Friday, December 20, 2013

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

Slogging, as a total amateur, through Harry Partch's book Genesis of a Music and trying to grasp as much as possible the complex and highly ordered system of "monophony" he developed with 43 tones in just intonation reflecting precise vibrational ratios in place of the notation system of equal temperament found in "classical" music, what has been most striking and memorable, actually, is the composer's differentiation between corporeal and abstract music. 

Namely, that ancient forms of music, such as that found in Greece, was corporeal, in which music was not separate from other performing arts like theater and poetry/recitation/singing and that the integration of these art forms was represented in a purer expression through the human body in a coordinated theatrical and musical setting.  Vocalizations were not done for their own sake, but to clearly express the text of what was sung, which also related to dance and other visual representations.

Later, however, European "classical" music, in Partch's view, became abstract, removing the music from the integrated bodily expressions of those prior societies and traditions and employing an artifice that prized technical ability over message and virtuosity over direct human emotion.  He criticized operatic singing, for example, as emphasizing drawn-out vocalizations that sacrificed the text and its meaning for showy, self-conscious expressions of the talents of the composer and the singer.  But J.S. Bach's devising of equal temperament for the "well-tempered clavier" seems to have been where the abstraction wrongly pulled music away from its corporeal roots.

Partch's arguments are interesting and compelling and he developed a truly original compositional form with instruments of his own design and construction, while also being heavily influenced by, among others, ancient Greek and Japanese Noh and kabuki theater traditions (his parents were missionaries in China and the family also lived in the American Southwest, where native societies had a great impression on the young Partch.)

Another interesting element to the book is his discussion of the contrast between standardized definitions of consonance and dissonance and it seems that his views are that what one person might view as "noise" through dissonance can seem quite consonant, when heard through the monophonic system Partch developed.  This is fascinating because equal temperament is so well-established and traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms are so different from Partch's vision that, given how we listen to music, it can be argued, perhaps, that Partch's "dissonance" seems actually "abstract."

Over time, though, in listening to a wide array of his works, this amateur listener has come to admire the dissonant beauty and compelling palette of unusual sounds coaxed from the varied custom instruments this brilliant iconoclast designed and built (and which are only rarely played by acolytes because of their complexity and logistical challenges.)  It has taken time and effort to develop this appreciation and the advise offered, and mentioned here before, by jazz musicians Albert and Donald Ayler concerning the former's idiosyncratic music, comes to mind:  try to follow the sound, not the notes.

As much as it is desirable to want to understand the nuances and complexities of Partch's discussion of monophony and the ratios building from a 1/1 ratio (corresponding roughly to the "G" note in equal temperament) and the utonalities and otonalities (referring to the top or over number and the bottom of under number in the ratios as overtones and undertones) and all other manner of concepts embodied in his system, ultimately for most people, listening to Partch is an attempt to "follow the sound" and be caught up in the wonderful and exotic sounds coaxed from these amazing instruments.

To many fans, Partch's 1965-66 composition, "Delusion of the Fury", is his masterpiece.  First performed in 1969 at UCLA in Los Angeles and, amazingly, released by the mainstream Columbia label, the recording is a 72-minute excursion into the unique world of Partch's monophonic system and his remarkable fusion of ancient Greek, Japanese, and other elements that explore the meaning of ritual.

Partch's statement in the liners: "Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing" is essential, because his idea of corporeal music is that you can't separate the visual from the auditory and the total experience cannot be captured in a recording that only gives you the latter.  While Partch maligned opera from moving away from the corporeal to the abstract, his larger-scale works can lead to the feeling that they are a unique and personalized form not that far removed from opera.  And, when listening to a recording, as with opera, much is missed in not seeing and experiencing the unified whole.

In any case, it is still a great treat hearing the vast forms of percussion, including the "marimba eroica," and the "quadranglaris reversum," and the "cloud-chamber bowls," and the "spoils of war," and the "harmonic canon II." The plucked strings include the two forms of "kithara," and that "harmonic canon I" as well as a Japanese koto.  And, the list of interestingly-named and played instruments goes on, including the "eucalyptus claves," the "Fiji rhythm boat," the "gubagabi," and the "drone devils" or jewsharps.  The vocalizations are chants and singing done in monosyllables, not the ornate and elongated operatic arias Partch frowned upon.

Partch did offer a synopsis, stating that the setting was "an olden time" and that the lengthy overture, titled the "Exordium" was a "music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death," giving a distinctly Buddhist-like  connotation concerning the move to enlightenment.  Partch observed that the storyline was based on a fallen warrior's ghost appearing to the killer and the latter's young son and working through a reconciliation to enlightenment from fury from being killed during battle.

Not surprisingly, Partch models the second act on an Ethiopian folk story, noting that the idea was to link life and death as "an accommodation toward a healthy—or at least a possible—existence," rather than as separate elements.  The tale involved a misunderstanding over the muteness of a vagabond (Partch also uses the word "hobo," a theme he often developed in his career, having been a hobo for several years as a younger man) who is mistaken for stealing an old woman's goat and then the couple is forced to appear before a deaf and near-sighted judicial official for a sentence heightened by the earlier misunderstanding as to what the hobo or vagabond had actually done.

Notably, Partch composed the piece to go straight through, without interruption, throughout the hour and ten minute plus length, corresponding to the idea of moving directly from life to death to reconciliation in the first act and the concept of dealing with the interrelationship of meaning, misunderstanding and misapplication of law in the second.

Danlee Mitchell, who conducted the original performance with supervision from the composer and became Partch's heir and executive director of the Harry Partch Foundation, provides an interesting and informative essay about the mounting of the performance and Partch's work generally and there are a few fascinating quotes from Partch to producer John McClure showing his frustration dealing with the long gestation of the work and in dealing with a major label.

Whether or not this appreciation accurate conveys Partch's concepts or understands even on a basic level his tenets relating to corporeal music and theater versus the abstractions of "classical" music, this listener is amazed at the commitment, depth of thought, and remarkable presentation that he was able to generate in highly challenging circumstances through many decades of working virtually "underground."  Even if it not understood conceptually, the adage of the Aylers to "follow the sound" rather than the notes, or, in Partch's case, the 43 monophonic ratios, has opened up new ways of hearing music, dissonant, consonant, or neither.

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