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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

The great precursor here was Harry Partch (1901–74), as close to a total maverick or “alternative” figure as the history of music can provide. He not only talked the talk of a maverick; he lived the life as well. His was a nomadic existence that included a period in 1935 (at the depths of the Great Depression) as a “hobo” or vagrant, a homeless wanderer living in various transient shelters along the West Coast of the United States. A diary he kept during this period, published posthumously under the title Bitter Music, shows him translating his social alienation into an artistic program. There are many Musorgsky- or Janáěek-like notations of overheard “speech-melodies” (Ex. 10-1), followed by attempts at harmonizing them, and even a few sketches that shape them into dramatic scenes, including some that eventually found their way into his “music-dance drama” King Oedipus.

His hobo experiences became the subject matter for several of his works. Four of them, gathered up into a suite or cycle called The Wayward, constitute a unique panorama of depression life. Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941, revised 1968) was the first. The others were US Highball: A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943, revised 1955), San Francisco: A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Foggy Night in the Twenties (1943, revised 1955), and The Letter: A Depression Message from a Hobo Friend (1943, revised 1972). Inspired by his resentments, and by ancient and exotic models of ritual theater, Partch, though trained in it, turned his back on the entire tradition of Western music—its tuning systems, its instruments, its conventional notations, its social practices, its customary venues—and sought to create a better alternative: a didactic and communal Ges-amtkunstwerk (he called it “integrated corporeal theater”23) founded on a musical system that harnessed the fabled powers of just intonation, speech-song, and choric dancing to exert spiritual influence and effect social change.

Hobo Origins

fig. 10-3 Harry Partch.

“I am first and last a composer,” Partch wrote in 1942. “I have been provoked into becoming a musical theorist, an instrument builder, a musical apostate, and a musical idealist, simply because I have been a demanding composer.”24 His inability to compromise (or to work with collaborators as equals, as the choreographer Alwin Nikolais found out in 195725) was at once the source of the considerable fascination his work exerted during his lifetime—and even more powerfully after his death, when he became a legendary “pioneer”—and the source of its incommunicability except through the person of the composer.

Partch wrote a large book, Genesis of a Music (1949, revised 1974), to expound his theories. It contains an irately skewed history of music (“Corporeal versus Abstract Music”) to legitimize his ideas and make them seem like the answer to all the big questions; a detailed and mathematically sophisticated treatise on his tuning system; and a description, replete with photographs, of the numerous imaginatively designed and skillfully built instruments he had had to make in order to provide the forty-three unequally tempered tones to the octave that his modal theories demanded.

The Partch instrumentarium comprised plucked and bowed string instruments, “adapted” with extra-long fingerboards on which intonation points were marked, as on medieval monochords; “chromelodeons,” or modified reed organs; “kitharas,” harps or lyres played with plectra; “harmonic canons,” or psalteries played with plectra; adapted kotos; many tuned percussion instruments, including marimbas and mbiras in many sizes; and “cloud chamber bowls,” tops and bottoms of twelve-gallon Pyrex bottles sawed off to precise measurements (so called because the original ones came from a radiation laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley). These instruments, visually beautiful, were always visible in performance, on stage along with the singers and dancers in Partch's theatrical works, like the pianos in Stravinsky's Les noces.

Partch did invent tablature notations for his instruments; Ex. 10-2 shows the beginning of Barstow both in Partch's tablature and as transcribed by the musicologist Richard Kassel to show (approximately) the actual pitches. But like ancient neumes, Partch's tablatures best served performers who had already rehearsed “hands-on” with the composer, or with someone to whom the composer had transmitted the work orally. Thus, to perform his music adequately, Partch's charismatic presence was always required. As his reputation grew, he was invited to residencies and research fellowships at educational institutions (among them the Universities of Wisconsin and Illinois and Mills College in Oakland, California). There he would gather around him groups of interested students and musicians, whom he taught by example, and put on recitals and, later, dramatic spectacles.

Hobo Origins

ex. 10-1 Harry Partch, Bitter Music, speech melodies

Once performed, however, they could be adequately preserved only in record-ings—a bitter irony, given Partch's extreme commitment to the physicality of live performance. “I believe in musicians who are total constituents of the moment, irreplaceable,” he wrote, “who may sing, shout, whistle, stamp their feet; in costume always or perhaps half naked, and I do not care which half.”26 But he was the truly irreplaceable component. A Columbia LP disk, issued in 1968 and containing three works including Barstow, was the only stereophonic recording of fully professional quality he ever made.

Hobo OriginsHobo Origins

ex. 10-2a Beginning of Harry Partch's Barstow, Partch's tablature

On his death his instruments went to Montclair State University in New Jersey, and from there to the Smithsonian Institution. A few of his disciples, notably Danlee Mitchell, a percussionist and conductor who was Partch's companion from 1956 to his death, have continued to perform on them or on replicas. In the 1980s, Mitchell brought Partch's work to Europe for the first time. But the likelihood of Partch performances diminishes every year, even as historical interest in his work has mounted and its influence has spread. A ruinous limit on dissemination was the price Partch paid for his idealism.

