April 1, 2018

The Trouble With Harry


I’ve been lucky enough throughout my life to have encountered dozens of people who’ve pointed me toward interesting music. A six-year-old neighbor kid I was babysitting in 1976 passed along a tape his uncle had made with the first Ramones album on one side and Frank Zappa on the other. I’d never heard either before. Not long afterward my friend Gary played me “Never Mind the Bollocks” for the first time. Other friends introduced me to the Clancy Brothers, The Mentors and Jazz Butcher. It still happens to this day, and I’m grateful for it.

            When I was sixteen or seventeen, I worked at a B. Dalton book store in a shopping mall in downtown Green Bay. Michael, one of the people I worked with, was in his late thirties, tall, mellow, very well educated, and cool as all get out. More important for our purposes here, every Saturday night he hosted an avant-garde radio show on the local college station.

            Maybe recognizing something in the fact that I seemed to listen to late nineteenth century classical, Don Ho, Irish folk music and punk rock in equal measure, he began passing along musical recommendations I might not have otherwise been aware of. This was Green Bay in the very early Eighties after all, things were still mighty provincial save for what aired on that station, and it was through his show I first heard Laurie Anderson, Pere Ubu, and Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.” Given I couldn’t exactly pick these things up in the local Musicland store, he also began passing along some homemade cassettes of Inuit throat music, David Thomas’s experimental piece “Monster Walks the Winter Lake,” novelty acts like Mojo Nixon, and a few rare punk compilations I’d never heard, all of which would become part of the standard soundtrack that got me through college and grad school.

            But along with the tapes, he also told me about other people I needed to hear. He was the first of several to recommend The Residents, though it would be many years before I finally heard them, as the bastard never got around to making me all those tapes he’d promised. It would be even longer before I finally heard American avant-garde composer Harry Partch. All Michael told me about him was that Partch was interesting, had created his own forty-three tone scale (as opposed to the standard twelve), and had invented a number of his own instruments, which were necessary to play the music he was composing. It sounded intriguing, but again I was in Green Bay—what, I was just gonna pop down to the Galaxy of Sound on the first floor of the mall during my break and pick up a bunch of Harry Partch records?

            Although I wasn’t exactly driven and obsessed, the name remained in the back of my head, and I always kept a casual eye open for Harry Partch albums whenever I was wandering around record stores. But as I drifted from Chicago to Madison to Minneapolis, I found nothing. Getting my hands on Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu,” George Crumb’s “A Haunted Landscape” and Arthur Honegger’s “King David” on red vinyl were no sweat, but this Partch guy was nowhere to be found. Which was weird, particularly in Madison, considering Partch had been part of the University of Wisconsin’s music faculty for a few years in the Forties, and it was the UW Press that had originally published his groundbreaking book about music theory.

            But I only learned those things later.

            Partch had been a fascinating guy. Born in California to missionary parents, he learned to read music and play a number of instruments early. By fourteen he was writing his own compositions. He dropped out of college after two years, fed up with teachers who clung so tenaciously to the tired and dusty Western canon. Instead, he holed up in libraries reading scientific works on acoustics and sound perception and avant garde musical manifestos. In 1930 he burned everything he’d composed to that point and started writing music in a new form and style, coming up with his own notation and scales. He also began inventing his own instruments. He spent the Depression as a transient worker and hobo, traveling the country in boxcars and picking fruit while still writing music and gathering notes for a book in which he’d lay out his theories about composition. After World War II he began taking university teaching positions, but quickly found university music departments hadn’t changed, and still clung for dear life to Bach and the twelve-tone scale. Those jobs never lasted long, though, as he seemed to be at constant odds with everyone else on the faculty. In his later years he mostly lived on grants, live performances and mail order sales of his self-produced recordings. He moved around the country almost at random, eventually settling back in California, where he died in 1974.

            But I learned all that later, too.

            As I continued hopping around from city to city myself, the name kept coming up. I’m not sure how or why, but every couple of years someone would mention Partch as an under-appreciated but ground-breaking figure in American music, or I’d encounter a reference to him in something I was reading. Yeah, I’d have to hear something at some point, but the Internet was years away, he wasn’t being played on any of the radio stations I was listening to, and his records, recorded between the Forties and the late Sixties, all seemed to be long out of print.

            When I was in Philly, (my friend Derek just reminded me of this), a local ensemble staged a performance of Partch’s musical adaptation of “The Baccae” with his original instruments. I loved “The Bacchae” and was of course very curious about Partch, so I have no idea why I didn’t go. My guess was Halo of Flies or some other forgettable hardcore band was playing in town that night. Derek went, though, and tells me it was pretty bad, so there you go.

