The Arresting Harry Partch

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?”

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The Lively Politics of 1930s Art

At In These Times, Alex McLeese writes:

During the Cold War, much of the political art of the 1930s was overlooked, overshadowed by other artistic movements like Abstract Expressionism. Now, however, the period is receiving more attention.

The Art Institute of Chicago is showing America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. The exhibition, which includes 53 paintings, is advertised as featuring Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Grant Wood. Audiences will also encounter less well-known artists, some of whom made strong political statements.

While not all of the exhibit’s paintings engage directly with the era’s pressing social issues, much of America after the Fall reminds us of the power of political art. Although some art historians In These Times spoke with wished the exhibit included more background on the period’s radical politics, the show does the public service of inviting the viewer to look at past — and present — political art anew. After the show’s run at the Art Institute, which ends on Sunday, the show will travel to the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris and to London’s Royal Academy.

MORE.

The Free State of Jones: A Review

by Alec Hudson

When it comes to Hollywood and the Civil War, sentimentality and white saviour mentality are pervasive. Whether it is the 1989 film “Glory” or the melodramatic “Gods and Generals,” there’s always the classic trope of great men in history who dictate its conditions. “The Free State of Jones” is no exception, depicting the anti-Confederate insurgency in Jones County, Mississippi led by a poor white Confederate deserter Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey.

The film attempts to show racial and economic solidarity between poor whites and runaway slaves attempting to usurp the power of the slave-owning aristocracy. The insurgency begins with Knight protecting neighbors against Confederate Home Guard soldiers who attempt to take a large portion of their crops, an act that leads to him living with runaway slaves in the swamps of Jones County where Confederate troops have a harder time catching them. As more whites desert the Confederate Army in Jones County the band of runaways and deserters grows large enough to carry out full-scale guerrilla raids against Confederate troops, eventually leading to the insurgency’s control of most of Jones County and neighboring counties with limited aid from the Union Army.

The first two acts, concerning the rise of the insurgency, showcase film’s the weakness and clichéd nature. While the film does have wonderful performances by black actors, particularly the performances of Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the focus on Knight and his relationships combined with clichéd morals of tolerance makes the film little different in its white savior mentality. McConaughey, though a talented actor, gives a by-the-book performance that makes Knight a romanticized hero rather than a complex man from rural Mississippi whose attitude on race evolved. Added to this is the oddly framed story shift with Knight’s biracial son on trial in the 1950s for marrying a white woman in Mississippi, a background story that does not serve much of a purpose to the overall story’s narrative.

However, the film truly does shine in its third act depiction of Reconstruction. Very few films have depicted the essential re-enslavement of black Americans following the war, as well as the attempts at political and educational empowerment through defending voting rights, establishing free schools, and organizing Union Leagues to promote political empowerment and self-determination. The greatest depictions were in particular showing the attempts at registering former slaves to vote, the rigged nature of local elections, and the new “apprenticeship” system of sharecropping where free black free black people essential became property once again for plantation owners. Underlying the conditions depicted in the film is also the broken promise of economic compensation for former slaves, embodied in General Sherman’s Special Field Orders Number 15 which gave rise to the notion of freed slaves receiving forty acres and a mule. The lack of economic aid and the permission of plantation owners by the Federal government to reclaim property seized by Union forces do vividly show a microcosm of how the pre-war slave-owning aristocracy was allowed to maintain both its economic and political control on the South as well as politically and economically disenfranchise black people.

The Free State of Jones” is a part of the Hollywood canon of romanticized American Civil War films focusing on the feats of male, white heroes against the evils of slavery. At the same time it contains one of the greatest depictions of the Reconstruction Era ever put to screen and does leave one hopeful for more films that use such brutal honesty to portray that era. With the reality of police violence against communities of color, we need more popular culture that analyzes the causes of Jim Crow and segregation. This film is, as Eileen Jones of Jacobin Magazine puts it “continuing the vital work of getting the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction right.”

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HotHouse

Folks who’ve been around Chicago for a while, which is to say since around the turn of the century, will remember the HotHouse, a great south of Loop venue for radical politics and the arts. Since it closed in 2007, they’ve been working on finding the money for a new home while sponsoring cultural and political events at third party sites. The latest development is an agreement with the Alhambra Palace Restaurant for a series of “world music” events (and more) starting in the fall:

HotHouse has been contracted to develop the Alhambra Palace Restaurant into a new stage for World Music and Global Culture.

This fall HotHouse will be launching a new performing arts and culture series in the beautiful and centrally located Alhambra Palace Restaurant.

At Alhambra, HotHouse will be building a seasonal series on the main stage to showcase the important artists and voices seldom presented in Chicago — particularly from Africa and the Middle East. In the Marrakesh room on the second floor, we will be providing a new home for emerging cultural expression and a gathering space for grassroots organizers from communities around the region. Please look out for a CALL FOR PROPOSALS TO BE ISSUED SOON. We are seeking original projects to present in these beautiful spaces.