HARRY PARTCH: Bitter Music – Bridge Records (3 CDs)

by | Feb 13, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

HARRY PARTCH: Bitter Music – Bridge Records 9349A/C, TT: 3:16:30 (3 CDs) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
(John Schneider/Garry Eister/Richard Valitutto/Paul West)
First, it should be understood that this is quite a different release from the several available of both original performances of Partch’s totally unique music or recent performances of it since his death in 1974. The composer was a steadfast loner who created his very own musical world based on a 43-tone-to-the-octave just intonation scale and a variety of custom-made instruments which he constructed himself. He felt the standard system of musical tuning could not reflect the potential musicality of human speech, and he used his instruments to underscore the intoning voices of his works.
In the mid 1930s Partch had returned from some work in music in Europe, and decided to spend some time as a penniless hobo, traveling around the U.S.  During an eight-month period he kept a diary of his experiences and ideas while in hobo jungles, transient camps and on the open road. Most of it is a reading, well-handled here by John Schneider, but a few parts are sung in his intoned style, accompanied sometimes by one of his adapted violas or guitars. He called the collection of 77 entries Bitter Music, and in 1950 destroyed the manuscript, but a friend has microfilmed it.
Bitter Music is basically a sort of road movie, way before On the Road, but with many similarities. Only a very small portion of this set is music. Partch’s self-portrait is not always complimentary, but is brutally honest, including references to his homoerotic character. There are portions of inflated self-importance as well as sympathetic woes such as not having had anything to eat for a day and a half. One cannot help but wonder why this 34-year-old musician/artist suddenly descended into the life of a vagrant, when he had received some support in Europe, even from writer William Butler Yeats.
Some of the material is quite humorous, such as Partch’s rant against religious types who wanted to “save” him, and other parts touching, such as his shamed feelings having to beg for food at a lady’s house. It’s an aural diary of where Partch was at during this formative time of his unusual career. Most of the accompanying booklet is devoted to pages from the manuscript, adorned with drawings by Partch. Many of his instruments are very beautiful and produce unearthly sounds. Partch used Greek names for many of them, and lamented that there was no Greek word for “hubcaps.” The Cloud Chamber Bowls were constructed from suspended larger pyrex glass bowls. His original and copies of his instruments are housed at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ and new pieces have been commissioned for them. His original record label was Gate 5 Records, and Columbia Records issued some albums of his works, both now out of print. He preferred to have ordinary people who were not trained musicians to perform his works.
—John Sunier

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