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Harry Partch: Bitter Music

Partch / Valitutto / West
Release Date: 12/13/2011 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9349  
Composer:  Harry Partch
Performer:  Richard ValituttoGarry EisterJohn SchneiderHarry Partch,   ... 
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Mixed 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PARTCH Bitter Music & Partch; John Schneider (nar) BRIDGE 9349 (3 CDs: 196: 30)

& Harry Partch comments on Bitter Music (3: 44)

An appendix to the music of Harry Partch, and a prime document capturing the Partch legend in the making, Bitter Music is a journal the composer Read more kept from June 11, 1935, to February 1, 1936. Though its musical content is slight—snatches of folk song and hymns, with and without piano accompaniment, and Partch’s one foray into popular music, My Heart Keeps Beating Time —its musical interest is large, a record of American musical demotic, and of Partch’s ongoing effort to shape speech inflection to musical ends, or, as he put it, “impressing the intangible beauty of tone into the vital power of the spoken word, without impairing either.” It begins on the road, with Partch moving through a series of transient shelters and work camps, up and down the West coast, just after a return to Depression America from England, Ireland, and Malta and a cordial meeting with Yeats—whose views on speech music both anticipated and inspired his own—and ends with a job as a newspaper proofreader. Here are the poverty, the cold, the hunger, the insolence of office, the dull incomprehension, the crushing nullity Vasari cited as the lot of the true artist, sardonically observed in close detail. The contrast between Yeats and his milieu, long hours of research in the British Museum (for what would eventually become Genesis of a Music ), and an attempt to have a chromatic organ constructed capable of rendering the microtonal, 43 tones to the octave, music he envisioned—all on a $1,500 grant—is wrenching, recalled in flashbacks as Partch cleans sewers, harvests fruit, bums. An undertow of homosexuality, tastefully noted with humor and compassion, went with the territory, so to speak. The upshot is fascinating, in its older sense of being riveting and appalling at once. Those snugly identified by the comfort of middle class surroundings may find it distressing. As Partch writes in the preface, “The urging present is not always sober,” and Bitter Music catches it hot and often stinging. But no one with a more than casual interest in Partch—or in the travails of Depression America—will willingly neglect this.

Bridge’s production is a labor of love. Partch’s biographer, Bob Gilmore—ever at pains to parse the legend against documentation—was tapped for an appreciative introduction. And Partch’s ink drawings from Bitter Music are reproduced in the album booklet, prompting the reminder that his nephew, Virgil Partch, was the cartoonist VIP, popular through the midcentury. The publication of Bitter Music in 1991 (see Fanfare 21:4), with Partch’s musical scraps and speech notation, afforded an obvious opportunity, and in 1995 Philip Blackburn offered a full CD, some 73 minutes, of judicious selections with their musical components, from Bitter Music , in a four-CD compilation of speech notation works drawn from archives of Partch himself performing (Innova 401, see Fanfare 30:3, under video reviews). Blackburn’s zest, and his adept fielding of the musical oddments, offered a serviceable, somewhat off-the-cuff presentation, caught in distant, large-hall ambience. The current realization, on the other hand, is a frank performance taken in closely intimate sound with the body of the text, the “Subjective Voice,” delivered by John Schneider, and the three other members of Partch—an eponymously named ensemble—taking the musical oddments and projecting an occasional contrasting “Objective Voice.” Schneider’s vocal inflections are so uncannily close to Partch’s own that we might be hearing young Harry. Curiously, Schneider’s kinder, gentler account of Letter From Hobo Pablo eschews Partch’s dactylic vehemence, demonstrating—as did his performance of Barstow in its original version for voice and adapted guitar ( Just West Coast: Microtonal Music for Guitar and Harp, Bridge BCD 9041, Hall of Fame, Fanfare 26:5)—that Partch’s music responds to a wide interpretive latitude. Hobo Pablo’s letter, by the way, is simply quoted in Bitter Music as Partch left it, while this recension interpolates the 1943 setting of it. Gilmore notes, “In this recording Schneider has … drawn upon his detailed knowledge of Partch’s later work; for the past 15 years he has built up his own collection of copies of the Partch instruments, and given regular performances on them. Several of the instruments make a guest appearance here—admittedly anachronistically, as most of the originals had not yet been built, but this was simply too good a chance to resist. We hear the voices of the Kithara, the Chromelodeon … as well as strummed chords on Adapted Guitar I when Partch recalls playing for the Italian sailors he met en route to Malta. There is also an actual performance of By the Rivers of Babylon as Partch would have performed it for W. B. Yeats (in the passage where he recalls his visit to Ireland in 1934).”

The upshot is not merely a major addition to the slender Partch discography; Bitter Music is a large and still little-recognized chapter in American letters. Partch is an immediately engaging, verbally adept chronicler who was quite capable of having made his mark as a writer, had he chosen. Taken with End Littoral , a happier account of a 1947 hiking trip along the northern California coast, Bitter Music looms as a classic, belonging with Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers , Whitman’s Leaves of Grass , Twain’s Roughing It , Hart Crane’s The Bridge , and Henry Miller’s Black Spring , among others. This superb realization renders Bitter Music uniquely, compellingly accessible. The album concludes with Partch himself in a brief snippet—Encinitas, 1969—reconciled to a work he thought lost and in which he had lost faith. A headline on the album case notes this as “Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 1.” Stay tuned (in 43 tones). A labor of love, indeed.

FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis
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Works on This Recording

Bitter Music by Harry Partch
Performer:  Richard Valitutto (Piano), Garry Eister (Voice), John Schneider (Adapted Guitar),
Harry Partch (Voice), Paul West (Kithara)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Notes: Performers speak, sing and play a variety of instruments.  

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