— Counter-Currents —

Our Wagner, Only Better:
Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music, Part 3

4,566 words

harrypartch[1] [1]Part 3 of 3

Lacking the notion of radical traditionalism, Partch’s audiences tended to misunderstand him, by assimilating him to either of two reassuringly familiar roles: as either an “Orientalist” or some kind of “avant-garde” radical.

These were two things that infuriated Partch as failures to understand what he was doing. The first, beloved of lazy though positive reviewers and polite guests, was to say something like “It’s very Oriental, isn’t it?”[1] In a very superficial sense, it is—it seems mostly gongs and mallets, with nary a string instrument to be found—no room of the blood-warm romance of the shtetl and swooning ladies in the private boxes.

More profoundly, the “Oriental” tag is a reflection of an ingenuous perception of what René Guénon has discussed in the context of metaphysics and the “crisis of the modern [Western] world”; that the “modern” West has amounted to a cultural wrong turn which had the effect of isolating itself from not only the East but its own past, and thus become a monstrous historical anomaly. By refusing to continue on that road, and instead returning to its roots to find a new direction, Partch winds up sounding “oriental” when he is actually au profond—or rockily, as Alan Watts might say—Western.

As Guénon, Evola and other Traditionalists insisted, in such situations as today’s “Crisis of the Modern World” one must turn to other traditions, not to join them, or to combine them into some “New Age” syncretism, but to discover there elements missing or distorted in one’s own Western tradition, and thus the means to renew it. Writing to encourage a discouraged friend, who sounds like a typical reader of Evola or Counter-Currents, Partch says:

I must part with you, when you say—“. . . there’s virtually nothing left, nothing retrievable from the European past, no signs along the way, and nothing to lean on.” I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. In three thousand years the West has abandoned values, beautiful and significant things, that in toto are at least as important as what we have preserved. But it is tough—no instruments, the culture, the milieu are absent. But they can be re-created or imagined. With Oriental music, you don’t have to re-create or imagine. In either case, what you come up with is something new. (Gilmore, p. 384)

As we have seen, Partch’s background—Chinese missionary parents, childhood and young adulthood in the Southwest and West Coast—gave him much exposure to “alien” music, from Chinese theatre to Zuni rituals. But Partch always saw himself not as an antiquarian or a folklorist, but as his own man, and fundamentally a Western man, of the American Southwest.

The more I see of fashions, the more I discern, with infinite clarity, another path—that of Man, the bright adventurer, the magic maker.[2] When I feel optimistic, it holds brilliant promise, like an Arizona morning before dawn, with its cardboard stage set and dark eastern silhouette in honor of the sun’s holy rising. . . . The truly path-breaking step can never be predicted, and certainly not by the person who makes it at the time he makes it. He clears as he goes, evolves his own techniques, devises his own tools, ignores where he must. And his path cannot be retraced, because each of us is an original being.[3]

He also despised the “avant-garde,” especially “Cagean gimmickry” that he saw as at best a surrender of the responsibility of the composer, as worse, mere showmanship. “Drinking orange juice down an amplified gullet” he snorted, reporting on an actual Cage stunt—I mean, “concert.” He “distrusted all types of avant-gardism on the grounds they were contrivances of over-civilized cliques.”[4] “Composers with ‘advanced techniques’ . . . enshrine the bodiless brain. The bodiless brain really needs no sounds at all, only theories.”[5]

Nor, despite living for long periods (for him) in such haunts as San Francisco, Big Sur, and Sausalito, did he have any interest in “The Beats.” “Harry had no use for the Beat Generation” one West Coast friend remembers. While becoming a more and more ferocious drinker as he aged, Partch had no interest in marijuana or other “recreational” drugs, nor joining a little clique of “hipsters,” which he compared to “Going around in a circle and meeting the same people every five degrees”—and we know how much he hated circles![6]

But above all, he regarded the Beat “jazz poetry” as just another kind of “avant-garde” gimmickry. His critique illustrates his demand for both technical knowledge and integrity:

