Harry Partch - A Poet's View

Harry Partch - A Poet's View

Alan Shaw

Alan Shaw on the poetics of composer Harry Partch and the musicality of greek prosody.

Browsing in a bookstore twenty years ago, I came across Partch’s Genesis of a Music, in which he sets forth the theory and practice of his music in great detail. It was the first I had heard of him. I was just then obsessed with a rather esoteric question: how did the ancient Greek dramatists set their choruses to music? I had been trying to translate the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and since I wanted the translation to be performable, it was essential to gain some idea of the how the original productions of the tragedies must have sounded. No one knew, of course. Partch was one of the few who even seemed to consider the question interesting or important.

And what he had to say about it was more than intriguing. All the scholars knew that the Greeks regarded music and poetry as one, that they considered music without words an inferior art, and that the words sung in the choruses were apparently understood by a large open-air audience without difficulty. Musicologists knew that the Greeks used scales different from our own, that some of them contained “microtonal” intervals, and that Greek music (or its theorists, at any rate) favored scales built on intervals represented by small-number ratios (so-called “just intonation”). Partch put these well-known facts together in a way that no one else seemed to have thought of. Naturally the Greeks used microtonality, since they were interested in the most sensitive intonation of the words, and speech inflections require intervals smaller than the diatonic “semitone.” Naturally they would prefer small-number ratios, for that is the only way to make a scale containing such intervals rational and harmonious. And naturally the words would be understood, since the whole musical system was designed to support them.

Leafing through his book, with its color plates of his amazing instruments, diagrams of scales, and discussions of ratios, I could be forgiven, perhaps, for imagining that here was a nearly complete answer to my question - that I had stumbled on a brilliantly detailed, intuitive reconstruction of the actual musical practices of the ancient Greeks. I bought the book and studied it thoroughly.

When I listened to his Delusion of the Fury, the only recording of his music widely available at the time, I was both enthralled and disappointed. The music was wonderful indeed, but where were the words? Everything in his book had suggested that he, like the Greeks, thought music without words to be only half an art. There are words in Delusion of the Fury, but most of the time the characters sing or intone in meaningless syllables. It was only after I met Danlee Mitchell, the work’s conductor, and he dubbed for me tapes of Partch’s earlier settings of Sophocles’ King Oedipus and Euripides’ Bacchae (Revelation in the Courthouse Park), that I was able to hear how Partch had put into practice the ideas that had so excited me in his book.

Partch’s belief in “vital words” in music was only part of his larger belief in corporeality, and in his later works he seems to have relied more on other means to achieve it - the visual appeal of the instruments, the physicality of the performers, the tone colors of the music itself. He clearly still conceived of his music as theatre, but a theatre that had grown, apparently, less dependent on words.

Over the years Partch has continued to be a unique inspiration to me in my own attempts to present words in music. At the same time I have evolved a rather different approach. A personality as powerful as his tends to instill a conviction in his admirers that his is the only way, an attitude that I am sure he would not approve. His own inclination was always to question everything, and the remarks that follow, far from being an attempt to reduce his achievement, are made in that spirit.

In considering the musical resources of the ancient Greek dramatists and poets, one important aspect Parch neglected was verse metrics. His own setting of Oedipus originally used Yeats’ translation, which was in prose except for the choruses. Later, when the Yeats estate refused him permission to use the poet’s version in recordings, he rewrote the work using his own translation, again in prose, though the choruses are in a kind of free verse. Now one clear superiority of Greek verse, from the standpoint of musical declamation, was that its meter was the meter of the music. In fact it may be said that the best idea we have of Greek music comes from Greek choral lyrics, whose intricate rhythmic patterns carry the burden of musical structure: all we really lack is the tonal element, and whatever slight instrumental accompaniment there was. Partch’s practice, on the other hand, when he sets words to music, is to follow the prose rhythms of the text; there is no attempt to compose the words themselves to the desired musical rhythm, which was what the Greeks did. Thus the effect is likely to be quite different from Greek music. Not necessarily inferior, to be sure. But my impression, as one who studied these matters rather seriously at one time, is that Greek choral delivery must have been very measured, more like singing than intoned speech. A highly intelligible singing, yes. But that would have owed at least as much to the perfect rhythmic correspondence of words and music as it did to any intonational subtleties.

