Reconstructing Harry:
some current issues in Partch biography (Part 2)
Bob Gilmore
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(. . . continued)

As I worked on Partch's life I began increasingly to feel, and now I am convinced of it, that he was aware that a biography of him would one day be attempted. And I also believe that he would not, in principle, have been opposed to the idea. When, during the preliminary research for the film The Dreamer that Remains in 1972, Stephen Pouliot asked him if anyone had ever written a biography of him, Partch replied, quite straightforwardly, "No... that would take a foundation grant." I believe that he cared desperately that his work be remembered; but I also believe that he would have accepted the claim that I make on the first page of my book, that while not in any sense "explaining" his work, an account of his life sheds light on how and why his output developed and took the form that it did.

I would even argue further than that, that Partch consciously thought about posterity, perhaps from quite early on---maybe even from the time of Bitter Music in the mid-1930s. His letters, for example, are always carefully dated; quite a few of them give the sense of "going on record", of being written with an eye to being read after he himself was long gone. His music manuscripts are likewise always dated, usually with precise indications of place, starting-date and completion-date of composition, so that as musicologists we are in the unusual and luxurious position of having no areas of doubt about when a piece was written or revised. This is not the behaviour of a man who is unconcerned about posterity.

And he did, after all, give us parts of an autobiography. He didn't ever write his memoirs as such: Lou Harrison suggested the idea to him late in Partch's life, and Partch replied that many of his early memories, especially of his childhood, were painful ones, so he could not face it. But he gave us parts of an autobiography: Bitter Music, End Littoral, U.S. Highball, the passages recalling his childhood in the preface to the second edition of Genesis of a Music, The Dreamer that Remains : all of these document and bring alive chapters from his life. In my book on him I suggested that it's possible to see Genesis of a Music partly as a sort of intellectual autobiography, an account of the musical and theoretical trail he had followed since the 1920s.

In another sense, you could argue that nearly everything he did was autobiographical: the lonely wanderers who crop up time and again in his work---think of them: Li Po, the anonymous graffiti-scribblers of Barstow, Mac (in U.S. Highball), Ulysses (in Ulysses at the Edge), The Son in
Search of His Father's Face and the Deaf Hobo (in Delusion of the Fury), The Voice in the bubble (in The Dreamer That Remains)---surely these are all, to a greater or lesser extent, reinventions of Partch himself. Philip Blackburn has even speculated that there may have been a measure of self-identification with some of the characters in his dramatic works, such as Oedipus, Tiresias (the blind prophet), or The Witch (in The Bewitched); and Danlee Mitchell has emphasised the close identification Partch felt with the character of Sonny (and Pentheus) in Revelation in the Courthouse Park.

The other way of saying this, and I am not the first to have said it, is that it is so difficult to separate out Partch's life from his work: they seem so inextricably one. The architect Bruce Goff wrote to him after their first meeting in 1956: "I had the feeling we were old friends, altho we had just met. Perhaps this is because you are so like your music and it is so of you." In this sense, Partch's life and the life of his work tell one and the same story.

One of the rewarding things . . .