Partch and Authenticity
The following came to me by email on October 9, 1996, in the wee hours of the morning. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Like a wonderful, poetic and astonishingly unsolicited ton of bricks. I may not agree with every point, but I find Mr. Shaw's views present a new and valuable perspective. Therefore, for your rumination and enlightenment, I am pleased to share it with you. ---JMS
Alan Shaw
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I first learned of Partch through Genesis of a Music, which I came across in the late seventies. I was attempting a new translation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and was obsessed with the question of how the original tragedies sounded; their verbal sound, first of all - I had been a student of Greek - but also what sort of music accompanied them. No one seemed to have much to say on the subject, but Partch certainly did. I bought the only recording of his music I could find (Delusion of the Fury) and like so many others, was bowled over by it.

I was a few years too late to meet Partch himself, but I did meet Danlee Mitchell, who probably remembers me reciting Aeschylus to him in Greek on that occasion. On subsequent visits to San Diego (where I have family) I always looked him up, and he was unfailingly helpful, showing me the instruments, dubbing tapes of unavailable recordings, answering questions, and ferrying me around town (I had no car).

One of my first questions came out of a slight sense of disappointment: enthralled as I was by Delusion, I had thought, from reading Genesis, that all of Partch's music was involved with words. Danlee said that Harry had indeed moved away from words somewhat in his later works, and gave me tapes of Oedipus and Revelation to show how he had done things at the peak of his involvement with the verbal drama. *This* was what I was looking for. Oedipus especially opened my eyes about the possibilities for a vital musical rendition of Greek tragedy, one in which the words are not only not lost, but heightened.

My Aeschylus translation was never finished, but my work on it, and my discovery of Partch, were important events in my artistic evolution. I later wrote my own verse tragedy with chorus, The Ghost Dancers, and laboriously, over many years, composed a score to it. I had wanted to compose when I was young, then turned to writing, and it was the writing, the words, that eventually drew me back to music. Partch would have understood. The effort to transcend the "specializations" has done me good, though it has left me, at forty-eight, a poet of small output, fewer publications, and little prospect, at this point, of getting known.

For the past ten years I have lived in New York City and have been able to catch a number of the Partch performances by Newband and others, as well as the Philadelphia production of Revelation. I have been following some of the recent controversy about "authenticity" in Partch performances, and felt impelled to comment from my own perspective. I can claim no authority where Partch is concerned, though I am, in my way, an "interested party." As a composer I have not used just intonation or built my own instruments. That in itself might disqualify me in some eyes. On the other hand, I have pondered the relations of words, drama, and music probably as intensely, in different ways, as Partch did. Also, my musical tastes are pretty broad (another disqualification, perhaps). My favorite composer? Well, (ahem) Bach. But "favorite" is not particularly germane here. As a poet I am almost capable of seeing Bach - as did Partch, if only rhetorically - as the enemy. For musical words I would go rather to Dowland, Campion, Kurt Weill, and of course Partch himself. And yet, and yet: the most intense dramatic experience of my youth was the old 1939 Mengelberg recording of the St. Matthew Passion, a performance about as "inauthentic," to the original-instrument crowd, as could be imagined. Inauthentic or not, I can't help but think that if Partch had heard it, he would have thought that a "corporeal" Bach was not necessarily a contradiction.

So, my point is that things are always complex. Principles are fine, and in the main I agree with the effort to present Partch's - or Bach's or anyone else's - works as they were intended. But a passionate person, as Partch or Bach was, is a bundle of contradictions, and what such a person achieves is always beyond intention. In Partch's case the ironies abound. He wanted no disciples, he said, again and again. Yet he of all people could not have survived without them. Music without words, he declared, was an abstract abomination. Yet in Delusion (maybe his greatest work) the words are few and relatively insignificant.

There is no recipe for corporeality; it is too vague, or maybe too personal a notion. The original-instrument movement in Early Music could claim corporeality on some of the same grounds that are used for Partch's music: the exact timbre, the physical construction and materials used, the instruments' look and feel and playing technique. And yet, as we have seen, another notion of corporeality such as Mengelberg's may counter it. Is Glenn Gould less corporeal than a mediocre harpsichordist? I think original-instrument performances, when they are good, *are* usually more corporeal, but again it is not a recipe. If the passion is there, seeming contradictions disappear; if it isn't, there's nothing, no matter how correct the "ingredients."

I heard the performance of Yankee Doodle Fantasy where a synthesizer was substituted for chromelodeon; I didn't like the sound, but wouldn't rule out a more successful substitution. Of course we wouldn't get to see the player huffing and puffing, but who knows what other "corporeal" elements a passionate synthesist could achieve? The Kronos transcriptions I have not heard, but knowing the slickness of that ensemble I expect I would agree with the critics. I did hear a performance of Li Po here in New York that I assume was done by the same people who did the recent recording, and thought it was excellent, a real revelation.

So as always, it's a matter of getting down to cases. I think the Partch people have mostly called it right, but I do see a certain danger of fetishism in the ongoing Partch movement. Of course fetishism is a double-edged word, given Partch's known devotion to the "primitive." But even primitives have their artistic camps: there are those who insist on the traditional ingredient no matter what (it has to be a *male* eagle feather, not female) and those who follow the spirit more than the letter. And though I myself have a very strong "traditional" streak, I don't have much doubt about which kind of "primitive" Partch was.

Take his settings of Greek tragedy, which I do know something about. If there was a Sophocles Foundation dedicated to performing the works of that dramatist (and composer, let us not forget, though the music is lost) "as intended," I expect Partch would have taken some heat for his version of Oedipus, which uses a prose translation, sets to music portions intended to be spoken and portions intended to be sung as plain speech, and cuts out a large part of the end of the play (the "anguished analyses and explanations" which seemed to him "unnecessary, even edious"). How's that for reverence? The point isn't that he was wrong to do it; Partch's Oedipus is the closest we are likely to get to the Sophoclean spirit in our time. Those of us who revere Sophocles can forgive the liberty because we are under no illusion about attaining an "authentic" performance of a two-thousand-year-old work. An "authentic" performance of Bach seems somewhat less illusory, given how much more we know, and an authentic performance of Partch, at a distance of only a few decades, with living performers who knew him, might seem entirely feasible. And yet it is not. Partch would have been the first to say so: "The moment is gone, because perception is a sand flea. It can light only for a moment. Another moment must provide its own sand flea."

None of this is meant as a criticism of the Partch heirs; Danlee, the only one I know personally, has been quite generous, as far as I can tell, about countenancing experiments, often, as he says, regretting it later. His general opposition to transcriptions is understandable, given the results to date. What worries me more is the future of Partch performance. I don't want to see it decline into a closed guild, with more and more ritual (in the bad sense) and uninspired renditions. I do know that Partch's legacy to his followers has been a difficult one.

Well, this is all I have for now. I would like to hear responses, but probably won't be able to write at length again. There are matters here that I have thought about for years, and for once, needed to get out, for anyone who might be interested.

Alan Shaw

[ Alan later emailed back, allowing permission for me to put this on the site (encouraging dissemination, actually); the last bit below is from that message. This is the spirit that I had hoped we would foster here in the Meadows, alive with thought and passion. This pleases me! ]

[ . . . ]  I look forward to hearing your own responses, and just let me say that my mind is far from settled on any of these questions; I too crave enlightenment. Circumstances may make it difficult to write again at length (I am self-employed, so whatever time I steal comes out of my own pocket) but I will try, on my end, to keep the discussion alive.

My very best to you, to Danlee, and all of you out on the West Coast who are keeping the spirit alive.