - bong-bong-bong. In Castor and Pollux, I preserved this steady beat for sixteen minutes with the intention of making it sufficiently varied and interesting in subsidiary rhythm and beat (it is in alternate measures of four and five beats, and three and four beats)... that it would not only be bearable but - if my postulate is correct - give it a strength it would not otherwise possess. Bitter Music, p. 224
Even more impressive to me than this, however, is the lengths to which Partch went in his divisions of the beat. It is extraordinarily difficult to convince eighteen-year-olds that 12/8 meter is counted in four beats, and I have accumulated enough failure in this particular quest over 17 years to account for quite a sum of personal despair. But I always thought I could clinch the argument if I could demonstrate that 20/16 meter and 28/16 meter are also counted in four beats. The only piece I've ever found that provided that opportunity is Partch's Delusion of the Fury. Some of you will know, though others of you may never have seen the score, that the second half of the "Exordium" speeds up through a process by which the beat becomes shorter by consisting of first seven, then six, then five 16th-notes, in a progression of meters 28/16, 24/16, and 20/16. It is thrilling, because it is so natural yet so rare, to hear the division of these beats into seven and five, especially given the inner divisions (such as 2+2+2+1, 1+2+2+2, 2+7) that Partch takes advantage of and repeats often enough to drive them home. In the 24/16 meter as well, Partch has fun dividing up the meter as 6 x 4, 8 x 3, 4 x 6, constantly shifting one's sense of the tempo in a vastly expanded hemiola. In the passage I'm about to play, the transition from 28/16 to 24/16 seems to imply a steady 16th-note, since at the tempo of a double-dotted quarter-note = 78, there would be 546 16th-notes a minute, and the notated tempo in 24/16 of a dotted-quarter equaling 92 is very close to that. Moving to the 20/16 meter at a quarter-note-tied-to-a-16th = 96, however, implies a slowing down of the 16th-note, since the tempo at the previous speed should be 109.
An even more impressive example is found in an earlier theater piece, The Bewitched. One passage in the first scene, "The Lost Musicians Mix Magic," contains one of Partch's most fascinating meter alternations ever, between 25/16 and 5/4. The tempo stretches back and forth at a subtle 4-to-5 ratio, five beats in each measure, but with quintuple subdivisions in one measure and quadruple subdivisions in the other.
Later in that scene, and two more times later in the opera, the music goes into 35/16 meter. At first, for two measures, this is interpreted as five beats to the measure, a double-dotted quarter-note getting the beat. But after those two measures Partch articulates the glorious number 35 two ways at once, as both 5 x 7 and 7 x 5, the latter heard as seven beats to the measure, each with a quintuple subdivision. For six glorious measures we hear the ensemble play a perfectly precise and audible rhythm of five-against-seven, with the lowest common denominator of 35 16th-notes keeping track. The second and third times this passage returns, Partch soon follows it with a similar passage in 15/16, in which for sixteen measures we hear some musicians articulating five groups of three and others three groups of five. This next example is from scene 10, "The Cognoscenti Are Plunged into a Demonic Descent While at Cocktails":
The passage then trails into a typical Partch alternation of 9/8 with 4/8.
In addition I like to note a recurring passage from Daphne of the Dunes in which the performer uses a kind of additive rhythmic process. I apologize for the notation because I know the pitches aren't correct, but I was only interested in the rhythmic pattern, which as you can see moves among fives, sevens, nines, and elevens by adding pitches into the basic motive.
One of the things I find interesting about this is and some of the preceding examples as well is that, by using accents and irregular repetitions within a performable continuum of steady notes, Partch anticipated what is for me the greatest attraction of Philip Glass's early minimalist ensemble music.