Two of his music theater pieces, preserved in fairly primitive recordings on Partch's own “Gate 5” label, were actual adaptations of ancient Greek plays, putting Partch in a noble line going right back to the Florentine Camerata at the wellsprings of opera. King Oedipus (1951), based on W. B. Yeats's translation of Sophocles, was produced at Mills College in 1952 and, because the Yeats estate withheld permission to use the text, it was revised for recording (at the Sausalito Arts Fair) in 1954. It is probably the purest and most effective extant example of Partchian Gesamtkunstwerk. The most famous Partch composition, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, after Euripides's Bacchae, is less representative. It was staged in 1962 at the University of Illinois, where one of Partch's admirers, the microtonal composer Ben Johnston (b. 1926), was on the faculty. It was intended as an overt and timely political statement, and as such it caused some modification of the composer's usual style.

Revelation was inspired by Partch's perception of a parallel between the orgiastic rites of Dionysus as portrayed by Euripides and “two phenomena of present-day America.”27 One was the Pentecostal revival meeting (“religious ritual with a strong sexual element”), and the other was the reception that pop singers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley enjoyed among their fans. “I assume,” Partch wrote drily, “that the mobbing of young male singers by semihysterical women is recognizable as a sex ritual for a godhead.”28 It stood in his mind for the triumph of “mediocrity and conformity” in postwar America and their threat to the founding values of the American republic, namely the rights and the integrity of the individual.

Hobo Origins

ex. 10-2b Beginning of Harry Partch's Barstow, as transcribed by musicologist Richard Kassel

(*) All grace notes are played on the beat and are followed immediately by the main note.

Scenes from Euripides are juxtaposed with contemporary counterparts depicting a small town's reaction to a visit by an updated Dionysus, a hybrid faith-healer and rock ‘n’ roll star named Dion, something like an Oral Roberts (or a Billy Graham) and an Elvis Presley rolled into one. King Pentheus and his mother Agave, the chief victims of the Dionysian frenzy in Euripides, become “Sonny” and “Mom.” Under the wild influence of Dion, the crazed Mom murders the skeptical Sonny. The audience is invited to contemplate, and to “consider” (in the words of W. Anthony Sheppard, a historian of twentieth-century music theater), “the menace of mindless group behavior.”29 The score, uniquely for Partch, combines his singular neoantique idiom with American vernacular styles, in keeping with the alternation of scenes. It is no “crossover,” however. The use of popular styles in illustrating the degradation of the townspeople renders a fiercely negative (as well as misogynistic) judgment on them.

The tragedy of Revelation in the Courthouse Park unwittingly exposes Partch's own fatal ambivalences. His life experiences at the margins of society imbued him with an implacable individualism to which the drama gave overt approval. “I was not going to be straitjacketed by anyone,” he snarled defiantly at an interviewer in the year of his death, “I was going to be completely free.” He saw himself, like Sonny, threatened by the herd instincts at the core of American life. But his manner of functioning as an artist inevitably made him a charismatic leader like Dion, requiring what Ben Johnston called “cultlike devotion”30 from his performers. And Dion was nothing if not a “corporealist,” from whom Partch could not withhold a grudging (homoerotic) admiration. He saw his own staged embodiment of evil as “an exotic altar priest whose revolving ass is not a lustful and transitory whim, but a divine right.”31 His inability to resolve these conflicts ensured that his work, imprisoned in its idiosyncrasies and dependent on his own function as an altar priest, would effectively die with him.

So his posthumous influence, while potent, has been almost entirely in the realm of ideas and social practice rather than in actual musical practices or styles. “Among his disciples may be counted all American composers who employ just intonation and most of those who use microtones,”32 claimed one of them, Andrew Stiller, who went on to ascribe to Partch's influence all kinds of later developments from percussion music to multimedia music theater to minimalism to “sound-sculpture” installations. A more realistic assessment would cast Partch as a spiritual forerunner to musicians of a “Green” persuasion, who responded, as the times caught up with him, less to Partch's actual music than to the example of his easily romanticized existence. He has been elected posthumously to the “bum aristocracy”33 that (as we may read in Bitter Music) he despised in life.

That is why, despite Partch's musical purism, his denigration of popular culture, and his classical training, he became, according to the pop critic Damon Krukowski, “one of a handful of composers who seem to interest rock musicians.”34 Musically he had little in common with them, but he worked the way they do. His style was a function of his medium (or vice versa); he composed viscerally, at his instruments; he rehearsed his musicians by rote and performed from memory. And that has made him an inspiration not just to rock musicians but to the increasing number of composers who have relied, in the quarter of the twentieth century that Partch missed, on various sorts of oral transmission to disseminate their work.


(23) W. Anthony Sheppard VI, Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), p. 180.

(24) Harry Partch, Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos, ed. Thomas McGeary (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. ix.

(25) See Bob Gilmore, “‘A Soul Tormented’: Alwin Nikolais and Harry Partch's The Bewitched,” Musical Quarterly LXXIX (1995): 80–107.

(26) Quoted in Andrew Stiller, “Partch, Harry,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 895.

(27) Partch, “Revelation in the Courthouse Park” (1969); Bitter Music, p. 245.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Sheppard, Revealing Masks, p. 212.

(30) Quoted in Sheppard, Revealing Masks, p. 223.

(31) Partch, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, libretto; Bitter Music, p. 353.

(32) New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. III, p. 896.

(33) Bitter Music, p. 69.

(34) Damon Krukowski, “Vox populi,” Bookforum, winter 2000, p. 18.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010006.xml