Reconstructing Harry:
some current issues in Partch biography (Part 3)
Bob Gilmore
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(. . . continued)

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.

A wilful myth-maker is not how I see Harry Partch, and an exploder of myths is not really how I regard the role of the biographer. But, as we all know, sometimes wrong ideas can be as useful as right ones, and the reviewer's comments got me thinking about these supposed Partch "myths", what they were and how they arose, and about Partch's own role (if indeed he played one) in this process. I thought I would share some of these thoughts with you as a way of showing you some of the stages in "reconstructing Harry".

Perhaps the most prevalent of these myths is the idea that Partch and his work sprang out of nowhere, that he was a sort of cultural desert plant, a self-made, self-taught genius owing nothing to any teacher or educational institution. This myth has been perpetuated by a number of the journalistic sources on Partch as well as by some historians of American music---Otto Karolyi, for example, in his book Modern American Music, writes [p.85]: "As a musician [Partch] was, as they say, 'a natural', self-taught and independent"---and this idea is supposedly one that my biography demolishes. Well, let's explore this a little. In Chapter Two of my book I outline in some detail the quirky history of Partch's formal musical education, which is slightly more extensive than we might imagine. He studied twice for brief periods in the early 1920s at the University of Southern California, where he took piano lessons with the then well-known pianist Olga Steeb, and he also studied briefly at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. (He studied harmony as well as piano, but not, as far as we know, composition per se.) So how does this square with the image of Partch as a self-taught, "natural" genius? In one sense, not very well: but my point is that this image of Partch---let's call it the "cultural desert plant" myth---is a fabricated one to begin with and arose not from any distortions or falsifications on the part of Partch himself but from the previously sparse knowledge of this part of his life.

To demonstrate this point, listen to how he responds to a question about his early musical development in this extract from an interview with Studs Terkel, recorded in Chicago in March 1962. Terkel asks him if he has had "an academic musical background":

ST: You're obviously not a traditional composer or maker of instruments. Have you had an academic musical background?
HP: Oh, almost none, I would say. I was brought up on the Arizona/New Mexico deserts. I was always interested in instruments. My mother and father and brother ordered instruments from mail-order catalogues, but they were either too busy or they tired of them to continue, and I was the one who took them seriously. And so I played a mandolin and a harmonica (of course) and a reed organ and a few things like that when I was very young. And I continued in music. I never stopped.
ST: But self-trained?
HP: Oh almost entirely, yes. Well, later on I did have piano lessons and some violin lessons, but... I think I entered the University of Southern California School of Music for about a month and about a month with the Kansas City Conservatory. But I wasn't built for academic inculcation.
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.

I could continue this list of misconceptions . . .