(I might add parenthetically that another composer known for his tuning prowess, and whose rhythmic innovations have also not been sufficiently appreciated, is Ben Johnston. Ben's music contains a host of similar rhythmic devices: an ostinato in 13/16 in the Suite for Microtonal Piano, a Trio in 11/8, simultaneous meters of 4-against-9-against-10-against-12 in the 9th quartet, a large-scale cross-rhythm of 35-against-36 and a series of four nested 3-against-2's in his Fourth Quartet, not to mention Knocking Music. There is a long American tradition of using number ratios for both pitch and rhythmic relations that goes back at least to Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, that involves Conlon Nancarrow, James Tenney, Larry Polansky, David First, Art Jarvinen, John Luther Adams, myself, and quite a few others. Partch and Johnston are important links in that chain, and their rhythmic innovations and performance solutions deserve further study.)
However, I want now to go beyond the tuning and beyond the rhythm and suggest that the most inspiring aspect of Partch's legacy and influence wasn't primarily musical, but spiritual. Microtonality isn't for everyone; not everyone is looking for exciting cross-rhythms; but every creative person, which means every person, who goes into a music education faces a monolith of received dogma, much of it of far more recent vintage than it pretends to be, and faces it as a sole, solitary individual. To that extent, every one of us finds ourself in Harry Partch's shoes, and we don't all face the challenge as courageously as Partch did. A sufficiently well-trained pianist, we tend to forget, that he could play Chopin from memory decades after his last piano lesson, Partch described this dilemma with a vividness and urgency unmatched by any other writer. "The modern musician," he wrote, "doesn't talk in plain terms, such as the painter's red, purple, blue, but in a cant - an idiom peculiar to the genus musician. He talks of A-flat, B-flat, tonic, mediant, dominant. And this strange language developed with and largely because of [historical] falsifications." Bitter Music, p. 162-3
Boy, as a theory teacher do I identify with this one. After seventeen years I was recently released from the penal servitude of teaching first-year music theory. What made it penal servitude was not that the experience was unrewarding, but the absurdity of the terminology, for which I found myself constantly apologizing. I also teach a course in microtonality, which is a blessed relief, because from the first day I can tell them nothing but the truth. I have walked into many music classrooms at other schools and asked the question, "Why are there twelve pitches in an octave?" I am still waiting for a student or professor to answer it. The spirit of questioning seems to be stamped out at the very beginning, as a prelude to a music education. The worst student papers I receive are always analyses of music by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, because the student has learned to abase himself before them, and writes with an obligingly cringing and obsequious spirit. Partch writes, "With a questioning spirit as his prompter, [the student] will listen to all his teachers and read all available books on music and related subjects, but he will hold everything they say and write in abeyance until each assertion has had an individual seminar with his powers of concentration, logic, and perception." "Show Horses in the Concert Ring," Bitter Music, p. 178
"He will get no help from the music schools in this attitude;" he continues;
after all, they are music schools only because they are virtually impervious to individualism. Ritual of classroom double-talk and creed of safety-deposit-box dogma have vested the high priests of the musical academy with a calcification the envy of every other bone of human endeavor." "Show Horses in the Concert Ring," Bitter Music, 178
Is this still true? We would like to think not so. A recently graduated student told me that two of my colleagues had instructed him that he shouldn't write music with a steady beat, because that was unsophisticated; this student was the son of a successful songwriter who had been using a steady beat his entire career. Another student told me her doctoral composition was criticized because she too often articulated the downbeat and didn't use enough quintuplets. One of my most brilliant students showed her orchestra piece to a grad school professor and was asked, "Don't you find it awfully limiting to use a key signature?" Even within the microtonal world, there are those who tell us we must all abandon just intonation and content ourselves with 72 equal steps for the convenience of performers. Another student told me that he was commanded not to write another note until he had listened to many works by Elliott Carter, because he had not yet "gotten into the Elliott Carter frame of mind." I would love to hear what Harry Partch would have said to that teacher. Had he been born a hundred years later than he was, he would have had to write most of the same things he did.
