Old Brown Tapes, Shiny Silver Discs
Authors Note: Thanks to Roger Merrick of the BHPS for kindly allowing me to reprint this article on the site; he is forever in my heart for referring to me as "Scissorhands Szanto" . . .
Jon Szanto
Contents  :  Reading  :  TapesHOME

In early November of 1996, I returned home to find a message on my answering machine from an assistant at Composers Recordings, Incorporated -- essentially asking "had I received materials from Danlee Mitchell and when would I be sending the tapes, as the project was behind schedule?" Although I realized that there had been some manner of misunderstanding, my unease at that point was, well, considerable. And yet it was an exciting start to what would be, for all concerned, a wonderful venture: The Harry Partch Collection on CRI, important reissues of Partch's original archival recordings.

Upon recovery, the next thing I did was call Danlee to find out what was going on; he and I had talked earlier that summer about working on our end of the project, which was to find the source (original archive) tapes and transfer them to a digital format. Earlier, in the summer of 1995, Joseph Dalton, president of CRI had made a visit to San Diego, and he and Danlee examined the archives and decided on a list of items to be releases on this new series of reissues. Due to the differences between a CD and LP release, most notably the length of material that could be included on one disc, many factors went into choosing the works that would comprise each disc: total time; logical, thematic, or period connections between pieces; issuing whole works that had only previously been released in shortened versions; and various similar matters. While I had no input into the initial choices, Bob Gilmore, well-known to discerning Partch readers/listeners, did offer some valuable advice during the planning stages of the affair, which not only helped shape the final choices but made for a sensible choice of liner note authors: himself.

So, by the time I met with Danlee a basic list of works to track down and transfer had been compiled. Reviewing the list, it was apparent that it contained the vast majority of the unreleased materials, and when combined with the recordings released by Philip Blackburn on the "Enclosures" series from the American Composers Forum, the number of recordings left in the archives would be quite small. As I write, "Oedipus" (1954 version), the 1957 "Revelation" recording and a few others remain to be released. After surveying the storage areas where the original tapes were stored in San Diego, and realizing that the annotations Partch himself had put on the tapes were less than complete or intuitive, I decided that the best possibility for a thorough accounting meant transporting all of them to my studio. For the next few months I shared space with more than one hundred and forty rather valuable reels of magnetic tape.

Since the transfers were going to DAT (Digital Audio Tape), I didn't have to worry about the order of pieces -- I could just plow in and then assemble 'master' tapes later. Some of the pieces would be not too difficult to get started on, as I knew that most of the actual Gate 5 master tapes (10-inch reels recorded at 15 inches per second) were present in the collection. However, Danlee had discussed with Joseph more elusive items: for example, Partch had never before released all eleven of the "Intrusions" on disc. Did recordings of all eleven exist, as Danlee surmised? What about alternate takes? Missing tapes? All of this led to some determined listening and head-scratching, taking tape boxes which had scanty, ambiguous, or no notes whatsoever on the boxes, and playing them through to see just how the oxide particles were arranged.

The tapes themselves were in varying condition, but thankfully all save the oldest had held up well -- especially considering the constant moving about that occupied Partch during the vast majority of his life (there is one scrap of his writings that documents 15 moves in 16 years). Here would be some of the problems, major and minor, that I came up against:

  • Tapes stored incorrectly (stored "head out", improperly wound)
  • Degraded tapes (flaking oxide, binder softening, stretching)
  • Old splices (gummy, dried-out-and-breaking, stuck together)
  • Tapes with no markings at all, meaning listening for any 'gems'
  • Anomalies and assorted weird sounds on the tapes

The tape storage problems, when possible, have been corrected in the process. For those that aren't aware, storing an analog magnetic tape head out can allow a loud sequence to actually bleed a copy onto the tape before it occurs in real time, causing a pre-echo of the sound. Fortunately, the only times this was noticeable was at the beginning of a take (the sound occurring before the downbeat), and could be easily edited out digitally. After playing they have been stored tail out.

Some of the tapes of the "Eleven Intrusion", which were the oldest (dating from 1950) had areas where the oxide was coming off the tape, creating glitches and gaps in the sound. Much of this was fixed, in a minimal manner, in the digital editing done at Sony Studios in New York City by the mastering engineer, Robert Wolff. The tape of "Barstow", from a live concert in 1982, was from a time period when many of the commercial tapes used a process to bind the oxide to the backing tape that eventually softened, leaving a gummy residue. When playing the tape, after a few seconds you would begin to hear a squealing sound, followed shortly thereafter by the tape coming to a stop, with the heads and transports gummed up with black gunk. To remedy this, I took the tape to a local studio that has it's own archives from that period, and is used to a rather bizarre process: you place the tape in a convection oven and bake it at a low heat (convection being important, as the air must circulate). The binder 'tightens' up and the tape is usable for dubbing, though it must be done in a reasonable amount of time. Not for the experimenter, as tapes have been know to be melted!

As to the splices, there isn't much that can be done, except sit there, play the tape until the next splice, which surely breaks or comes apart, and then laboriously re-splice it by hand. Knowing that this took a couple of minutes each, imagine my consternation with "Water!, Water!", existing only in Partch's hand-edited master tape -- in those two ten-inch reels I replaced nearly 90 splices! My only consolation was also knowing that Harry had been through much worse: he had to do the original editing, piecing together performances from a series of less-than-perfect takes. In letters that he has written, he talks of 15-hour editing sessions during the production of "The Wayward"; I wasn't alone.

