The Partch Reverberations: Notes On A Musical Rebel - Part One
This article originally appeared in the San Diego Reader - Volume 9, No. 38, September 25, 1980
Jeff Smith
Contents : Reading : Reverb - Part One HOME

. . . continued from the Introduction . . .

     Harry Partch was an outsider, and he liked it out there. One day in his youth, Partch recalled, he watched "bad men" though a telescope outside of the whistle-stop town of Benson, Arizona. It was 1906 and Benson, located in southeastern Arizona about twenty-five miles north of Tombstone, was still in the "dying gasps of the Old West," according to Partch. an occasional desperado still refused to kow-tow to the call of civilization. Peering at the bad men as they were "holed up in some nearby rocks," with a local posse swarming around them, Partch said, "I fear that my five-year-old sympathies were all for the hunted."

     Harry Partch was, one might say, spiritually allergic to limitations of any sort. Imagine someone dissatisfied with an apparently inexhaustible quantity -- someone who finds even that quantity severely limiting for his purposes. Imagine a poet, for example, who complains of a confinement imposed on him by his own language and grammar -- a cultural conspiracy designed to restrict the expressive urges of his soul -- even though the same linguistic resources have served his fellow poets for centuries. Or imagine a painter who sees colors in nature for which there are no existing pigments and who must, by necessity, grind his own. now imagine a musical composer who finds the twelve-tone scale, which has served his ancestors, to be a prison that bars him from producing the sound (and sights and colors) he experiences in the world around him. Harry Partch was actually all three of these people. And more, since his metaphorically allergic reactions to limitation were not restricted to his art; they also dominated his life -- the rugged, difficult existence of an outsider. Here is one of his favorite poems, which he found on the wall of a screening room for children's films in Los Angeles (he always read with interest the writing on walls):

Once upon a time
There was a little boy
And he went outside.

     Partch was born in Oakland, California in 1901. his parents had been Presbyterian missionaries in China who endured the Boxer Rebellion. Two years after his birth, they moved to southeastern Arizona to homestead, but never for long in any one place; after age fourteen, in fact, Partch never stayed more than three years in any single residence. He roamed all over -- Hawaii at age twenty; throughout the Midwest and East (Chicago; Ithaca, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Evanston and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois); and California (San Francisco, Sausalito, Petaluma, Gualala, Van Nuys, Venice). In 1964 he came to San Diego, first to Del Mar, then to Encinitas, and finally to a small, wood-frame, two-bedroom house on Felton Street near Adams in Normal Heights. His reasons for eventually settling in this area were twofold: he was offered a teaching post at the then relatively new University of California (he lasted one term); and he especially liked the temperate climate of San Diego, since extreme changes of temperature play havoc with the delicate constitution of his instruments. But Partch never fretted all that much about where he lived. He told Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott, "Hell, man, I don't care where I am. If I were in the North Pole I'd go on writing. I don't care if I'm in euphoria or despair -- I'd go on producing. It doesn't make any difference."

     To support himself, Partch worked at the oddest of jobs; his resume would be-dazzle a prospective employer. When he was fourteen, he had part-time work, according to Cott, "delivering pharmaceutical drugs on his bicycle to the red-light district of Albuquerque." In his late teens Partch enrolled in the music department at USC in Los Angeles. But after six weeks, "I was fed up and quit." So he hitched to Washington, D. C., where he spent close to two years in the Library of Congress, teaching himself Greek and "devouring the idea of music." He supported himself in this period by washing dished seven days a week. He picked fruit during the Depression in the San Joaquin Valley. He lived as a hobo for almost ten years. He had several jobs as a proofreader (when he worked for the Brawley News, he hitch-hiked from El Centro to Brawley every day). And at another time, say San Diegans John and Aleta Glasier, who met him in 1942, Partch was instrumental in the planning of Borrego Springs. "He was actually in the office of the panning commission when they laid out the city," says John.

     For most of his life Partch also survived on grants, fellowships, and the university system in general. The last, however, was a financial necessity he often detested, since he felt universities to be mere repositories of musical dogma. "It is very difficult," he said, "to recline alongside dogma with serenity."

     Because of a continual lack of funds, Partch himself had to manufacture everything he needed, like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. In order to achieve the sounds he heard, he had to build his own instruments out of whatever materials presented themselves to his scrutiny("I am not an instrument builder," he said, "only a philosophical music man seduced into carpentry"). He also built countless pieces of furniture, and icebox and a cooler -- for a trip from California to Madison, Wisconsin, in a used Studebaker -- a shower and sunken Grecian bathtub in Gualala, California, and so on.