Poetry-cum-jazz: I’ve heard a few very simple things I like, but mostly, it seems to me, both poetry and jazz need more cum. They should be more with it. When poets are jazzmen, and jazzmen poets we’ll be closer to an art. I see little evidence that poets have studied the sounds of their own voices, and rhythms, to say nothing of the frequency sounds of their voices, and no evidence whatever that the jazzmen are doing anything different than they’ve always done. (Gilmore, p. 234)

Ultimately, Partch’s immersion in the European tradition took him all the way back to the earliest cave paintings, and the tradition, commonplace in the West through the Middle Ages, of atavistic anonymity.[7] Ironically, while being filmed for a portrait of the artist called The Dreamer that Remains, Partch exclaims

I would choose to be anonymous. Of course! I’m thinking of those fantastic cave drawings in southern France and in northern Spain, at Altamira I think it is. And there’s no author there! And what a treasure they are! And who cares who did them, how many thousands of years ago. Of course, I’m not saying that anything I do is going to last that long. But who cares what the name was!” (Gilmore, p. 283)

Part of that “anonymity” would be his disdain for the “gay liberation” bandwagon when it reached him in the—and his— seventies. For Partch, his homosexuality was a purely personal concern, not political. “Coming out” seemed to him less an avowal of personal liberty than a political alignment, as well as falsely assuming a “fixed sexual identity that could be confidently declared in public.” Contra the “gay liberation” fanatics, this “identity politics” as we call it today was again only a counterfeit of integrity: “true love is ambidextrous.”[8]

In the words of Lou Harrison, the Californian composer who has to a degree assumed Partch’s mantle: “Harry told the truth about tune, as Kinsey did about sex.”[9]

C: The Music

As someone once said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so perhaps it would be best to take advantage of our modern intertubes and refer the reader to the audio and video resources listed below. I would, however, like to do two things before ending; first, reassure the reader who may have suffered from one too many college music performances, and then give some indication of how his works fit into his archeofuturist development sketched above.

One is first and most impressed with how normal—how, dare I say it, natural—it all sounds.[10] Of course, I have been exposed, willingly or not, to a fair about of “modern” or “avant-garde” music. But even the most innocent ears should not expect to hear the tormented shrieks of dodecaphony nor the easily parodied boredom of Judaic “minimalism” nor épater le bourgeois assaults from police sirens or shotguns, nor long stretches of silence impudently put forward as “music.”

Microtonal music can be tonal music; and . . . Partch’s tuning system, which was grounded on the idea that all tones manifest proportionately from 1:1, was an extreme example of a tonal system. For Partch, the use of just intonation to develop Western music was an alternative to other contemporaneous attempts to resolve the modern crisis of tonality. [ . . . ]

While other composers were attempting to expand the acceptance of dissonance, Partch placed his efforts in expanding the realm of consonance. “It is not necessary,” he said, “to assume antimusic or nonmusic attitudes. It is not necessary to resort to noise or nonrhythmic music, or even excessive dissonance to achieve dynamism in creative art.” (Harlan, p. 23; quoting Partch’s “Monoliths in Music,” [1966] in Bitter Music, p. 195)

Partch’s instruments, no matter how outré in form or sound, and however “one with” the sets, are always perceived as musical instruments, created and played by humans, and in this respect he certainly compares favorably with the increasingly synthesized—and synthetic—music created in the pop world since the ’80s.

It is a vindication of Partch’s philosophy, and his methods. When ET has been first theoretically stripped of its pretensions to being natural, or inevitable, or optimal, and revealed instead as an unnatural, abstract and entirely played-out imposition by Kulturphilistinen; and then a truly natural scale created, along with the instruments needed to play it, the results are, as Hindu or Chinese theorists would have predicted, naturally harmonious and pleasing to the ear. As the Situationist slogan from Paris ’68 had it, “Beneath the pavement—the beach.” It is, if you will, archeofuturism.

