Harry Partch: a dreamer that dreams

Ever wonder what they’re going to write about you when you’re gone? Does the holy battle you wage against life ever amount to anything? Ever question whether it’s all worth it? Does it all matter in the end?

So it must have seemed for one Harry Partch. It’s rumored that on his deathbed, he uttered a single, rosebud-esque word. "Iconoclast" was all he said.

One obituary reads: "Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 - September 3, 1974): American composer, librettist, philosopher, publisher, record distributor, teacher, satirist, instrument builder and designer, sculptor, instrument repairman and tuner, theorist, experimentalist, self-taught musician, percussionist, adapted violist, conductor, author, retired hobo, seaman, sewer cleaner, dishwasher and kitchen flunky, comedian, vagrant, member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, and graffitist. Until his death, Harry Partch had been doing his own thing for more than half a century. Partch's own thing began with his rejection of the European masters and the traditional bourgeois concert-hall performance."

Partch, as he was inevitably called, was not only arguably one of the greatest and most individualistic composers of all time, but an innovative theorist who broke through the shackles of many centuries of the one tuning system for all of Western music. As a music instrument inventor who created dozens of incredible instruments for the performance of his music, and was also a musical dramatist who created his own texts and dance/theatre extravaganzas based on everything from Greek mythology to his own experiences as a hobo. Between 1930 and 1972, he created one of the most amazing bodies of sensually alluring and emotionally powerful music of the 20th century: music dramas, dance theater, multi-media extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music - mostly all performed on the instruments he built himself.

Partch was known as a hell-raiser and iconoclast, a hobo, a visionary, a Bacchic monk, some say a schizophrenic, a mass of complexities, a dove and a great white shark. But in one area he was totally consistent: he detested any single ruling attitude or tradition, about which he said, "The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality."

At age twenty-nine, Partch gathered up fourteen years of music he had written, based on what he called the "tyranny of the piano" and the twelve-tone scale, and summarily burned it in a big iron stove. American music wasn't really American but was only a facsimile of European convention and fashion. He felt he was only an imitator of the tradition he found dumped on him, without ever questioning the ideas that lay beneath it or its ability to express the confluence of oceanic, non-Western minisounds he heard in the world around him. For the next four and a half decades, most of the time working in virtual obscurity, Partch devoted his entire life to the production of those sounds. A true maverick or visionary in the eyes of contemporary students, Partch was derided by musicologists for most of his life, often called "The Don Quixote of Music." Only very late in life did he acquire a belated but significant international reputation as both a major musical composer and an innovative genius. When he died in 1974, he had built around thirty instruments and had devised complex theories of intonation and even of performance to accompany them.

He designed and built these new instruments to support his harmonic and melodic theories. These instruments were keyed to his 43-tone scale and dated from 1930 onwards. Their titles only begin to describe the uniqueness of their shapes and sounds: the Adapted Viola, Kitharas I & II, Chromelodeons, the Diamond Marimba, Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Eroica, Surrogate Kithara, Eucal Blossom, Quadrangularis Reversurn, Bamboo Marimba (Boo), Bass Marimba, Mazda Marimba, Gourd Tree, Cone Gongs, Harmonic Canon II, and the intriguing Zymo-Xyl.

Every sound produced by these instruments was a tone in Partch's tuning, and consciously used as such in acoustic relationships. Throughout, the timbre of all the instruments was mellifluous rather than harsh, consonant rather than unrelated. As a result, the intricate rhythms and harmonies he employed to evoke dramatic response, became emotionally stirring, exciting and deeply moving, yet never violent. Like controlled cacaphony.

On August 15, 1965, Partch signed a lease on an abandoned laundromat at 1110 West Washington Blvd. (now Abbot Kinney Blvd.), described then as "a noisy street in bohemian Venice." Sculptor Charles Mattox, one of the first kinetic sculptors in America, who had a studio nearby, had suggested the place. At the studio, rehearsals began for an evening of music called the Lone Pine Concert, which took place on August 29th. Partch then began what he later called "three months of turmoil" getting the place organized for his ultimate creative output.

During that autumn in Venice, Partch built two aluminum Cone Gongs, made from the greenish yellow nose cones of airplane gas tanks obtained from salvage at the Douglas Aircraft Company. He also built the Harmonic Canon II. And then he began writing his opus -"Delusion of the Fury" that November, which was completed on March 17, 1966, and premiered in January 1969 at UCLA. The piece is one of the best examples of Partch’s concept of "corporeality," or "total theater," integrating music, dance, stagecraft and ritual.

His famed work "And On the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma" was also written while he lived here in Venice.

West Washington Blvd. must have been a tough place to live in the mid-sixties.
Many of Partch's letters reflect the noise, drunks, and danger. He also writes of a "terrible aloneness." In the middle of May 1967, Partch fled Venice to avoid "the constant noise, the constant indecencies, and the abrasive hostility." He was concerned how Betty Freeman would react to his leaving Venice, as it was her money that had made the studio possible in the first place, and was relieved when she wrote him reassuring that there was no problem.

Partch labored his whole life on his own vision, knowing it would never be embraced as a musical fashion. He continued anyway, always faithful to his principles and to his method of disciplined belief. In the film ‘The Dreamer That Remains,’ by local resident Stephen Pouliot, which he directed in 1973, Partch comes across as a man on a mission, with all the internal stamina needed to fulfill his inner quest. Yet there is the humor of humanity obviously evident, especially when he’s talking about his influences – Chinese lullabies, Mexican songs and Yacqui Indian music – and when he’s playing and explaining his intriguing instruments. It’s great to see him break his seriousness with a smile and a laugh.

The message of Harry Partch, for musicians and nonmusicians alike, is that there are still choices to be made and independent paths to pursue. On several occasions near the end of his life, Partch contended that he did not want people to consider his work the only worthy destination, but rather one viable direction deserving serious scrutiny among many. A true Venetian outlook.

But Harry Partch died alone. A student found his body on the living room floor - headed toward his favorite easy chair. He just may have been thinking "iconoclast" in those last moments.

And so, to answer those first questions that may plague us all, I’d personally say "Yep." It’s not what one does in life, but the way one does it, especially here in the free-spirit, iconoclastic atmosphere of our wonderful Venice.