     Partch attributes this capacity for self-reliance to his experiences as a hobo, from the early Thirties to the early Forties. "I always took a job if I could find one, but it gave me a feeling if immense satisfaction to be on my own, to be able to cook my own meal and not have to eat in some hash joint; to sleep under the stars and say, 'Thank heaven I don't have to go to a flophouse.'"

     "Any good hobo can take care of himself," he said. "Long ago I said to myself, 'I think life is too precious to spend with important people.' There are too many plays for status and selling; but one gets among a group of hobos, or among transient orchard workers and, right away, there's human contact. Which doesn't mean they always like each other, but there's a human contact without this fighting for place constantly. It's just a little sidelight on why I felt it necessary during the Depression to be a hobo and take a pack on my back."

     And yet during this same period, the hobo met a very important person, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. In 1934 Partch received a Carnegie grant to study the history of musical intonation in England. While there, he made an excursion to Ireland and met with the master poet. Partch played the Adapted Viola, the first of his original instruments, and "Yeats loved it." The artistic exchange was mutual. From Yeats, Partch received renewed impetus to explore. And one of his favorite sayings comes from writing Yeats has done on theater: "I hear with older ears than the musician," said Yeats, "and the songs of the country people and of sailors delight me . . . I have to find men with more music than I have, who will develop to a finer subtlety the singing of the cottage and the forecastle."

     The hobo and the poet? A contradiction? Some would say so, and they would contend that the biography of Harry Partch (whom these people usually call "Partch") would be one continual listing of contradictory impulses. But others (who usually refer to the man as "Harry") argue that the most deeply human aspects of his life are its extremes and that he could range, to invert one of the chapter titles of his book, from the vacant lot to Emperor Chun. One thing is certain: any simple attempt to label the man (as hobo, or an intellectual, or a prophet, for example, and he has been called all three) will be misleading.

     Though no two people can agree completely about the character of Harry Partch, there are several areas of intersection, which are best summed up on the words of Danlee Mitchell. "Harry was a very responsible person. He could scream at people toward the end of his life for doing dumb, immature things. He would fly off the handle -- but not for long or too deeply -- when people wouldn't carry out a job in the most efficient amount of time. He was a completely unrepressed individual, never holding back any reaction to his environment, never suppressing anything. And yet you always knew where you stood with Harry. His tantrums would end, and later he would apologize to you with an equal amount of concern and care. Harry would never use something like guilt as a weapon of power. In fact, he hated all games of that sort. He was probably the most sane person you'd ever run across, and his fierce dedication never worked to the detriment of someone else. Harry labored his whole life on his own vision, knowing it would never be embraced as a musical fashion. He continued anyway, always faithful to his principles and to his method of disciplined belief."

     Jack Logan, an associate professor of music at San Diego State and a colleague of Mitchell's, recall that "Partch was warm, kind, generous -- a turn-the-other-cheek type." And yet Logan can also recall a day when Partch was not so. In the fall of 1969, Partch taught a course about his music at UCSD. The class, which met in an old Quonset hut on Matthews campus at the university, was going well for the eleven or so students enrolled. Then one day Partch came in very drunk (the class met at 8:00 a.m.) and became almost violent. After an hour of dramatic flurries around the room, Partch asked the class if they understood him. When they said no, he went into a two-hour harangue about his being misunderstood in general. He made the class a test case, asking each person a question about his book Genesis of a Music. "He asked questions about his tuning system," Logan says. "He would give the first three rations of a hexagonal chord and you would have to select the other three. Most of the class had no idea what he was talking about." And Partch stormed around the room.

     "We became symbolic examples," Logan continues, "of the frustrations he must have felt continually in the larger world, where his music was so often misunderstood. At the end of the class, he gave a concluding statement and said, "The class is over; you may go." We left the room not knowing what to think. And yet the final class of the term was one of the most warm-hearted things I have ever experienced. Harry had a present for each student. he gave every member of the class one of the original recordings he made, back in the 1930's, of his music. It was a very touching moment."