As for the musical works themselves, they followed an evolution similar to Partch’s own—archeofuturist with unity or integrity as its leading motive. “He came to believe that the future of music—and indeed, of civilization—lay in a rebirth of the instinctual springs of life that had animated ancient cultures, and this rebirth called, inevitably, for the recreation of the media through which the spirit was to be made manifest.”[11]

Partch’s work—at least after his potbellied auto de fé—like the Greeks, was originally monophonic, not in the sense of recorded in one channel, but a single instrument, perhaps even a single string, accompanying one voice. “His music has to be monophonic and in Just Intonation, because it is a corporeal theatre ritual [like Classical drama or Noh]. . . . His works, like Aristophanes and Japanese Kabuki, use monophonic chant, slapstick and juggling for socio-religious purposes.”[12]

This was because his original idea was that music had evolved from speech, and so was essentially intoned speech. Music should realize the expressive forces latent in speech (hence, already we see whence his dissatisfaction with the overwhelming Wagnerian orchestra). This already sounded “oriental” enough, especially when setting, say, the poems of Li Po.

With the production of King Oedipus, however, Partch reacted to the experience of collaboration on sets and dance with a seismic shift in his conception of music, towards a basically percussive sound, thus becoming even more “oriental” (the New York Times sneered that he had “reinvented the gamelan for his own purposes”[13]). But even more importantly, it was, as we have seen, a new vision of a total theatre work, integrating music, voice, dance, set design, into one whole.

The transition from the intoned speech manner to a percussive dance idiom follows his realization that the theatre could be a suitable medium for both. . . . Moreover, [the director’s] acceptance of his instruments as dramatically compelling presences on stage both vindicated and transformed Partch’s attitude to his instrument-building activity, and confirmed his belief in the sculptural and kinesthetic appeal of instruments as visual forms. (Gilmore, p. 216)

Once again, the idea was to learn from the East, and one’s own experience, to overcome modern abstraction and return, archeofuturistically, to a more corporeal Western past: “[I]n the orient there has never been any great separation of the theater arts, and therefore no need to conceive of integration. . . . [I think] in terms of revitalization of the over-specialized Western theater, through transfusion of old and profound concepts” (Gilmore, p. 298).

Partch’s large, beautifully constructed instruments would now be integral parts of the stage setting, not hidden away underneath the stage,[14] and the musicians, instead of sitting around waiting for their cues, would be expected to be part of the action as singers, dancers, or mimes.

The result was The Bewitched, which took its theme—the “unwitching” of human beings from our comfortable existences[15]—from Partch’s perception of his players as “lost musicians” who had “achieved a kind of magic perception through their music.”[16]

Originally a dance work, central to the concept is that the Lost Musicians are co-conspirators with the Witch, and form a kind of Greek chorus, singing, dancing, stamping feet, “their presence on the stage forming an indispensable part of the dramatic action.”[17] 

Bewitched remains a pivotal work for Partch. It marked a drastic shift from his monadic songs for voice and a small number of instruments, to large-scale productions that integrated a sizable ensemble of musicians, dramatic narrative, and dance. The combination of these elements is one of the best known characterizations of Partch’s work, and is an important aspect of his concept of Corporealism.

On a superficial level the integration of dance, drama, and music in the production of Bewitched was a success. The reason Partch considered it a failure was because the integration was designed to be realized by a blending of the traditional roles of the dancer, actor, and musician. The dancer/actor/musical performer, like the “idea and the music” was intended to be one, and therefore Partch wanted the same performer to alternate between dancing, acting, and playing an instrument. (Harlan, p. 110)[18]

Partch’s next major work would return to the classical world, but while Oedipus had been safely classical, now he would “bodily transfer Euripides’ The Bacchae to an American setting.” Based on the “assumption that ‘the mobbing of young male singers by semihysterical women is recognizable as a sex ritual for a godhead’,” the resulting work, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, would be

A dramatic hybrid of an unusual kind, setting a “straight” version of an ancient Greek play alongside a contemporary drama that is close to the territory of musical than opera. The score that Partch produced is likewise of a hybrid nature, amounting almost to a resume of his compositional techniques to that time.[19]

By alternating the action between a modern American courthouse park and the palace of ancient Thebes, the intention was to point up the “psychological parallel” between the erotio-religious frenzy of the Bacchae, the female followers of the god Dionysus, and the hedonism and submissiveness of American teenagers and those “not so young” (as the text puts it) to rock ‘n’ roll idols, represented in Revelation by the sensuous Dion.[20]

Revelation would also give Partch a chance to deal with his, shall we say, mother “issues.” It’s a somewhat unsatisfying work, though, as the contemporary music seems not particularly parodistic, nor particularly authentic—actual rock ‘n’ roll makes no appearance, for example. As Gilmore notes, the full force of Partch’s music only makes itself felt “at the last minute appearance of Apollonian clarity,” a symbolic point that renders the rest of the music somewhat pointless.

