Some of my most satisfying work in recent years has been the reviewing of new music CDs for Fanfare magazine. Every six months, I'm including a review of a disc which has really excited me. And because Fanfare has a roughly 4 month cycle from assignment to publication, you may even be seeing this before it comes out. I'd like to add that I've found Fanfare to be an usually good source of information on new music, independent of my role in it. The critics have a great deal of freedom to develop their thoughts at leisure, so often a review can become an essay which touches on a wider range of issues.

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PARTCH  The Lord is My Shepherd. Seven Lyrics of Li Po. Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker's Inscriptions.— Harry Partch, (voice, chromolodeon, adapted viola, adapted guitar)— MICROFEST 20 (54:57)

         This release is a wonderful surprise and a treasure.


Harry Partch (1901-1974) is one of the most original of all American composers a titan of experimentalism whose work reaches out across boundaries of time and style to the widest range of audiences.  He is most noted for as a pioneer of microtonality, in his specific case just intonation, where the intervals of a scale are determined by ratios derived from their appearance in the overtone series.  The result is a 43-note-to-the-octave scale which allows for an almost infinite, mindbending range of harmonies and melodies.  On first encounter it may seem strange or distorted, but on any repeated exposure it starts to sound quite natural, and fresh.   


This release is a proverbial “message in a bottle” that has finally come to shore. In 1942, Partch was just starting to emerge to some prominence amongst musicians, after a long stint of odd jobs and bitter penury (including hoboing during the Depression). While on tour in the northeast he was invited to present his work at the Eastman School of Music, by none other than Howard Hanson (who might have been musically conservative, but he was obviously also open-minded). And this lecture -recital was miraculously recorded, direct to disc. This is the archival document.


Partch begins by demonstrating instruments that he had adapted to his harmonic practice: a melodion, and viola (the former is called the chromolodeon in its new state). He’s a winning presenter, soft-spoken, almost diffident, but with a sly and subversive humor. After playing a series of astonishing harmonic progressions on the keyboard, he then moves to discuss what he called “speech song“, which was a practice of vocal music that was between those two modes of delivery. Basically, the composer has taken English and given it a far more precise and exaggerated sense of inflection, which in turn is supported by the melodic writing on the accompanying instrument (which Partch always plays himself). After a brief rendition of Psalm 23, he moves on to the Li Po settings, which have a ravishing poignancy as he delivers them (and though these are in English, the original Chinese would have had a high degree of pitch inflection when spoken, and so Partch’s approach seems very appropriate).


Then we are on to Barstow, a collection of hitchhiker inscriptions from a fence in rural California. This is a great classic. If one knows it, it is probably from the legendary Columbia LP release called The World of Harry Partch, in a rendition for an ensemble of instruments Partch had built by the 1960s, with him as the intoning and singing narrator. If you are used to the gravelly voice of the elder statesman, the far lighter voice of the middle-aged Partch is a revelation. Also all the accompaniment is done on his adapted guitar (with the composer performing). Having said that, the piece remains a landmark, indeed a masterpiece. It is completely its own genre: I think of it now as experimental American folk music. It’s also quite funny, and the audience roars more than once.


This is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of American music, not just the avant-garde. The sonics from what by today’s standards is a primitive source are in fact excellent. And the whole thing is presented in a manner that makes an argument for what is still valuable about CDs, and how they should be presented to remain relevant. The whole package is a beautiful little book, chock-full of archival documents (ranging from the composer’s lecture notes to programs to reviews), photos and explanatory text. It’s a concise history lesson in your hands.


This definitely goes on the next Want List. Robert Carl