by Tom Broderick
While hanging out at the home of Peg Strobel and Bill Barclay some months back, Peg said something about passing by a music room during her college days and hearing strange sounds. She stopped in and found out that someone named Harry Partch was working on his musical compositions on weird looking musical instruments.
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” I exclaimed. “Never among my political comrades would I have expected to hear anyone mention the name Harry Partch.” Peg jumped up and produced an L.P. of Partch’s work. Partch was born in 1901 and died in 1974. During the 1930 Depression era, Partch was riding the rails along the west coast and picking fruit: An itinerant. A hobo. He was also occasionally employed by the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.).
In 1943 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and that launched his career in musical composition and reluctantly on the creation of musical instruments. His early works were essentially spoken or intoned voices combined with the sounds generated by his musical instruments, which were generally percussive in nature. Partch gave his instruments names like Omicron Belly Drum, Harmonic Cannon III, New Kithara I and Cloud-Chamber Bowls. The Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited some of them in 1968.
I first ran across Partch’s music on a CD released by the Kronos Quartet called HOWL, U.S.A. This CD has four compositions, all with a political bent. The first is Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover, composed by Michael Daugherty with sampling of words by J. Edgar Hoover, including the line “We are as close to you as your telephone” menacingly repeated throughout the composition and accompanied by a ringing telephone. Next is Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. This composition was arranged and voiced by Ben Johnston, who had worked with Partch. The inscriptions of eight hitchhikers are spoken and sung to the music provided by the Kronos String Quartet.
Cold War Suite from How It Happens (The Voice of I.F. Stone) was composed by Scott Johnson. This has the voice and sampled voice of I.F. Stone taken from radio commentary and a lecture given by him that was broadcast by National Public Radio. The fourth composer on the disk is Lee Hyla with a reading of the text of Howl, performed by Allen Ginsberg. The CD, which was recorded in 1995 is still available and well worth obtaining for its creative use of music and historical texts. The cover photo is by Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s called American Flag and is a frayed American flag with the sun setting (rising?) behind it.
So back to Harry Partch. After listening to the CD released by the Kronos Quartet, I wanted to find out more about Harry Partch. A collection of three compact disks were released by Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI). Volume 2 has the Barstow track on it, but the instruments were the ones fashioned by Partch: Surrogate Kithara, Chromelodon I, Diamond Marimba and Boo. In addition there are three other compositions that involve singing or intoned speaking voices: U.S. Highball – A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip; San Francisco – A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Foggy Night in the Twenties and The Letter. These last three are grouped together under the title The Wayward.
Although created and manipulated by Partch, what these works of art bring to my mind is Studs Terkel and his interviews. The voices from Partch’s compositions have the feel of real folk. There’s a legitimacy to the stories. U.S. Highball includes advice and reminisces about riding the rails. San Francisco has sounds of two newsboys hawking their papers. Newsboys? Hawking their papers? No longer in this country. The Letter is subtitled “A Depression Message from a Hobo Friend.” It features Partch speaking/intoning the text from a letter he received from Pablo about his recent experiences and the need to get back on the road posthaste. These works were all written in the early 1940s. U.S. Highball and San Francisco were recorded in 1958. The Letter was recorded in 1972 and Barstow was recorded in 1982.
Another wanderer appears in Partch’s Ulysses At The Edge, composed in 1955. It’s found on Volume I of the CRI disks and was recorded in 1958. This fairly short work includes voice, baritone saxophone, alto saxophone and three of Partch’s instruments: Bamboo Marimba, Cloud-Chamber Bowls and Diamond Marimba. It was revised later, substituting a trumpet for the alto sax. The very few spoken words that come near the end of the piece are “So you say that your name is Ulysses. That you’re wandering around the world. Tell me sir, have you ever been arrested before?”