     Partch's quicksilver emotional extremes -- one minute Mt. Etna, the next loving and kind -- have prompted Jack Logan to say that Partch is a "case study of the paradoxes of living, in high relief, with all the aspects of his character standing out." For him, moderation, like limitation, was for the feeble of spirit, the lily-livered. Logan recalls that Partch would often come to class inebriated ("but his lectures were always thoroughly prepared"). Others agree that he enjoyed more than just a sip of the sauce. One morning in 1974, the last year of his life, Partch decided to pour a drink for himself and two members of the ensemble, Randy Hoffman and Jon Szanto. Though neither Hoffman nor Szanto can agree on the precise hour the libation was prepared (somewhere between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m.), both concur that it was the strongest mint julep they ever experienced. "A tall glass full of bourbon, an ice cube, and a leaf of crushed mint," Szanto says. And neither could finish his portion. Partch became so offended that he got on the phone late that night to Mark Hoffman, Randy's brother, and complained that Randy and Jon were nothing more than "Plymouth Rock Puritans."

     Seen from within the confines of tradition and conventional social mores, Partch looks extreme to most, larger-than-life to some. He wasn't larger-than-life, just more deeply embroiled in it. he rejected what he called "specialization" in art and life. By this he meant any attitude that promotes blind acceptance of a small part of something rather than embrace the whole entity to which it belongs -- settling for a knoll when you could have a mountain range. He even contended that whole entities, as presently conceived (like the entity of music), were themselves abstracted from larger units, with which they should be rejoined. Some examples should help here.

     Partch was bisexual. Like Walt Whitman in this regard, with whom he shares other affinities, Partch believed that nothing should be held back with respect to sexual exploration. He liked the Broadway musical Hair, for example, because he like the uninhibited display of the human body in a theatrical setting and because he felt that to limit sexuality is to limit levels of possible reality. What is important to note here is that Partch was bisexual at a time when it was dangerous to be so. And in his sexuality, as in his musical experimentation, he had to live the paranoia that accompanied those choices.

     Long before the most recent advent of feminism, Partch resented the conventional roles women were given. This, he argued, was a blatant example of the "specialization" he so detested, since the roles imposed definite limits for women. In particular, Partch was downright insulting when confronted with examples of what he disparagingly termed "professional Mom-ism" -- a woman who relished nothing more, in his eyes, than being a housewife. These attacks, especially the legendary tirade he delivered to one such homemaker in the nine-items-or-less checkout counter of a supermarket in Normal Heights, have given some observers the impression that Partch was a misogynist. The opposite is the case. In this instance, as in many others, newer attitudes have caught up with Partch, in whose life women played a major role. Anais Nin the novelist, for instance, was a continual supporter. In 1955, after hearing a recording of Partch's music, she wrote in her diary, "It was as if one had drunk the music instead of accepting it thought the ears." Other women who were continual supporters include Berthe Driscoll, who wrote the first favorable review of his music; Betty Freeman of Los Angeles; and Aleta Glasier.

     The libertine, however, was also an anchorite. His refusal to accept the authority of any dominant tradition, due to his constant distrust of specialization, is reflected in the on statement he has made, with a dash of self-effacing irony, about his religious views. Rather than worship one god, Partch paid homage to a plurality of deities. "I am not a one-god man. I have a whole pantheon, and they're probably a little screwy, just like I am, which is perhaps why I am just as I am, and perhaps why I am so faithful to them."

     It follows that the man who refused to accept the standard conception of things would not allow himself -- with one huge exception -- to be tied to objects in general. This Dionysus of multiple explorations was also wedded to extreme austerity; he was decidedly antimaterialistic. He wasn't all that upset, for example, when Phil Keeney (a member of the ensemble who looked after Partch in his last years and who found him dead on the bedroom floor of his Felton Street home) accidentally smashed Partch's faded blue, eleven-year-old Chevy station wagon into four other cars one night in 1974. Instead, after he and others got Keeney out of jail, all Partch wanted to know was if Phil was okay. "He didn't give a damn about the Chevy," says Keeney.

     On another occasion -- and this tale has multiple versions, which is in keeping with his pluralism -- Partch was invited to compose a musical score for one of the first science-fiction movies at RKO. At almost any time in his later life, if he wanted to, Partch could have supplemented his meager income by doing work that he felt ducked beneath his standards and concepts. ("If I would write a series of 'background' for television -- for airplane crashes, drownings, and murders in the park, I suppose -- I might make a lot of money.") Any number of other twentieth-century artist have done it. so Partch was brought on the set and shown a rough-cut version of the film. Thinking he could do a good job, Partch immediately asked for more control. When it was not granted, he told the producer and director where the could, with difficulty, shove the film. Looking back on the event, Partch said, "The only thing I would score would be a filibuster in the House."

