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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


Partch on His 99th

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

June 24, 2000

Iíve never counted Partch among the composers who influenced me the most. I always thought of my mentors as Stravinsky, Cage, and Zappa. But Partch was always there, as I've discovered in reflecting on his 99th birthday and preparing today's K&D show.

Ultimately, Partch's legacy may not be the depth and breadth of his compositional catalog. Even he didn't believe that.

Partch created astounding music, but he also gave many of us both license and discipline in a way our formal study could never reveal. There's an order to how Partch influenced my own growth since I first heard his music in 1970.

Partch dared to design and build new instruments. From the sparest of materials and abandoned instruments and with the greatest of care, he re-thought sounds and built instruments to make them. He cut cloud-chamber bowls into resonating bells, built the Marimba Eroica which is so huge the player stands on a ladder to play it, and re-built and re-tuned melodeons and organs. Found instruments made their way onto his great percussion ensembles. Even the found and re-built instruments weren't haphazard. The Asian-influenced designs were spare, beautifully constructed mostly out of wood, some containing integral seats and music stands, and then varnished or painted. (The rare LP set of Delusion of the Fury contains beautiful color photographs of these amazing instruments, and Partch's own descriptions of them.) So, with Partch's permission, I invented and built instruments -- not as colorful or crafted as his, but at the heart of my compositions with names like Plasm over ocean and Echo: A Performance Ritual.

Partch used unique scales. This was another example of license and discipline. With our meager 12-tone division, we can hardly imagine the subtlety possible with 43 notes to the octave. But that's what Partch used, breaking free from the 12 notes and the implications of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. He wasn't the only one, but he did it without affectation and with music that rocked:

That precise 43 is the one-half truth of the one-fourth factor. The emphasis has never been mine, because the number applies only to my insruments of fixed pitch, and my scores for thirty-six years past are eloquet testimony to the fact that -- beyond the fixed pitch idea -- I limit myself in no way whatever.

That, too, gave me license to write in alternative tunings, such as my double-logarithmic harp, 10-tone glass chimes, quarter-tone violin, and defrocked autoharp.

And how he broke free from the mantle of the Great Masters was another revelation. At age 28, he destroyed all his music. It was incomprehensible to me at first. Symphonies, tone poems, string quartets--all gone. And then I understood, and at age 27, I followed the path he pointed out, burning more than 40 of my compositions. I was free from the weight of the poorly made, derivative, and dull music. And again, it was Partch's example that helped me both perform that 1976 Detonacy -- and survive it.

But Partch wasn't all philosophy and weight. Indeed, mostly he wasn't. Partch returned fun to music. His choice of words (such as the hitchhikers' inscriptions in Barstow and the hippie-esque texts of Delusion of the Fury and Revelation in the Courthouse Park--the latter with characters called Mom, Dion, and Sonny) defied the Germanic lugubriousness of Wozzeck or the confused seriousness of Menotti's short operas or even the cynical cabaret styles of Brecht and Weill. There is nothing like hearing the dramatic bass intone with great solemnity, to the sound of drums, "Young man, take your beautiful young wife, and your charming child, and go home!"

Partch gave words a new place, but also recreated showiness and drama by reaching back to ancient Greece for dramatic presence and across to Indonesia for presentation and sound. He reinvigorated a field dominated by academics and scientific composers like Stockhausen and Xenakis and Babbitt, by European-influenced American tonalists like Copland and Hanson and Hovhaness, and even by mysterious experimentalists like Cage and Feldman. He re-invented ritual as a compositional value, with rhythm as its propulsion. Despair with serialism might have launched the minimalists, but it was Partch who made them possible.

In all of his originality, Partch remained more mythical than solid, and even today, his music can be heard only in a mix of restored tapes and hopeful re-releases. An occasional performance--such as Kronos's reworking of Barstow -- will go on. At least that much is good.

But his instruments cannot find a permanent home, evicted time after time from institutions with better sponsors to please. Eventually, they will devolve from active performance tools to museum pieces. And even the museum may close.

So Partch is destined for obscurity again, perhaps after a brief homage on his centenary in 2001. But on his 99th birthday today, I remain glad that I knew his music, and that our lives shared some common years, and that I carry some of his purpose in my own creations.