13 April 2014

The Cloude of Unhearyng

(Or: A series of random and incomplete late-night thoughts prompted by revisiting the music of Harry Partch for the first time in nearly two decades.)

[...]   Firstly, I recognized the architecture within within the first frame, because I immediately felt a twinge of homesickness. Which was odd, because despite two decades spent in Chicago, I never heard any mention of Partch ever having lived or worked there. I associated him exclusively with the West Coast, assumed he might have spent some time on the East Coast, but could never imagine him having reason to venture inland.

[...]   The story’s been told, by David Toop and others, about how the composer Claude Debussy encountered Indonesian gamelan music at a Parisian international expo in 1889. He was enchanted by it, having – lazing about on an adjacent grassy space, having dozed off at some point in the performance, awaking a long time later to hear the same music going on with little variation, for hours on end. It apparently gave him some sort of epiphany, about other types of music – “all-night” musics that were infinitely open and modular and had a logical and purpose all their own, obliquely interweaving itself into one’s experience and awareness, following any of the usual Western ideas about beginning or end, progression or development or focus, etc.. He wrote about it in his journals, made notes to perhaps incorporate his impressions of this music in his future compositions, but died before ever getting round to exploring the notion. His friend and associate Erik Satie proved more ready to venture down that path.

[...]    Re, that last thought...

There’s nothing like going to something you saw advertised as a performance by a “gamelan ensemble,” and being confronted by a bunch of local white folks (townies, essentially) coming out to clang away on water kettles and marimbas. This has been known to happen. Reason being that apparently at some point in the early-mid twentieth-century, gamelan music became something of an exotic ethnomusicalogical fixation in the U.S.,and the music departments of many major universities clamored to acquire all the instruments involved in making the music. Which they still own, and would otherwise be mouldering in storage if some of them hadn’t started some sort of community-outreach programs to bring people in to learn how to play them and give the occasional free-to-the-public performance.

File under: "Not what I had in mind." I don't know who’s to blame for this, but I'm fairly sure Debussy and Satie can't be held responsible.

[...]   By the time Tortoise released their 2nd album (1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die), people around town were already starting to talk shit about them. You know how it is – the backlash. Once the artist in question starts to get widespread recognition, everyone who claims to have gotten in on the ground floor gets all churlish and sneeringly dismissive. Perhaps this was the reason the group so quickly adopted the Never-Play-Your-Hometown policy that they'd adhere to for about a dozen years thereafter.

But in there sudden absence, they inspired their share of imitators around town. Small outfits with unconventional instrumentation and approaches. Lots of realtime dubbed-out knob-twisting and reverb-soaked sound manipulation, or with percussive elements taking the lead, often more openly structured and unresolved than what rock audience would've wanted or been conditioned to ever expect. I recall one such ensemble that had a marimba as their central instrument as seemed to be quite smitten with the music of Morton Feldman. There were enough of these types of groups around that for a while you might've wondered if the whole "post-rock" sound was going to be the next big underground thing in the city. Nothing doing, as it proved to be short-lived, with only one of two of the acts in question ever getting around to recording anything before splitting up.

Tortoise meanwhile, were making themselves scarce about town. "Last time I saw those guys," one local backlasher was recorded as saying, "They did nothing but play 'Tubular Bells' for forty minutes. Doubtlessly in reference to when the band started working with vibraphone and marimbas; a phase that seemed to be inspired more than Steve Reich than anything else, although I remember wishing at the time that they would've instead steered it more of a Partch-like direction.

[...]   Of the bunch, I was probably much more taken with Gastr del Sol. Who, for various reasons, I didn't see fit to lump in with the others, even if everyone else considered them of the Chicago "post-rock" thing. Maybe it was the hurdy gurdy and the John Fahey rechannelings, but they seemed to be occupying their own outer-orbiting space. (One that many others elsewhere would pile into about 7-8 years later, when the beginnings of the whole "free-folk"/"New Weird Americana" thing started to emerge.

[...]   Perhaps the closest I came to anything that put me in the general neighborhood of Partch was this item:

Which was an all-percussion affair, very freeform. I know pretty much nothing about the album or the artist responsible for it, aside from the fact that radio station I used to work at had a first-gen LP copy of the thing in its library, which I would sometimes use as a "DJ tool" when I was doing the multi-source mixing stretch of the station's experimental music/noise show.

[...]   A history of American music (re, modern composition and its inventive "masters") in the twentieth century would be nothing without the eccentrics, the misfits. Granted, that sounds like a ringing reinforcement of the most trite and tired of romantic stereotypes, the sort that prattle on about the sui-generis genius of iconoclastic rebels and the like. But in this instance it makes for a cohesive narrative. The narrative that accounts for Charles Ives and Sun Ra, Harry Partch and Thelonious Monk, John Cage and Ornette Coleman, Conlon Nancarrow or Henry Threadgill, etc..*  The types of musicians and composers whose influence mostly lived on in the form of theory and ideation; because their music was so peculiar and idiosyncratic that there was little point in trying to imitate it, to use it as any sort of starting point.*

[...]   About that history of eccentricity in American composition throughout the 20th century, a large part of it came from a long-running fascination with music from Asian parts of the globe. "Other" musics, the sort that involved different (broader, more differentiated) harmonic scales, evolved from a different sense of the music's place in the social and personal realm of experience. For instance: John Coltrane and Philip Glass each sought out tutelage from Ravi Shankar, aiming to learn (one assumes) about the basis for the drone and microtonalist modes of playing and composition.