Partch often implies that the traditional scale is simply incapable of the subtleties that setting words to music requires. And it is true that his own practice of “intoning” in unusual intervals creates an effect one couldn’t get in any other way. But we need only look at certain popular traditions of our own, at Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht and Weill, the American musical and Tin Pan Alley, to see that words can come across clearly in musical settings without resorting to any special scales. Not that all these are shining examples of verbal and musical subtlety. But there is no reason the principles they use could not be developed further. And one principle is that the words are often, as with the Greeks, composed directly to a musical rhythm.

Since Partch was not a poet himself, this kind of “composing” was not something he could easily tackle (he had, after all, enough hats to wear!). More importantly, he chose not to: the irregular rhythms of free verse and prose, the use of “found” texts and other “nonpoetic” materials, were essential to his art. The first version of Oedipus, using the Yeats text, was superior in a literary sense, but the version using his own text is better musically and dramatically. His most considerable setting of lyric poetry, the Li Po songs, uses a prosy translation, which, from the little I know about Chinese verse, probably doesn’t represent the highly formal rhythms of the original very well, but left him free to express the images and drama of the poems in his own voice.

Wouldn’t it be possible to combine musical-poetic meters with microtonality and just intonation? Of course. But it all depends on what effect one wants. Proponents of just intonation often assume that it is simply a superior tuning, and that the only reason for not using it is its difficulty. But there may be stylistic reasons as well. Could one imagine Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which Partch admired, composed in anything other than the twelve-tone scale? In a style based on avoidance of “concordant” intervals, what would be the point of a tuning system that makes those intervals as pure as possible? Or take the songs of Kurt Weill (who had in his collaborator Brecht a perfect source of musically interesting verse rhythms); they play on the characteristic harmonies of early twentieth century popular music, whose effect, it might be argued, depends on the acoustic ambiguity of added thirds, sixths, and “altered” chords in equal temperament, an effect that would be destroyed by the “pure” intervals of Partch’s tuning.

As for using intervals smaller than a semitone, or other “nonstandard” intervals, it seems clear that singers (especially those outside the classical tradition) will do this anyway when good declamation calls for it; the only question is whether the practice needs to be rationalized by the tuning, or can be left up to the performer. Lotte Lenya knew nothing of just intonation, I’m sure, but her highly individual singing wasn’t exactly “equally tempered” either.

Partch himself clearly saw his tuning system as a personal choice, suited to the ethos of his work, as was his decision to set words according to their prose rhythm instead of a metric scheme. It was the ethos of an outsider, for whom everything that smacked of a “mass” expression (such as choral singing) was a denial of ancient “corporeal” man. Partch’s frequent parodies of musical conventions are much more extreme than anything in the Threepenny Opera; it’s as though those conventions had been cast, in his words, “into a sea of ancient rules and rituals,” and emerged sounding quaint, naive and distant. It’s a delicious effect, but one that pays little tribute to the things parodied. Nothing Partch wrote is likely to show up years later on the hit parade, as did some of the Threepenny songs.

The question of how one uses conventional music can be of some importance to composers involved with words and story-telling, and drama in particular. Do you want all conventional forms to be distorted through the prism of a pure tuning, like the marching band in Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park? Or do you want to be able to compose a fairly straight tango, say, like Weill’s “Pimp’s Ballad,” with only a bit of tinkering with harmony and phrasing to convey the ironies in the text? These are questions of style, and appeals to theory will not settle them.

Whatever one’ s personal choices, it is undeniable that Partch’s work has greatly expanded the resources available to word-conscious composers, and composers in general. The variety of modern musical theatre owes a mostly unacknowledged debt to him, and poets should give him first place among those who have shown, in our century, that words and music need not be forever at odds.

For more on Harry Partch:

Corporeal Meadows. By Webmaster Jon Szanto, a percussionist and veteran Partch performer.

A review of Partch’s Oedipus by Alan Shaw.