In any event, Partch certainly evades a problem that has beset Wagner: by slapping a “modern” version of the same mythical action right next to it, he neatly forestalls all those attempts to “modernize” Wagner by “updating” his settings with modern décor, dress, and concerns.[21]

By most accounts, Delusion of the Fury is Partch’s masterpiece. Here he abandons classical pretense altogether in favor of borrowing from similar but living traditions, with Act One based on a Japanese Noh play, and Act Two based on an African folktale. Unlike Revelation, the tales are alternating versions of the same action; the work is unified by the use of the same actors in both parts, and by a deeper underlying theme. By combining both these living traditions Partch gives rebirth to the Greek festival, with a tragedy followed by a satyr play on the same topic.[22]

This is real “cultural diversity,” not the inane liberal version. Partch reduces these vastly different plots to their common theme: the futility of anger. In the one, a noble warrior realizes that anger is dishonorable, in the other, common people become involved in a ridiculous quarrel that brings even justice into disrepute.[23] The foolish Judge has the last word, for this is Partch’s “reconciliation with the world”—his Parsifal. And why not? He was now living in his most palatial accommodations ever—not Wagner’s palazzo in Venice, mind you—but an abandoned laundromat in Venice, CA.

D: Finale

Gilmore’s epilogue tells the dispiriting, but perhaps inevitable, tale of the “schisms” that have developed among those attempting to safeguard and extend Partch’s legacy. Ironically, most of them seem to revolve around interpretations of integrity: Ben Johnston having completed after Partch’s death the project for an integrated system of just and tempered notation that Partch had abandoned in 1933, should his music be published in that more user-friendly way, or in its “original” form? Should Partch’s filing cabinet of a lifetime’s writing and ephemera be edited or even censored, or published “as is”?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, much, if Partch’s particular instruments are preserved, or his music ever played again. Nor does it matter whether you, after following the links below, listen to Partch’s music and decide you “like” it, or not; or that it’s “better” than Wagner, or not, whatever those words could mean.

What I’ve been suggesting in all this hoo-haw about tonality, has been that we need to stop idolizing Wagner, certainly stop imitating him, or anyone else, including Partch, but take Partch as a model and inspiration, far more relevant to our times than Wagner, and make our own Aryan music.

Contra my critics, I have no need to lure our youth away from Wagner, or the classical tradition. The music is just fine, and the kids can make up their own minds. But using classical samples to 4/4 rock songs is not the way forward for our culture. The system of ET is our prison, both musically and culturally.

Why not, then, admit the problem and look for a solution? Of course, slogans and programs are no good by themselves; they need, as Partch would say, corporeality; they need to be embodied in imitable figures. That is the function of mythology, or of the classical education given to the British Empire’s future servants. That, I suppose, is the function of Wagner, and why his figure is treated as taboo.

As we’ve noted, Partch himself recognized Wagner as a forerunner, but he also recognized that Wagner failed; partly for his own idiosyncratic reasons, but also because of the system, ET, as well as the tradition of abstract music itself, both of which he expanded, to his credit, but failed to overcome.

Let us choose for ourselves, and let us chose a different figure.[24] A man of our time, and our nation. A man who, unlike Wagner, spurned the yoke of patronage, and like Siegfried, wandered in the wilderness until, like Siegfried, he returned to smash the system of ET as Siegfried broke Wotan’s spear.

Writing about Robert Howard and his barbaric creation Conan, W. J. Guillaume has emphasized the strategic importance of that integrity of mind and body, art and science, that Partch called “corporeality”:

Through his genius Howard has provided us with a medium for re-awakening and generously nourishing our inner-Aryan essence and re-infusing ourselves with the instincts and intuitions—the crucial personal qualities—which put us back in contact with ourselves individually and collectively. . . .