     The huge exception, of course, was the fleet of instruments he built to voyage into uncharted seas of sound. Most of the instruments, according to Partch, were build, initiated in some way, or rebuilt, in California. He began small. In 1928 he constructed an Adapted Viola, a lengthened fingerboard he had a violin-maker in New Orleans attach to a viola. Then he made a similar adaptation to a guitar in 1934. In this same year, he designed and built the Ptolemy, a large reed organ, while he was in London. He had it shipped to Santa Barbara, "where it stood abandoned in a garage." To this day the whereabouts of the Ptolemy are unknown. "The abandonment," Partch said, "was not unintended. Eight years of hoboing lay ahead." Someone must have had one titanic garage sale.

     In 1949, when he moved to Gualala, a small community along the coast of northern California near Ft. Bragg, Partch had about ten instruments, including the Chromelodeon, and adapted harmonium about the size of a piano. To move into his new home, Partch used a makeshift trailer, towed by his old Studebaker. It took him almost a full day to make the short drive from the Coast Highway to his new residence, since he had to negotiate a narrow dirt road -- a roller-coaster trail that must have been a burial ground for deceased boulders. About halfway up the grade, at a spot where both sides of the road gave way to a 1000-foot drop into vacant space, the Studebaker broke and axle. Undaunted, Partch carted each fragile instrument by hand (including the cumbersome Chromelodeon) to its new home on the hill.

     From 1949 to his death in 1974, Partch built and rebuilt around twenty-five string and percussion instruments. He crafted giant Kitharas, stately modified replicas of the ancient Greek harplike kitharas. One of these, which stands well over six feet in height, requires two performers to play its seventy-two strings. He built several types of percussive instruments: some out of bamboo (Boo, Mbira Bass Dyad, and Eucal Blossom); some out of metal bowls, bells, and other "found objects" such as artillery shell casings (the Spoils of War) and empty bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry and Gordon's gin (the Zymo-Xyl); and four large, resonating marimbas, made of Pernambuco or Brazilwood, the visual splendor and rich sound of which soon put to shame their distant cousin the xylophone (Diamond Marimba, Quadrangularis Reversum, Bass marimba, and the Marimba Eroica).

     Though he treated each of his instruments with the abundant love of an overdoting parent, Partch had a special affection for the Marimba Eroica, which is four Sitka spruce bars attached to the tops of four long, slender, boxlike resonators. Partch urged that these deep bass resonators, which often produce sounds more felt than actually heard ("If one sits on the floor," he said, "it ripples through his bottom"), be played in the more furious passages of a score as if the "Eroicist" were "Ben Hur in his chariot, charging around the last curve of the final lap." He also dreamed of an Eroica that is not moveable, "with reinforced concrete resonators going down into the ground and blocks mounted above them like a stairway. One could then trip up the scale to bed and waltz down to breakfast in the morning -- or one could trip both ways at once to a musical apotheosis."

     As each new instrument appeared, transporting them became increasingly difficult. Partch once complained about this manger of materialism in a letter. After he was asked to make a long-distance trek with the instruments for a performance, he complained that "this is exceedingly difficult." He then poked a sharp, satirical barb at another musical innovator, know for his experiments with "found instruments." "Hell, I'm not like John Cage. All Cage needs is a gong, a carrot juicer, and a toothbrush."

     Harry Partch was a hell-raiser, and iconoclast, a hobo, a visionary, a Bacchic monk, a schizophrenic (some say), a mass of complexities (or contradictions, some say), a dove and a great white shark. He was a man who, according to Harold Driscoll, "remembered all kindnesses favorably," and yet who would denounce the things he saw unfavorably with the vehemence of an evangelist. In one area was totally consistent: he detested any single ruling attitude or tradition, about which he said, "The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality."

     Another thing. About the foregoing attempt to characterize him? He wouldn't have given a damn. He would have said, "Concentrate on my works, the instruments, the theories," which respected critic Jacques Barzun called "the most original and powerful contribution to dramatic music on this continent." And to which we now turn.

. . . continued in Part Two . . .


. . . back to Introduction . . .