            In the early Nineties, after I’d moved to New York and begun working on assorted small side projects with The Residents, the members of the band made no bones about the fact Partch had been a major influence on them. They’d even made plans to record a Partch tribute album, though it never came to pass. To this day some of your more obsessive fans have even claimed The Residents’ long-storied philosophical mentor, Bavarian avant-garde composer The Mysterious N. Senada and Partch were actually the same person. They noted that around 1970 Partch and The Residents lived in the same general area in California, the band had sent him some of their early experimental recordings, and that the song “Death in Barstow” was written in response to his passing. When you further take into account that Partch was actually living in Encinitas—which sounds suspiciously like “N. Senada”—when he died, well, there you go, right? It’s an understandable guess, but sadly wrong.

            It wasn’t much later, after popping into some massive warehouse of a record store on the Upper East Side on my way home from work one night, that I finally found some Partch recordings. It looked like at long last a major series of Partch reissues had just come out on CD. Even though they were a little pricey, I impulsively picked up a couple at random, brought them home and put the first one on the stereo. It had been too long in coming.

            And you know, I really didn’t like it. Not in the least. I could plainly hear the influence on The Residents in the unbalanced tones and rhythms, but damn, try as I might it just wasn’t the sort of thing I could see putting on at the end of a long day. It was atonal (at least in the traditional sense), spare and abrasive at the same time, muddied up with non-professional singers randomly reading snippets from found texts. In retrospect it was an awful lot like the sort of thing Grinch and I used to do as The Pain Amplifiers, but to be honest I can’t really see putting on The Pain Amplifiers at the end of a long day, either.

            It was interesting, sure, and certainly different, and I could appreciate it on an intellectual level. It was even far less abrasive than other things I honestly loved (like Pere Ubu, Einsturzende Neubauten and The Residents), but in the end, eh, I gave it a shrug and filed it away. The important thing was I’d heard it, and now had it here on the shelf in case something unexpected came up.

            But like the corpse in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, Partch kept reappearing in unexpected places. Around 1997, when I was at the New York Press, I got a call out of the blue from music preservationist and archivist Irwin Chusid, who hosted a long-running show at WFMU, the local free-form station. We’d met a few times over the years and had some friends in common, but I had no idea why he might be calling me.

            Well, turns out he was calling to tell me Syracuse University (at least I think it was Syracuse), which for years had kept a huge collection of Partch’s original instruments on display in the library, had suddenly decided it was too expensive to maintain them any more, so was just going to toss them in the dumpster out back. That is, unless someone wanted to take them off their hands. Irwin wanted to know if maybe by chance I knew someone who might want them. Again, for as briefly as we’d met over the years, I had no idea where he might get the notion I’d be someone to ask.

            As it happened, though, I did have an idea. After getting off the phone with Irwin (who seemed quite upset about all this, which is understandable coming from a music preservationist), I picked the phone up again and called The Residents. They were big fans, after all, they had been deeply influenced by him, and had planned to do that tribute album. How cool would that be, right, if The Residents adopted Partch’s original instruments?

            But I think their response was something along the lines of “Um, no? What the hell would we do with them anyway?”

            I don’t know what eventually happened to all those instruments at Syracuse, but I’m trusting they found a decent home.

            Well, then last week a record company in England got in touch to ask if I might be interested in writing some liner notes for the re-issue of an album The Residents originally released in 1977. Knowing that among the fifty-plus albums they’d released over the years, this one in particular was Partch-inspired, I went back to the shelves and pulled out those Harry Partch discs, which I hadn’t heard in a quarter century or more, dusted them off, and put on the first one.

            Well, there are advantages to getting older. You experience more things, you learn more, if you’re not a complete moron your tastes change and you appreciate a wider and more eclectic array of artistic expressions. Though in other ways of course you come to hate more things and cling more fiercely to the familiar.

            In any case, this time, and lord knows why, it just clicked. I loved it for all the same reasons I hated it before. Suddenly I could hear all forty-three tones in his scale, dug the ringing rhythms of the percussion, even finally appreciated those half spoken, half sung texts, at last understanding they were taken from hobo journals, messages scrawled on rocks and road signs by transients, and the cries of newsboys from the Twenties. His long piece “On the 7th Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma” (written in 1963 shortly after his return to California) was a thing of wonder. It was like returning to Sun Ra again after so many years and finally comprehending the genius behind the noise. Over that twenty-five years, Partch had become something I could most definitely listen to at the end of a long day. Not sure what any of this says about anything, except maybe that all those people who’d been telling me about him all those years might have known me better than I knew myself.

            Who knows? Maybe one of these days I’ll find myself snapping my fingers along with those old Pain Amplifiers recordings again.


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