Conan teaches the critical lesson that intelligence coupled with will is what brings victory and survival: only when mind operates with muscle, brain with bulk, will their possessors triumph. In today’s struggle the technician must be imbued with the ancient Aryan warrior spirit if he is to defeat the Jew and the colored swarms. He must become, in short, one of Nietzsche’s “new barbarians,” that superior stock of highly evolved White men who have blended their pure, natural instincts with the scientific outlook. Howard’s Conan is a valuable catalyst in this blending of essences.[25]

Harry Partch: He’s like our Wagner, only better.

Recommended Further Reading

Bob Gilmore, Harry Partch: A Biography [2] (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

Harry Partch, Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos [3], ed. Thomas McGeary (Champaign, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music: An Account of a Creative Work, Its Roots, and Its Fulfillments [4], second edition, enlarged (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974).

Corporeal Meadows, http://www.corporeal.com/ [5], is an extensive site devoted to Partch by Jonathan Szanto.

Recommended Listening

Harry Partch, Enclosure 6: Delusion of the Fury [6] (Innova, 1999).

For sheer sonic magic, and incorporating all of Partch’s synthesis of music, drama, movement, and visual wonder, there couldn’t be a more potent introduction to the sound of Harry Partch. Written late in his life, with the largest ensemble of instruments available (and performed by arguable his best ensemble), it is hard to overstate the importance of this recording being available again. Especially if your ears lean towards instrumental music, this is the one to place in the player and turn it up to 11!—The Meadows Guide to Partch Recordings, Videos and Books [7]. 

Harry Partch, The Bewitched: A Dance Satire [8] (Composers Recordings, 1997).

Set in the mystical realm of the University of Illinois . . . Partch’s 10 vignettes satirize aspects of collegiate life but in the style of ancient ritual theater . . . (representative titles: “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room,” “The Cognoscenti Are Plunged into a Deep Descent While at Cocktails”).

Musically, The Bewitched is a good introduction to Partch’s longer pieces. It is written for a combination of his originally created instruments and some traditional wind and stringed instruments. While this music is definitely experimental, what hits me most as I grow older, is how familiar and assessable it really is. . . . Partch is a great composer to listen to, especially if you are new to the avant-garde and want to listen to something that is both challenging but not too discordant. And The Bewitched is a great place to start listening to this wonderful American eccentric.—Amazon reviews

Harry Partch explains just intonation [9] (02:29)

Partch explains his version of just intonation, “monophonic” [10] (01:08)

Partch compares tempered triads with true triads [11] (01:22)

A Collection of YouTube videos, including Daphne of the Dunes, here: Bitter Music in Natural Acoustics with Harry Partch [12].


1. Partch wryly noted that “The bewilderment of many Orientals is easily equal to the bewilderment of many Caucasians.” Quoted in Mina Yang, California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads (Champaign, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 2008), p. 57.

2. The note of “Faustian Man” here derives perhaps from Partch’s reading of Spengler, although he otherwise had little use for Spengler’s views on music or Eastern culture.

3. Gilmore, p. 356, from Partch’s Genesis of a Music, pp. xii, xi; compare Crowley’s “Every man or woman is a star.” Lest all this talk of “integrity” sound too sanctimonious, it must be noted that Partch had an odd method of coming to decisions by arguing the two positions with himself, often aloud. He was quite open about the method, and recommended it to others. A kind of integrity, I guess. Gilmore (p. 379) quotes a houseguest who overstayed his welcome being awoken one night to sounds of argument in the next room, and realizing first it was about what to do with him, and second, that both voices were Partch’s. I can’t help but be reminded of the composer Adrian Leverkuhn coolly transcribing his hallucinated conversation with the Devil in Mann’s Doktor Faustus.

4. Yang, California Polyphony, p. 56. On the other hand, Partch had cordial and encouraging relations throughout his career with Howard Hanson, a very comfortably Romantic composer who never the less recognized Partch as a fellow independent-minded Aryan-American.

