Friday, March 15, 2013

Notes before a final (2): Harry Partch

I can't recall precisely when I first heard of Harry Partch.  I have a vague memory that I was aware of the name when I was a student*, but if he was mentioned in British academia at all then, it was as a freakish footnote.  I knew he was a hobo, that he invented a 43-tone scale sand some weird instruments.  He was an eccentric, marginal figure, not someone to be seriously considered or studied. Certainly his infamous scale would have been presented as some kind of crazy folly, and the logic and impetus behind its creation not considered anything worth study (and anyway, getting hold of recordings of the music was next to impossible in that pre-intenet era. I may have been aware of the term "Just Intonation", but I didn't really have any conception of what it actually was until years later.

Something I never learned to do very well was to play the piano. I started playing the cello at 6 but didn't have a keyboard lesson until I was 17, when my mother (who'd decided not to force it on me as my elder siblings had nearly all hated it) figured I probably needed some keyboard skills for the A level I was studying.  At times this lack has irritated or frustrated me over the years, but latterly I've come to realise it was a blessing, as it kept me from becoming too trapped in the 7 white and five black bars covering the window of the cell called equal temperament.  Although I didn't have the understanding to fully appreciate the significance  at the time, I was always aware that the way I tuned my cello, in perfect fifths, didn't quite fit with a piano. (I knew I needed to tune my A string slightly sharp to stop the C string sounding really flat.)  This is what got me interested in the notes "between the notes".  I was fascinated by the quarter-tone music written by Ives and Lutosławski, and captivated by the "out-of-tune" intervals of the harmonic series.  It seemed strange to me that they were called out of tune; surely they, as natural phenomena, were correct, and the scale on the piano must be wrong?  But I didn't have the language to describe and understand such things properly, other than the quarter-tones which were what amounted to microtonality as far as my education was concerned. (It's astonishing to think that back then even quarter-tones were regarded by a lot of teachers and musicians as intervals too small to be perceived.  The degree to which received wisdom can smother your thoughts is extraordinary.)

So for years I had this vague idea in my head of Partch as this funny weird guy.  Then I heard his music, and perhaps as importantly read his book Genesis of a Music in which he explains in detail the theory and practice of his compositions. That was a major explosion in the middle of my preconceptions, the consequences of which I'm still getting to grips with.

So Harry's an important figure for me, who revealed truths I'd only half-glimpsed before.  Nowadays it's easy to get hold of recordings of his music - you can find the recordings he made of some of his Li Po settings on Spotify - and it's even possible to get hold of some scores.  I forked out the whatever-outrageous-cost-of-a-photocopy Schott charge for the Li Po settings, partly because I thought they were wonderful of course, but also because I liked the self-sufficiency they stand for - just Harry, with his voice and his adapted viola, making his revolution all alone. There's a strength and also a melancholy to this single-player set-up, and Li Po's poems also carry some of this sense of isolation and loneliness.

It also occurred to me that some of them at least might be performable on a cello.  And so it proves.  When I started transcribing them, I transposed them down a fifth, as the cello is tuned a fifth lower than an adapted viola (which is tuned one octave lower than a violin), and also because it seemed a more comfortable register for my voice. However, I've gone back to the original pitch of "The Long-Departed Lover", as I think the slightly uncomfortable, strained effect from my singing in that register suits the song.  In the poem Li Po's protagonist is bereft at the loss of his beloved. Whether the Beloved has left him or has died isn't made clear; that's something for you to decide.  It's a sharp, uncomfortable portrait of someone inconsolable, presented in a concise, stark manner that has no room for sentimentality.  I hope that coming before the Webern, it'll help amplify that work's similarly concentrated emotions.  This isn't going to be a singerly performance - I don't think Harry would have approved of that anyway, judging by his own performances†  - but it will, I hope, be a truthful one.

*Thinking about it, I suspect it was in connection with Tom Waits, and specifically "Bone Machine", that I probably first heard about him. 

†Not of "The Long-Departed Lover", sadly - that's one of the ones he didn't record.

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