some current issues in Partch biography (Part 3)
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One of the rewarding things about becoming an author is that you get to read reviews of your book, which can be, depending on your point of view, a harrowing or an amusing pursuit. But I discovered that it can even be instructive (occasionally). In particular, I noted with some surprise that several of the reviewers who wrote about my book complimented me for doing one thing I didn't in fact realise I'd done, and for which therefore no compliment seemed entirely deserved: for having, as one of them put it, "exploded many of the myths Partch had created in sculpting his image for the world." I read this and thought, well, have I really done this? Such a thing was certainly not my intention. The more I thought about the reviewer's comment (and a few other reviewers made similar statements) the less I agreed with its implicit assumption. The assumption seems to be that Harry Partch mythologised his own life, creating a distorted but more glamorous version of his life's events and conveniently airbrushing less desirable details out of the picture. The job of the biographer (the one for which I received such undeserved praise) would then be to strip away these wilful falsifications and reveal the true man beneath the mask.
ST: You're obviously not a traditional composer or maker of instruments. Have you had an academic musical background?For the biographer, recorded interview material like this is gold dust. I find it fascinating, on listening to that recording, to follow the somewhat unusual train of Partch's thought and to see how he answers the question about his early musical education. After first replying that no, he had "almost" no academic musical background, he goes on to talk about his lonely childhood in the southwest and about the instruments he played as a boy, which seems like an answer to a slightly different question. Terkel then asks the same thing for a second time and gets a similar initial response, Partch saying that he was "almost entirely" self-trained but that "later" he had piano and violin lessons and studied briefly at USC and at the Kansas City Conservatory. In other words, he interprets Terkel's question to mean: were you musically trained from an early age? to which his truthful answer is no, in this respect he was "almost entirely" self-taught. Hence there is absolutely no concealment or myth-making in his answer. In some of his written discussions of the same subject Partch emphasises that most of his important musical discoveries came from lonely hours browsing in public libraries and not from his teachers: again, all of that is true. But he does not deny that he had teachers, nor does he himself claim to have been any sort of "cultural desert plant".
A second myth that my book is supposed to have "exploded" likewise rests on a misconception. It concerns the image of Harry Partch as a "hobo composer". This one is really very simple: if you follow the chronology of this part of his life in Chapter 4 of my book you will see that when he was a hobo he wasn't doing any composing, and when he was composing he wasn't living as a hobo. Even Bitter Music, as Partch himself tells us, was put into shape using the "homes and pianos" of friends in Glendale, La Crescenta and Covina when he was taking a temporary respite from his hobo existence. The only completed composition from that traumatic and difficult period of his life is Barstow, written in a few weeks of relative peace and stability in La Mesa and completed in Anderson Creek. U.S. Highball was composed in a room in Ithaca, NY, when he was working at a book-keeping job for a "small scrap iron company" some eighteen months after the hobo trip it describes. Again, these misconceptions are not the doing of Partch himself, who is straightforward and truthful on such matters. They arise from an unthinking kind of journalistic excess, from writers (sometimes quite well-meaning ones) who like the idea of the "hobo composer" and the romantic but wholly imaginary image it evokes. After all, music manuscript paper is not usually in ready supply in freight trains.