One last weirdness that listeners can still detect lies within "Water!, Water!". When I first put on the master to give it a listen-through, I was doing some other work at the same time. All of a sudden this low-end rumble fills the room, vibrating various pieces of junk laying around. "Good Lord", I thought, "this tape is ruined in some way!" I found the mono dub of the tape, put it on, and the same, earthquake-like rumble was there. Only one more thing to do, now that I had a suspicion: get out the Gate 5 and fire up the old vinyl decoding machine. Yup: pressed into the very grooves was what I now knew for fact -- that the Marimba Eroica had been so prominent in the room that day that it overloaded the poor microphones! And it was probably not an inept engineer, as Robert Wolff told me that for "the incredible amount of low-frequency information it produces, it was certainly more than the equipment of the day could deal with and probably would give modern-day equipment a run for its money." That noise, dear readers, is both inescapable and unremovable.

I myself didn't do any "sonic restoration" (save a couple of items, detailed below); this was left to Robert Wolff, who happily was in sync with how we viewed the material. As he wrote to me:

"We made a conscious decision not to go after every noise and not to try and make these recordings pristine by today's standards. We both felt that part of the charm of these recordings were contained in some of the artifacts they contained. We used Sonic Solution's de-clicking and de-krackling to go after the major noises that remained. There were two selections ("Windsong" and "Water!, Water!") where we felt it appropriate to use the broad-band de-noising (a.k.a. "De-hissing")."

Robert balanced levels between selections, and applied small amounts of equalization to counteract the variances in recording qualities; although recorded in many places under many conditions, Harry was lucky to have had good engineers that cared about the recordings. Basic concepts such as plenty of signal on tape and no signal spiking were consistently maintained. Some of the sonic enhancement that some people may have noticed stems from a simple fact: most of Partch's archival recordings were done in stereo, yet the Gate 5 recordings were released in monaural pressings, which meant that monaural master tapes were mixed from the stereo masters. In a letter from 1958, after the Evanston sessions that produced most of "The Wayward", Partch wrote:

"The stereo recording is sensationally good, I think. How it will come out on records remains to be seen (monaural)."

The CRI releases mean that for the first time, and 40 years after the fact, we are hearing the first generation stereo recordings.

As mentioned earlier, I was not part of the decision process involving which pieces would be released, and the choices were ultimately for Danlee and Joseph to make. That "Revelation" and "Oedipus" are not among the four volumes is not the end of the world -- the master tapes do exist, here in the archives at the Harry Partch Foundation. Two of the selections that did get included could bear some illumination, however; these would be the 1972 version of "The Letter" and the 1982 recording of "Barstow".

The first stickler was easier to solve: Joseph liked the version of "The Letter" that Partch performed in the documentary "The Dreamer That Remains" -- without realizing that no 'official' recording had been made! By this, I mean that only portions were used in the film, and only the vocals, kithara and hand drum parts were recorded; the diamond and bass marimba parts were 'flown in' from the recordings in Harry's tape collection. Worst of all, the piece existed in multiple takes, none of which compromised the entire piece. After many sessions of listening, I found the best "first half" and "second half" takes, and did a digital splice, cross-fading to make the transitions disappear. Thus, the first time this version is heard intact, like it or not!

In "Barstow", we have a situation where it was thought that a good tape had been made at rehearsals in preparation for the Whitney Museum concert in 1966; since the master tapes to "The World of Harry Partch" (originally issued on Columbia, and now owned by Sony) were not in the possession of the Partch Foundation, this seemed like a plausible route. All of us wanted a representation of this last arrangement of Partch's, especially in light of recent 'modern', posthumous arrangements. Unfortunately, after listening to many obscurely labelled tapes, there literally were no usable (even with extensive splicing) renditions. It was then that I discovered the ad hoc recording done at Mills College. This performance was the last on a West Coast tour, filled with fun and exhaustion but very much in spirit. I realized that it was definitely not a studio recording, but thought maybe it would work. I called on the services of a good friend and superb engineer, Dan Abernathy, to help me do a digital editing session on it. We removed extraneous audience noises, clipped a couple of vamps that were used to cover staging (this was a very corporeal performance) and did the usual level normalization and equalization. While the vocal balances are not perfect, I am happy to have the performance on disc, and it has received good comment.

For anyone who knows my involvement in the Partch world over the last couple of years, you know I've done my share of carping about bogus transcriptions and the like. I'll say it here: I was thrilled to, as the fates would go, have the opportunity to actually do something to bring Harry's music to a wider audience, rather than just sitting around and belly-aching! The collaboration between Joseph Dalton and all of his staff at CRI, the unbelievably erudite Bob Gilmore (I've said that his liner notes themselves are almost worth the price of admission -- almost, Bob!) and help from many others, including Danlee Mitchell and Philip Blackburn, all of this was uplifting and collegial. It has been ever so heartening to hear the comments from listeners all over; I know that CRI is pleased, and many people are not only once again, but in many instances for the first time hearing the wonderfully evocative music that this singular man made. And never, at any time, did I lose sight of the fact of how small my efforts were when contrasted to the struggle Partch himself mounted to make that/this magic happen.

Jon Szanto
San Diego
January, 1998