The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Music since 1960: Partch: And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma 

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Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

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I appear to have backed myself into a little bit of a corner with this one. I don't actually have access to a recording of And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma - I don’t own it myself, and although they have a whole bunch of Partch recordings, my university library don't have a copy either. (You can get yours here.) I have heard it live, once, though, and that single experience justifies its inclusion here. However, I'm going to have to talk a little more generally about Partch in this post, rather than specifically about And on the Seventh Day.

So, back in 1998 the Barbican ran an exemplary series of 'American Originals' concerts, featuring composers from Adams to Zorn. Everybody important got covered, but one of the highlights - and the real coup - of the series was persuading the curators of the Harry Partch collection of instruments, Newband to come and give a concert, their first, in the UK.

Partch is most spectacularly known for his collection of unique, homemade instruments. He developed a method of composing using a scale based on the harmonic series, which, unlike the 12-notes-to-the-octave equally tempered scale of most Western music, crams 43 notes into every octave. As one might imagine, this compositional method necessarily accompanied the construction of instruments capable of playing such a scale. Most of these - all built by Partch himself - are percussion instruments like 'Boo II', and many are made from found objects. The most beautiful, to my eyes and ears are the 'Cloud Chamber Bowls', which are made from giant Pyrex carboys recovered from the radiation labs of University of California, Berkeley. They're impossible to tune, and almost irreplaceable. And they're percussion instruments, made to be hit by someone with a stick. Because of the instruments - and the fragilities involved in playing some of them - Partch's music is uniquely visual, and a concert of his music is more theatrical than almost anything in the Western instrumental canon. Other composers have written for Partch's instruments, but they only sound like transcriptions of traditional instrumental works and are far less successful. It's obvious that the composer who built the instruments is going to be best able to write for them, but with Partch, because the whole experience - visual, theatrical, musical, instrumental - is created by him, there is an overwhelming sense of compositional intent and presence within his work that is hard to find in the work of other composers. It's notable that Newband, the performers who play Partch's instruments, are also the instruments' curators: there is a quality of museum preservation to a performance of this music, as though a performance tradition were on the verge of dying out. In that respect, it shares something with gagaku music, say, but accelerated several hundred years on.

What is most unique about Partch's music stems from the fact of that 43 note scale. Partch was hardly the first compser to divide the scale into units smaller than the semitone, but this particular scale, as I say, required Partch to build, or adapt, a whole collection of instruments specifically to play the pieces he was composing. None of this music is fully performable on other instruments (although plenty of pieces do include standard, or easily adapted instruments such as violas or guitars). These instruments are now museum pieces, and irreplaceable. They're also very difficult to copy, as Partch was an exceptionally skilled craftsman, and you can hardly dismantle some of the more complex items to figure out how he did it. So Partch's music is extremely specific to time and place: the instruments can only have a finite lifetime, and when they break or can no longer be maintained, the music is gone; and even while the instruments are in good condition, they are best kept in their current location at Montclair State University in New Jersey and are very rarely moved. The visit to London was the first time they had come to the UK, and it is unlikely that there will be another, especially of so full an ensemble. Partch's music came from nowhere, and will almost certainly disappear into nowhere one day as the instruments decay and the performances become no more. His whole body of work is temporary, like one giant happening, and this alone places Partch further outside the Western art tradition than any composer before or since.

And on the Seventh Day, is a characteristic work of Partch's for his instruments - very percussive and rhythmically driven. The consistent rhythmic patterns and marimba-like sonorities give his music a feel of Steve Reich's minimalism, but in actual fact the music is continually inventive and Partch's aesthetic sensibilities were quite different from the Downtown, urban experimentalism of Reich. Instead, Partch taps into something more purely human, with more of the spirit of the American frontier - a kind of mystical purity that at the same time as deploying aircraft fuel tanks and atomic lab equipment as sound sources found nourishment in ancient Greek mythology. There really is nothing else like Partch, and if you haven't already, seek him out. And if you ever have the chance to see his music in the flesh, do not miss it.

If you want to spend the rest of your day simply getting a feel for this stuff, you could do much worse than visit this virtual Partch museum, where there are playable Flash versions of all his instruments.

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