Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3: Sonata Dementia
(Bridge Records, 2019)
I first heard Harry Partch’s 1950 work, Sonata Dementia, in San Diego, California in 2012, when Los Angeles-area ensemble PARTCH performed at San Diego State University. It was strange, animated, and very real. The work is a bizarre parody of the classical sonata which uses microtonality along with a scattering of spoken, half-sung, and often nonsensical text to poke fun at sonata form and paint the delusional and the abstract as different sides of the same coin. Sonata Dementia, along with several other works from the same period in Harry Partch’s life, are on a new album released by Bridge Records, properly entitled Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3: Sonata Dementia (Partch lived from 1901–1974, these works all date from the late 1940s to early 1950s). The album is part of a growing collection of recordings by the ensemble—led by microtonal guitarist John Schneider—and is a welcome contribution to the existing recordings of the composer’s work.
Most recordings of Partch’s work were made during his lifetime or shortly after, usually recorded using multi-tracking techniques with Partch and his assistants playing multiple instruments. Thus the original recordings, while impressive and wonderful interpretations, lack the fidelity and polish of PARTCH’s recent releases. These new recordings allow for Partch’s use of tuning to shine more clearly, most obvious in the Adapted Guitar, Harmonic Canons, and other stringed instruments in the Intrusions (Partch constructed his own instruments to realize his microtonal theories). In addition to PARTCH’s dedication to playing the music flawlessly, Schneider’s contribution as the principal vocalist throughout the album faithfully demonstrates Partch’s ideal of blended speech/singing (the closest analog being the talk-singing often heard by performers in Broadway musicals, but tinged with the quality of folk singer.) Most importantly, the band successfully highlights a turning point in Partch’s career—Twelve Intrusions (1950), Sonata Dementia (1950), and Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962) features greater free interplay between the text and music, unlike his early works in which the music is subordinated to the poetry. This development set up the next stage of Partch’s career, leading to the final versions of Barstow (1968) and US Highball (1958), where his unique style was fully realized. His ability to move in and out of experience through a holistic merging of story, text, music, staging, and—most critically—the integration of his instruments as objects that visually contribute to the overall experience were born among the works on this album.
Also on the album is a rare recording of Partch himself performing his original version of Barstow for voice and early Adapted Guitar. Here one notices Partch’s early style—music sublimated to text—and can compare it to the innovations of the album’s other tracks. Barstow was eventually revised and expanded into a work that breaks the text apart into vibrant scenes which blur the roles of the performers, and opens up many possible interpretations. Listening to the original version today, one hears the style Partch eventually left behind, that of a troubadour or folk singer, twisted and ironic in a loving and caring way. When juxtaposed to the new recordings, this track has the feel of a historical recording of Pete Seeger, presented more for its documentary, rather than artistic, value.
But beyond the accuracy of the playing, the fidelity of the recording, and the delight of hearing Partch himself interpret a rare work, the album demonstrates how Partch’s music and legacy have persisted and changed in the 45 years since his death. In the last decade, he has gained new attention, spurred not only by PARTCH’s recordings (their previous album, Plectra and Percussion Dances, won a Grammy in 2014), but also with Ensemble Musikfabrik’s construction of a completely new set of Partch instruments and their production of Delusion of the Fury, Partch’s final large-scale theater work. This attention to, and proliferation of, Partch’s music shows his legacy has entered a new stage where “legitimate” ensembles have taken up the mantle of his music, and even sought to expand the repertoire for Partch instruments beyond the original body of work. Ensemble Musikfabrik’s “pitch 43_tuning the cosmos” series is dedicated to the creation of new works, and PARTCH recently collaborated with PRISM Quartet on the commission and premiere of two new works for saxophone quartet and Partch Instruments. However, the presentation and performance of these new works offer little difference—besides the novelty of the instruments—from the typical concert by new music ensembles: new music patrons pack into recital venues to experience works in much the same way one might see a contemporary string quartet. Even the new works themselves suffer the same fate as much contemporary music—they disappear after the premiere.
Thus, in the performance of his work, and in the creation of new works, the legacy of Partch is subsumed into the repertoire of ensembles which, in Partch’s own words, are inhibited by “tight coats and tight shoes.” And now, for better or worse, the appropriation of Partch’s work into the mainstream of 20th century American experimentalism is upon us. As always, the novel and weird aspects of Partch lead the way: images of Cloud Chamber Bowls and ad nauseam repetition of the “43 notes per octave” mantra; but amidst that is Partch’s music itself, where we find his rejection of mid-20th century American culture. Supposedly built on justice, equality, and freedom, it is instead replete with suspicion of outsiders, fearfulness of individual freedom, and slavish adoration of authority. Despite the criticisms that projects such as PARTCH’s album Sonata Dementia are a step toward the nullification of Partch’s message, the meaning of his work persists, and it’s there for anyone willing and able to listen for it.