Partch: Sonata Dementia – Music of Harry Partch Volume 3 by Bridge Records is the latest CD release by the PARTCH Ensemble. The album features three premiere recordings of some of the lesser-known works, as well as familiar Partch standards. This CD is a follow-on to Vol. 2: Plectra & Percussion Dances, the 2014 Grammy Award-winner for Best Classical Compendium. This new album brings together an exceptional collection of Partch instruments and top West Coast musicians including Erin Barnes, Alison Bjorkedal, Matt Cook, Vicki Ray, John Schneider, Nick Terry, T.J. Roy and Alex Wand. This latest installment by the PARTCH Ensemble is sure to become an important reference for the serious student of 20th century American music and the maverick composer Harry Partch.
The first track on the CD is Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962), a piece several years in the making and originally composed for trumpeter Chet Baker. Inspired by Greek mythology, this artfully combines Partch’s unique bamboo marimbas with two conventional instruments: baritone saxophone and Bb trumpet, played here by Ulrich Krieger and Dan Rosenboom respectively. The exotic sounds of the pitched percussion mingle and intertwine with the horns in a way that is never alien or harsh. Always intriguing and optimistic, the playing is superbly balanced and precise. The spoken punch line at the finish is typically playful Partch: “So you say our name is Ulysses, that you’re wandering around the world. Tell me sir, have you ever been arrested before?”
Twelve Intrusions (1950) follow, and these are a dozen short pieces ranging from one to three minutes in duration, and date from Partch’s time in seclusion in Northern California. These are also vehicles for some of his original instrument creations, including the Bass Marimba, Cloud Chamber Bowls, a ten-string Adapted-Guitar and the Diamond Marimba. Twelve Intrusions is a charming set of trenchant musical sketches on various and sundry subjects – some as gritty as an urban Chicago neighborhood and others as poetic as a rose or the wind.
Study #1 on Olympus’ Pentatonic and Study #2 on Archytas’ Enharmonic begin the Intrusion series. Both reworked from demonstration pieces that Partch wrote for music based on stories from Greek mythology, a favorite source of inspiration. The Bass Marimba is prominently featured in Study #1 and provides a strong sense of formal elegance that compliments the Near Eastern melody. Study #2 is slower and more deliberate, with a serious sensibility; the low beat in the marimba effectively adds to the solemnity. The Rose is among the more romantic of the Intrusions, with fine vocals and a sensitive guitar accompaniment. The Wind is similar, with a mysterious, if somewhat menacing lyric as the marimba, guitar and vocals merge together seamlessly.
The Street is more contemporary and urban, with explicit vocals and a guitar part that bring the shivers of a cold Chicago wind to life. This realistic depiction of the hard city streets, inspired by the 1947 best-seller Knock on Any Door, is memorable music. The Letter was originally written in 1943 and underwent several revisions, the last as late as 1970; this recording adds the 1950 marimba parts to the original 1943 version. The guitar opening is warm and welcoming, but as the story unfolds in the lyrics, complications ensue: there is a shotgun wedding, jail time and “back on the bum again.” The marimba heightens the dramatic parts while the vocals remain breezy and jaunty, despite the inauspicious circumstances. The playing and singing completely match Partch’s genial sensibility that always seems to surmount the narrative unpleasantness of the moment.
Cloud Chamber Music, the longest of the Intrusions, was inspired by a traditional Native American chant of the Isleta tribe and features Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls. The sound of pealing bell-tones rings out at the opening, establishing a church-like atmosphere. A somber viola solo is followed by an upbeat and optimistic finishing stretch that includes some enthusiastic chanting. The tuning and instrumentation greatly add to the exotic feel of this piece without seeming to impose on the ear. Twelve Intrusions is a masterful series of short but pithy vignettes of the dramatic, colorful and romantic situations common to every time and place.
Windsong (1958) is another Partch original, recorded here for the first time in full. This was a collaboration with film maker Madeline Tourtelot and was loosely based on the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo. The music was meticulously matched to the film edits and Partch worked long hours to complete and perform all the parts of the score in just a few weeks.
After a short spoken introduction, Windsong begins with rapid marimba riffs, full of motion and urgency. Bell sounds add to the dramatic feeling. This piece changes regularly, as the scoring follows the film clips. Sometimes the music is formal and portrays a sense of power and position, at other times it is mystical or breezy. The marimba sounds usually dominate in the faster sections and there is a nice interplay with metal bowls. The ensemble is consistently tight throughout. There is a slower stretch with stringed instruments that provides a more exotic flavor and the musicians here do a remarkable job with the unorthodox instrumentation. A quietly gentle guitar melody precedes another burst of rapid marimba playing at the finish. Although some are unfamiliar to the ear, all of the tones fit perfectly into the arc of the narrative. Windsong is a colorful and cinematic piece that consistently provides a convincing sense of the exotic.
Sonata Dementia (1950) appears on tracks 16 through 18. First envisioned during Partch’s extended period of solitude in coastal Northern California, this piece subsequently went through several incarnations, but has not been recorded until now. There are three movements: “Abstraction & Delusion”, “Scherzo Schizophrenia” and “Allegro Paranoia.” The liner notes state that “The fraught psychological titles surely reflected the composer’s own emotional fragility, having summed up the loneliness of his reclusion in a letter, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m getting touchy like a hermit…incipient psychosis.’”
The opening movement begins with deep marimba tones and guitar notes that slide with a wavy feel that perfectly simulates the experience of hallucination. Mostly slow and deliberate, the marimba playing is especially striking and impressive. The phrase “Well, bless my soul” is sung chillingly at the finish. The second movement, “ Scherzo Schizophrenia”, seems even more unbalanced with a brilliantly executed guitar part. Dreamlike, yet unsettling, a stretch of sung numbers – counted upwards – end this movement with a strong sense of uncertainty. “Allegro Paranoia”, the last movement, opens with sparkling marimba phrases and slippery guitar sounds. A boxing metaphor, spoken at the beginning, encourages a sort of punch-drunk perception of the music as it proceeds. The playing is rapid and precise while a burst of vocal patter adds to the disjointed feel. “Look out, he’s got a gun!” puts an exclamation point on at finish. Despite the uneasy implications in Sonata Dementia, none of this is frightening or mean spirited – Partch invariably rises above the worst possibilities implicit in his themes.
Two bonus tracks are included on the album. Canción de Los Muchachos (1904) is the original Edison cylinder recording of the Isleta tribe chant that inspired Partch’s Cloud Chamber Music. The cylinder was part of the Southwest Museum collection in Pasadena where Partch was engaged to transcribe the music. Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941) is perhaps Partch’s best-known work and, like greeting an old friend, is always a pleasure. This 1942 archive recording contains the voice of Partch himself in the introduction and performance.
The music of Harry Partch, the unique instruments and a group of exceptional musicians have all combined to make Sonata Dementia an important benchmark album. The PARTCH Ensemble is a cultural treasure, bringing the works of one of America’s most creative 20th century composers to a contemporary audience.