Some more quotations, because they can't be improved by paraphrase:
"[N]othing could be more futile (or downright idiotic) than to express this age. The prime obligation of the artist is to transcend his age, therefore to show it in terms of the eternal mysteries. What this age needs more than anything else is an effective antidote." - "The Ancient Magic," Bitter Music p. 185
"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion... What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can." Walden, p. 7
"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?... The sun shines to-day also." Emerson, "Nature"
"Let not one year pass - I now say to myself - when I do not step one significant century backward. And since there are so many full circles in a man's life, I am firmly convinced that when I have regressed as far as I can possibly go, I shall have actually arrived at a point some years in the wild future, and maybe it won't be so god-awful pure." "A Somewhat Spoof," Bitter Music p. 188
"In a world grown haggard from the keenness of competition between ciphers, it is hard to conceive of anything more idiotic than to worry about the development of some given individual as a concert personality; whether the authorities accept or reject him is inconsequential; in the face of historical fact it takes an unconscionable effrontery to assume that the authorities have ever been anything but timid, reluctant, flippant, or passively hostile when forced to rein up before truly creative faculties." "Show Horses in the Concert Ring," Bitter Music, p. 177
"Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young... I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose." Walden, 9
"The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality." Genesis of a Music, p. xv
"I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions." Emerson, "Self-Reliance," 33
"The burden of explanation... belongs to those who accept the forms of a past day without scrutinizing them in the light of new and ever-changing technological and sociological situations, in the light of interests that stand to profit by the status quo, and in the light of their own individualities, this time and this place. Genesis of a Music, p. xvii
"It has been said, in public print, that if my ideas were to become dominant in music schools it would be the end of music as we know it. May I say, first, that the danger is singularly slight. However, beyond this is the implication that music must be monolithic, that whatever is decided by the majority or the most powerful must be adhered to by everyone. This idea is totally outside the thrust of Western civilization, which has prided itself for over two thousand years, off and on, in the concept of allowing strong individualization without alienation." "Monoliths in Music," Bitter Music, p. 194
"How can he remember well his ignorance - which his growth requires - who has so often to use his knowledge?" Walden, p. 5
"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men - that is genius." Emerson, "Self-Reliance," 30
And, finally, a quotation that I kept on my office doors for years, and one of the truest things ever written: "The doors that are closed because of education are the saddest doors that humanity never walked through. "A Quarter-Saw Section," Bitter Music p. 197.
That last quotation was Harry Partch, but many of you doubtless will have realized that some of the others weren't: they were by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I had planned off the top of my head, several months ago when this talk was requested, to compare Partch to Jack Kerouac, but I spent much of the summer rereading Thoreau, and when I switched to Partch, the tone and content were so similar that I sometimes forgot which of them I was reading. Partch could hear what was wrong with our approach to music in the beats of a major triad, just as Thoreau could sense what was ultimately wrong with capitalism in the fact that it took longer to earn the price of a train ticket than it did to walk the distance involved. I have called Partch, in print, the most American composer of all, but I sometimes am forced to realize that the Americans I pin my own national identity on are distinguished by not fitting into America at all. They are the ones who "go outside," who go build a cabin and live by a pond, or work in the insurance business because the music world thinks they're crazy, or flee to Mexico City to live in isolation with a player piano, or get into Zen and listen to the environment, or hole themselves up in a compound with a group of instruments they built themselves to play a music no one else could hear. Perhaps there was, to his credit, nothing very American about Harry Partch. But like Charles Ives, he was one of our great musical Transcendentalists, because when his own intuitions and perceptions conflicted with received authority, received authority - after a rigorous cross-examination - went out the window.
Whether it is human nature, the nature of academia, or the subtly mendacious nature of our music pedagogy, what Emerson said remains true in the music world: "The virtue in most request is conformity." It is unbelievably, wearyingly common today for musicians to say that everything that can be done in music has been done, that there is nothing new under the sun, that all we can do is quote and rearrange and imitate. But Harry Partch wrote: "We have done no more than scratch the surface of possible harmonic music; we have certainly done no more than scratch the surface of possible rhythmic music." "Monoliths in Music," Bitter Music, p. 194. I believe that with all my heart. I think more people would come to believe it if Partch's music were more widely dispersed into the discourse, if his scores became more available, his notation more readable, his methods and ideas understood as the beginnings of a new chapter in music. Let's get started this week.
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