The Instrumentarium of Harry Partch
I. Genesis of a Music, 1921
 
The squeal! Microtones of wheels. 
Steam-whistles echoing in the mountains.
The track and the track and the track.
 
Ramon Novarro left him for the movie screen,                                   
his parted lips a tragedy – :
the mouth moves, no words come.
            
Harry had to find a way outside                                                
where he could lose himself
and hear the sound of words 
 
wrung out and sung. 
A railroad junction – :
where a man confronts an empty sun
 
and razes himself in dust. 
He had become an O
from which all sound, vibrating, comes,
                                    
a nerve-twang, 
pulsing motion,
a dark persistent drum.
 
II.  Chinese Theater, 1925 
 
This bottle of cosmic vintage, emotion’s voice,
is the endowment of all of us,
and hadn’t Pythagoras of purest heart
 
chastely plucked his harp to hear
music in the stars 
tuning notes to divine words?
 
In the concert halls of California
Harry ushered for his bread – :
A music drama vacant lot!
 
Unreal rolling r’s, consonants exploding.
No human vowels resurrected. 
The portamento's unnatural glide!
 
Solace: the Cantonese Music-Theater,
its Whitmanic cacophony, cracking
peanut shells, the wail, musicians’ whirl, 
                                    
peddlers hawking edibles in the aisles,            
the dancers rustling, actors’ syllables
and all of it a voice, a voice.    
                                    
III.  Intrusions, 1935
 
On the train an Indian hobo
intoned a ritual of spring
and Harry was back in Benson:
 
a stagecoach crossing yellow earth
dotted with cacti and century plants,
stalks blooming on the mesa
                                                                              
where desert sound intruded
like a lover in his room,
mingling with the Mandarin
                                    
on his father’s phonograph,
the creak of black bamboo – 
Had it had been only the wind?
 
Now it sang in the boxcar’s pine,
while the Indian rolled in sleep, 
and in rhythmic intervals spoke truths:
                                    
The Chinese built the railroad. 
Mexicans drove the Yaquis from their river.
Li Po had nine hundred places he called home.           
                        
IV.  Sonata Dementia, 1949
 
In a herdsmen’s cottage in Gualala,
the Pacific in the distance,
Harry puts his back into it, hauls stones
 
up the hillside, then sits enthroned
and gazes at glass-embedded walls
to catch the afternoon sun glancing....
 
A deer tick bite began to swell his hand.
Damp air untuned the instruments.
In delirium a marimba sprung from his thigh,
 
dust and thistle from his throat.
The sky flashed its knife.
The rain spoke in tongues – :
 
trainyard vernacular, hobo cadences, 
nervous thunderings in deepest tones.
As his taut-string yearning
            
greeted the percussion of the weather;
his spiraling self slid from him
                                                unfretted.
            
V.  The Shock of the Past, 1959
 
Avant Garde! – Not Harry, who heard
another now, an earthly memory
in ancient rhythmic strains.
 
The percussion needed deepening:                  
pernambuco, Philippine bamboo, 
trunks of Sitka spruce, the instruments
            
towering as he lowered their tones,
the drums reached only by ascending
wooden risers silhouetted on stage.
 
The earth rumbled at his summit
intoning the past, the aftermath
of long-gone galaxies whose light arrives
 
too late: As his mother crossed an intersection,
Harry had waited for her just blocks away.
A streetcar dragged her body 
            
under its great weight – : silent news 
for Harry who read about her death
in the sarcophagus of a page.   
 
VI.  Garden of Delight, 1964
 
The Gourd Tree: a eucalyptus bough,
twelve Chinese bells hanging 
like ripe papayas on the stem.
                        
The players reached to pluck them. 
The Eucal Blossom of Philippine bamboo.
The shape was the very sound!            
 
The corporeality of bodies – :
hands, arms touching smooth hollows,
human form inseparable
 
from the music ringing,
and Harry himself, in shadow, striking
Cloud Chamber Bowls suspended
 
from a redwood frame, his mallet
controlling the vibrations.
He was a Socrates listening
            
to a daimon who sang notes
nightly to his ear, nothing less than
human himself, a trembling carillon.
 
VII.  Pioneer Hatchery Sessions, Petaluma 1964
            
A bulldozer brought down a wall 
while the tape was running. A player broke
a Cloud Chamber Bowl. The shattering
 
was the song, his life. All this while 
John Cage, his gullet miked,
cut carrots on stage, flicked cigarette ash
 
at the audience. Harry, evicted again, 
dreamt of burning his instrumentarium.
The charred Kithara’s curling strings
 
the sound of slow death. Out of the ashes
he made gongs from aluminum nose-cones
of airplane gas tanks and coupled them
            
to the Gourd Tree’s stem. All one instrument!            
He carved and strung new gourd resonators,
lacquered them and went looking for rain
 
like a Navajo in a parched desert.
Anaïs Nin, taking it in: Like water,
it was as if one had drunk the music.
            
VIII.  The Musical Landscape, 1968
 
Three drinks and Harry expostulates.
American Music? Refuge of Sterility!
The Neglect of The Real All Outside:
 
desire in the parks, car horns, young men
hitchhiking in the Western night,
their plain speech epitaphs
 
scribbled across highway railings.
I’m hungry. I’m twenty-three.
I’m far from Baltimore and think I’ll die.
                        
Amid the chit-chat of the drawing room,
Harry swung his elbow like a scythe
shattering a delicate, expensive lamp,
                        
the porcelain shards tinking against 
the terra cotta. Servants knelt
to pick them up. 
                        
He fled New York for Sausalito,
his instrumentarium left behind,
homeless again and outside.
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