Harry Partch 1901-1973
Music Studio: Harry Partch (1958)
The ancient Greek legend of Daphne and Apollo, transported to Lake Michigan. 17:47 min
The best part of Enclosure 8, though, is the material that had previously constituted Enclosure 1, four films by Madeline Tourtelot, the first of which, "Music Studio," is about Partch and the many instruments he invented for the performance of his music. This is, without a doubt, the best way to begin the process of getting to know Partch, his theory of dividing the octave into 43 parts, the sounds of the instruments (and the pitches of his tuning system), and all the physical issues intimately connected with performing on those instruments. Tourtelot's films are also not particularly polished, which may be one reason that I no longer have a taste for the Columbia approach to Partch's music. Nevertheless, they provide an expository account of Partch the composer and the inventor that treats the subject with a sympathetic respect that has become rare in more recent expository film. Much of the music that Partch uses to demonstrate his instruments comes from the soundtrack he composed for another Tourtelot film, "Windsong," which, conveniently enough, is the next selection on the DVD. Thus, in these two juxtaposed films, we learn about Partch in both theory and practice. The music was also turned into a suite independent of the film, which is performed as part of the KEBS-TV documentary, "The Music of Harry Partch;" so the DVD actually provides three perspectives on this one piece of music.
The real fun begins, however, with "U. S. Highball," which, along with "Barstow," is a "hobo" composition. The film alternates between the ensemble performing the composition and footage of the sorts of freight trains and railroad yards around which hobo life and transportation were based. I have now seen this film several times and have no qualms about saying how exhilarating I find each viewing.
It takes some listening to get used to Partch's tuning. He developed his system in search of a better sound for the interval of a major third, which, in its purest form is a 5:4 ratio. The approximation of twelve equal steps to the octave is not a particularly good one; but that system has an excellent perfect fifth, the 3:2 ratio. The problem is that just about every effort to improve the third make the fifth sound worse, and Partch's solution is no exception. Indeed, I had one colleague who could not stand listening to the old Columbia recording, because she could only hear it as "out of tune;" but, of course, the whole reason that Partch built his instruments the way he did was to be able to play those "out of tune" pitches!
The one problem that this creates is that Partch's music can seldom be played on instruments other than those of his own making. Perhaps the most notable exception is that Ben Johnston (who has also been interested in composing with pitches other than those of the octave divided into twelve equal parts) composed an arrangement of "Barstow" for string quartet, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet. This is nice as far as it goes, but fidelity to Partch's pitches is still a far cry from fidelity to his sounds. The 1981 performance on the DVD is far more satisfying for the quality of those sounds.