The two Coltranes – wife and husband, Alice and John – sought out other instruments to learn. Alice took an interest in the harp, and conferred with Dorothy Ashby in Chicago for advice. John meanwhile has taken a casual fascination with bagpipes, and contacts Rufus Harley, who happened to reside in John's old stomping ground of Philly. Not that John Coltrane ever wanted to – as Harley already had – incorporate bagpipes into a jazz repertoire. He just wanted to see how playing such an utterly alien instrument might affect how approaches his usual instrument of choice – tenor and soprano sax. Musical history will have to guess the outcome, as JC was dead from stomach cancer shortly thereafter.

When you think of the harp or the bagpipes, blues-based music is probably the last thing that would come to mind. But there it is. It's not so much of a stretch, one reckons, considering that jazz was the product of a transcultural mutation in the first place.

[...]   Speaking of Ravi Shankar: At roughly the same time that John Coltrane was reaching for a set of bagpipes, there was also a big thing in the rock scene for sitars. About which the less said the better, since it raises thorny theoretic question about witless musical appropriation and misuse, which might lead to an argument about the history of colonialist annexation. In 1967, not much of anyone was speaking or thinking in those terms, because the vocabulary for that sort of critique was still in development. Instead there were just a handful of purists to point out that George Harrison, Brian Jones or the guys in the Moody Blues or the Strawberry Alarm Clock didn't know the first thing about how the instrument was supposed to be played.

[...]   "Other" musics in this instance = Orientalisms and travel-brochure exoticisms writ large. As far as Partch's pan-cultural, pan-disciplinary vision was concerned -- it seems fairly quaint in retrospect. Uneasily quaint, in the way it smacks of first-world privilege and naïveté, the sort that was peculiar but common to a particular "avant-garde" sensibility in the not-too-distant past. The films of Maya Deren might be a good example, because they frequently reeked of this sort of thing.

[...]  As far as Partch was concerned, he saw himself as fighting back against what he considered a long history of increasing degrees of "abstraction" in Western music. But rather than blaming Schoenberg or Beethoven for this state of affairs, he went a few centuries and blamed Johann Sebastian Bach, instead.

[...]   Great Depression transient camp interlude, from a journal entry circa 1935:

Partch was born and raised in Oakland, CA, having been conceived during the first year of the twentieth century. Gertrude Stein had spent most of her childhood in Oakland,; and, looking back on her hometown, would eventually write the city off as a place where there was no "there there." Many Oaklandians have never fully forgiven Stein for the slight. Probably there wasn't, seeing how -- compared to what it would later become -- there wasn't a great deal to most of California at that point in history. 'Thereness' was something quite commonly absent from the larger portion of the U.S., especially the western portions two-thirds.

But Partch came of age in Oakland some two decades after Stein. And the era in American cultural history in which he entered adulthood was one from which Stein was absent, she having long since fucked off to Paris. Literarily, this was the age that John Dos Passos sought to encompass in the three novels of his so-called "U.S.A. Trilogy." These novels at times give offer a deeply schizophrenic and conflicted portrait of the nation at that period in its history. It's at once very full in some ways, but still fairly empty in others. Full if you happen to live in or near any of the nation's urban centers; quite empty if live or have wandered far afield from these centers. Full, in the scale and intensity of the political, economic, technological, and cultural shifts that the modern era had introduced into the society; but a bit empty were the sort that bulldozed straight over or you or left you behind. "All right, we have two nations," the author offhandedly interjects at one point. He was speaking in another in another context, more specifically about public opinion of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. But if the comment remains one of the most famous passage from the trilogy, it's probably on account of its enduring resonance.

[...]   Interesting to learn from the film: Harry Partch, selling and mailing out out his own music by mail from his own apartment. His own promoter and distro. Definitively DIY, proto-indie. Apparently for a point in his career, while living in upstate New York, Charlie Mingus did something almost identical. About which, you might imagine the nature of the entrepreneurial epiphany: "I'm tired of dealing with these so-called music labels. Fuck 'em!!" Please make all checks or money orders payable to...

[...]   Acknowledged that listening to the music of Harry Partch is transfixing, but listening to Harry Partch himself is something opposite. Endless explanation and exegesis. Anyone who might've bought his Delusion of the Fury boxset from a record bin knows this already; seeing how an entire side of one of the discs is devoted to his laying forth -- manifesto style -- about his theories and all of the instruments he's constructed or adopted from outside the Western repertoire. His bombastic but very, very hazy and redundant extollations about "Corporeal" music and "Just Intonation.' Both solemn and hectoring at the same time, a monomaniacal cult of one, or -- as some would say -- a "crank."

Apparently there's some visual documentation of an early performance of Delusion of the Furym, which proved to be among the last of Partch's projects...


Hearing it again, I can agree to split the difference. His writing weren't much better, as far as the heavy-handed proclamations went. But his Genesis of a Music does yield occasional gems like:
"...in the small town that Albuquerque then was.) Interspersed at this time are recollections of my mother visiting jails, complaining loudly about their conditions, and occasionally bringing prostitutes home to spend the night. (My father would bring hobos home also, but he insisted that they work. I do not recall that my mother ever insisted that the prostitutes work.)"
Or, more to the topic at hand:
"With this tuning, the musician could rosy around all day long with completely satisfying, undeviated monotony."

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* Not that any sort of nationalistic essentialistic blahblah could explain any of this, because no nation would fully embrace any of the aforementioned as one of their own. Plus, all such talk of sui-generitude and singularity often only serves to further enable the most pernicious strains of American mythology.

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