Uneasy Listening: Back on the Bum Again, for Three Minutes
HARRY PARTCH “The Letter” CRI 7000
I like to think of Harry Partch as a uniquely American eccentric, the kind of dreamer musician who couldn’t find the notes he wanted, so he built a new musical solar system. He created a world just so he could play havoc with it and play around in it…a pioneer and American to his core.
Partch was a mad scientist, an independent and a rogue. No one mistook him for Mozart reincarnated, at least not from the music he wrote after burning his “western style” compositions in a potbellied stove at the onset of the Great Depression. He wasn’t trying to keep warm. Partch believed the old ways were dying, so what’s a poor boy to do but fashion his own 43 note scale and start creating new instruments from fuel tanks, cans, jars, shell casings and even re-purposed old instruments. (This was before the days when poor boys had the option of being street fighting men or joining rock and roll bands.) Partch created music that, while not always easy to listen to, expanded ideas of the potential and purpose of music and art. To me, it’s a glorious racket, even when my Mood Ring is an irritated green.
“The Letter” was inspired by a real letter Partch received from a hobo in 1935. We romanticize the weary hobo nowadays, but this is gritty stuff, not just wanderlust for guys with facial hair and polka dot kerchiefs. Partch’s correspondent speaks of unemployment, a wife he hates, mistreatment and general misery. It’s all read by a monotone Partch, swinging between sing-song and chant. The language is blunt but with just enough 30s color and even one or two violent metaphors to draw you in. It’s a candlelit incantation to a dark party the likes of which I’ve never seen.
The accompaniment is percussive. These must all be Partch’s creations – a little gamelan-y, something that sounds vaguely like a marimba, a xylophone, and some glass bottles. There’s something Far East about it, something Buddhist, but it’s not rhythmic, is it? Yes, I guess it is. Pendulum-like, the cadence lumbers right to left and back, walking like a corpulent sasquatch with a bag of snacks. In fact, it is Partch’s narration, not the instrumentation, that seems to bend and stretch the meter into fun new shapes.
After three minutes, and a little pinch to confirm that all of this was real, you’re left with visions of Partch, puttering away in a workshop to rival Santa’s, creating toys only he could play with, for the joy of it, for the crazy high of personal alchemy. Harry Partch seemed to never ask the question, “Does this sound right?” Rather, the question probably was, “Does this sound right to ME?”
For me, I hear Harry Partch in almost every avant garde composer I run across, but also in every kid who ever thumped something with something else, just to hear what it would sound like. But listen closely; he’s everywhere, whether we know it or not: buried in the minimalism of Johnny Cash, dancing with the faux tribalism of Talking Heads, and drinking Burma Shave with the ragged, jagged worldly Tom Waits, who I can guarantee has more than a passing familiarity with the late great Harry Partch.