Harry Partch, Enclosure 8 (1958-2006/2010)

by | Aug 3, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Harry Partch, Enclosure 8 (1958-2006/2010)

Four 16mm films by Madeline Tourtelot: Music Studio: Harry Partch, Windsong, U.S. Highball, Rotate the Body in All Its Planes; Three Videos: The Music of Harry Partch, Barstow, Castor and Pollux
Studio: Innova Records 399
Video: 4:3 color & B&W
Audio: English PCM mono (stereo on Castor & Pollux)
All regions
Length: 127 minutes
Rating: ****

Harry Partch, whose dates are 1901-1974, was such a unique composer that he makes the usual contrarian of American classical music – Charles Ives – look like a conservative hack. Partch combined a dizzying array of personalities: composer, conductor, instrumentalist, painter, performer, theorist, writer, dramaturg, visual artist, philosopher, musicologist, carpenter, sound-sculptor, copy editor, hobo, proofreader, publisher, record producer, teacher, critic, inventor, gardener, librettist, man of letters… Innova’s Philip Blackburn, who has previously put together seven other DVDs of visual and musical Partch memorabilia, says that in today’s world Partch would be probably be described as a multimedia, multi-cultural, queer, neo-Pagan, integrated outsider hybrid performance artist.

His musical universe was a sort of parallel one. To start with the basics, he created his own musical scale of 43 tones to the octave and designed and built a series of very unusual-looking and sounding home-made instruments to play his scores. Ancient Greek models were his starting point for many of his creations, including his music.  He referred to “ancient ritual in modern times.” Partch saw music as a corporeal art, bringing together drama, movement, costumes, dance, narrative, you name it – in performances that were way beyond ideas of music-drama such as Wagner’s. Live Partch performances were few. He felt it better to teach musical amateurs to play his unusual instruments rather than to work with trained musicians.  The size, complexity and non-portability of his instruments also contributed to  performance difficulties.

Therefore film and video seem to be the best way to get an idea of Partch’s unique musical world. (In fact the artwork for the included booklet and the background for the onscreen menu is an old 16mm film mailer, which was plenty nostalgic for me.) (Partch mentions that the limited frequency range of the mikes and film sound of the time were unable to reproduce the almost sub-sonic notes of his Marimba Eroica – instead we hear coffee cups and other objects in the room rattling.) Filmmaker Madeline Tourtelot did the first four films here between 1958 and 1968. The first film (as well as the first video) are demonstrations of Partch’s various instruments, the second filmed at USC San Diego where he spent some time in the Music Department. Windsong is a poetic modern-dress interpretation of the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo (with Partch’s original score and Tourtelot playing Daphne). U.S. Highball is a poetic record of Partch’s hobo life, catching a freight car from California to Chicago, and in Rotate the Body he worked with University of Illinois gymnasts, who he felt matched his music better than dancers and choreographers. Barstow is an often humorous narrative of inscriptions Partch found on bridge abutments and other places hobos hang out; its five performers end with the question, “Why the hell did you come, anyway?” Danlee Mitchell directed the San Diego performers; he has directed some Partch works formerly issued on Sony Classical.

The closing dance work, Castor and Pollux, was videotaped in 2006 and is somewhat better sound and image quality than the other parts of the DVD, although mostly filmed from a distant perspective in the audience. There are six female dancers  and seven musicians playing various Partch instruments in a horseshoe formation around the stage. The Ensemble Partch! often feature the very distinctive sounds of the impressive-looking Cloud Chamber Bowls. New World Records also has a three-CD series, The Harry Partch Collection.

 — John Sunier

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