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.