5. From a letter quoted by Gilmore, p. 259.

6. Nor did Partch have any use for Alan Watts, despite being a fellow goateed Northern California Japanophile, with a similar shyness-induced tendency to drink too much. See Gilmore, p. 218 and elsewhere.

7. See Guénon’s Reign of Quantity, chapter 9: “The Two-Fold Significance of Anonymity.”

8. Gilmore, pp. 378–80. Gilmore himself thinks Partch was just “old-fashioned.” Partch was about as “old fashioned” as William Burroughs, another “cultural outlaw” (p. 156) who viewed marriage as “a biological trap” (p. 193). Both were old-fashioned only in their commitment to the values of the Männerbund, although Partch, with his Southwestern background and years of wandering as a hobo, really lived the life that Burroughs only read about—in such books as Jack Black’s turn of the century crime memoir You Can’t Win—or wrote about—such as his Dead Roads Trilogy.

9. Quoted in Wilfred Mellers’ review of Bitter Music in the Times Literary Supplement, adding that Partch’s collected writings “Leaves us in no doubt that for Partch life and music were one; personal reflection intermingles with snatches of hobo speech and song, presented in rudimentary notations that demonstrate how ‘words are music,’ in rock-bottom America no less than in ancient Greece, in Gregorian chant, or Provencal troubadour song.”

10. Harlan thinks otherwise: “Indeed, the effect of microtonal melodies and harmonies performed with acoustic instruments and voice is nearly as ‘eerie’ sounding today as it was when Partch received his first concert reviews in 1931” (p. 51), but I think he’s wrong here.

11. Wilfred Mellers, Music in a New Found Land (New York: Knopf, 1964), p. 170.

12. Mellers, p. 171

13. Gilmore, p. 276.

14. “Partch says that watching his instruments being played is part of the experience” (Mellers, p. 173).

15. Gilmore, p. 227.

16. Gilmore, p. 219; Mellers, p. 173, calls them “primitives in their acceptance of magic as real.” During late-night sessions, Partch began to take on a guru-like status, taking on a “willing acceptance of artistic responsibility” and “an involvement with the concerns and aspirations of a younger generation.” In short, creating a musical Männerbund, although Partch’s peripatetic life would prevent any long-term group from being established. One might also find in the magical “Lost Musicians” an echo of the role played by the Master Musicians of Joujouka in the life and work of William Burroughs; the Witch, an “ancient, pre-Christian symbol” (Gilmore, p. 228) corresponds to their Pan festival’s ritual of a young boy dressed as “Bou Jeloud, the Goat God.”

17. Gilmore, p. 227.

18. Ironically, The Bewitched, though the first of his series of increasingly massive productions, born of inspiration at the collaborative work on King Oedipus, would be a complete, almost hysterical disaster, as far as Partch was concerned, though everyone else thought it a triumph. This was the production that inspired Johnston’s portrait, cited above, of Partch as self-destructive.

19. Gilmore, p. 280. Mellers also draws the comparison to American musical theatre. Weirdly, Revelation was written in 1959, one year previous to Bye Bye Birdie. Reviewing the Broadway revival—which, in its 1960 version, also featured in a pivotal episode of Mad Men that season, in which Sal inadvertently outs himself to his wife—the Village Voice slyly commented [13] “Something weird is happening in Middle America: You can see it in Conrad Birdie’s revelation in the courthouse park, howling a hymn to the American Virtue before a stiffly assertive obelisk bollocked by screaming stone eagles.” Myself, I can see even clearer parallels to the bifurcated shows of Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, especially the themes of castration—Burt, Harry, and Hedwig—life on the road, and of the desire and pursuit of the whole, or one.

20. Gilmore, p. 279.

21. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s praise of Mary Baker Eddy for similarly forestalling any attempts to “reinterpret” her scriptures by requiring all Christian Science services to include nothing but reading from her own works, without any additional commentary.

22. Gilmore fails to note that the satyr play analogue in the African folk tale involves a goat, thus linking it by etymology to the first, tragic part.

23. Gilmore, pp. 326–27.

24. “Partch projected his self-image through his works. In doing so, he created a model that aimed to inspire others toward individual expression and artistic investigation” (Harlan).

25. “The Importance of Conan,” here [14]