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Monday, February 07, 2005
Harry Partch Collection, vols. 1-3
New World Records

When I worked at Tower Records, I would recommend to customers they buy DVDs of operas instead of CDs: opera is something to been seen and heard, not just heard. When you only hear an opera, you’re not really engaging with it in the way the composer intended. Same thing when you listen to a movie soundtrack. I mention this because much of the music featured on New World’s Harry Partch Collection was intended for dance, theater, or film. Partch himself regretted that recordings couldn’t capture the entire artistic experience, and, indeed, when listening to the Harry Partch Collection, as great a document as it may be, one gets the sense of getting only half the picture.

 height=Partch once wrote: "I do not aim toward interesting music – structurally, thematically, formalistically." Unfortunately, recordings draw our ears to precisely these intra-musical elements, and a lack of structural, thematic, and formal interest is omnipresent in Partch's music. This is probably unfair to say. But the fact is that, once one gets past the novelty of its timbres, Partch's work is frequently dull. Two works for me degenerated into pure tedium: "Plectra and Percussion Dances – Satyr-Play Music for Dance Theater" (vol.1) and "And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluna" (vol.2). In both, formal redundancy is to blame. The last third of "Petals" consists of earlier sections played simultaneously to form new sections. This technique is hit-or-miss at best, and composers should have the discretion to rework the "misses" rather than simply accepting the results. But such discretion was not part of Partch’s world.

 height=Still, I would be doing a disservice to Partch’s talents were I not to mention "US Highball," the first and most substantial section from his autobiographical tetrology "The Wayward" (vol.2). "US Highball," alone among the pieces on the Partch Collection (the fourth volume of which was not available for review), is a virtually unqualified success. A loose chronicle of a train trip during Partch’s peripatetic years as a hobo (1935-43), "US Highball" captures both the exhilaration and ennui endemic to travel. The text, composed of fragments from a notebook he kept during the time, evokes the cold of nights spent in box cars, the jerky motion of trains, the excitement of imminent arrivals, and the poignancy of transient companionship. There’s more than a breath here of Walt Whitman, and Steve Reich was channeling similar ideas in "Different Trains."

 height=The vast majority of the recordings on this set are re-releases of performances Harry Partch participated in himself, and to hear his voice and his ensemble is fascinating. The recording quality is frequently less than optimal, and the edits (especially in "Windsong" [vol.3]) are quite noticeable. But the air of authenticity is unmistakable. Since performances of Partch are, to put it mildly, rare, this collection is invaluable. I don’t think Partch was a great composer, but he was arguably the most iconoclastic composer of the twentieth century. As such, his works should be readily available to all music listeners. Now they are.

P.S. Later this month at Montclair State University, the Harry Partch Ensemble will be performing his theater piece "King Oedipus." This will be a great and rare opportunity to see what Partch was all about.


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