Browsing in a bookstore twenty years ago, I came across Partch's
Genesis of a Music, in which he sets forth the theory and practice
of his music in great detail. It was the first I had heard of him. I was
just then obsessed with a rather esoteric question: how did the ancient Greek
dramatists set their choruses to music? I had been trying to translate the
Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and since I wanted the translation to be
performable, it was essential to gain some idea of the how the original
productions of the tragedies must
have sounded. No one knew, of course. Partch was one of the few who even
seemed to consider the question interesting or important.
And what he had to say about it was more than intriguing. All the scholars
knew that the Greeks regarded music and poetry as one, that they considered
music without words an inferior art, and that the words sung in the choruses
were apparently understood by a large open-air audience without difficulty.
Musicologists knew that the Greeks used scales different from our own, that
some of them contained "microtonal" intervals, and that Greek music (or its
theorists, at any rate) favored scales built on intervals represented by
small-number ratios (so-called "just intonation"). Partch put these well-known
facts together in a way that no one else seemed to have thought of.
Naturally the Greeks used microtonality, since they were interested
in the most sensitive intonation of the words, and speech inflections require
intervals smaller than the diatonic "semitone." Naturally they would
prefer small-number ratios, for that is the only way to make a scale containing
such intervals rational and harmonious. And naturally the words would
be understood, since the whole musical system was designed to support them.
Leafing through his book, with its color plates of his amazing instruments,
diagrams of scales and discussions of ratios, I could be forgiven, perhaps,
for imagining that here was a nearly complete answer to my question--that
I had stumbled on a brilliantly detailed, intuitive reconstruction of the
actual musical practices of the ancient Greeks. I bought the book and studied
When I listened to his Delusion of the Fury, the only recording
of his music widely available at the time, I was both enthralled and
disappointed. The music was wonderful indeed, but where were the words?
Everything in his book had suggested that he,
like the Greeks, thought music without words to be only half an art. There
are words in Delusion, but most of the time the characters sing or
intone in meaningless syllables. It was only after I met Danlee Mitchell,
the work's conductor, and he dubbed for me tapes of Partch's earlier settings
of Sophocles' King Oedipus and Euripides' Bacchae (Revelation
in the Courthouse Park), that I was able to hear how Partch had put into
practice the ideas that had so excited me in his book.
Partch's belief in "vital words" in music was only part of his larger
belief in corporeality, and in his later works he seems to have relied
more on other means to achieve it--the visual appeal of the instruments,
the physicality of the performers, the tone colors of the music itself. He
clearly still conceived of his music as theatre, but a theatre that had grown,
apparently, less dependent on words.
Over the years Partch has continued to be a unique inspiration to me in
my own attempts to present words in music. At the same time I have evolved
a rather different approach.
A personality as powerful as his tends to instill a conviction in his admirers
that his is the only way, an attitude that I am sure he would not
approve. His own inclination was always to question everything, and the remarks
that follow, far from being an attempt to reduce his achievement, are made
in that spirit.
In considering the musical resources of the ancient Greek dramatists and
poets, one important aspect Parch neglected was verse metrics. His own setting
of Oedipus originally used Yeats' translation, which was in prose
except for the choruses. Later, when the Yeats estate refused him permission
to use the poet's version in recordings, he rewrote the work using his own
translation, again in prose, though the choruses are in a kind of free verse.
Now one clear superiority of Greek verse, from the standpoint of musical
declamation, was that its meter was the meter of the music. In fact it may
be said that the best idea we have of Greek music comes from Greek choral
lyrics, whose intricate rhythmic patterns carry the burden of musical structure:
all we really lack is the tonal element, and whatever slight instrumental
accompaniment there was. Partch's practice, on the other hand, when he sets
words to music, is to follow the prose rhythms of the text; there is no
attempt to compose the words themselves to the desired musical rhythm,
which was what the Greeks did. Thus the effect is likely to be quite different
from Greek music. Not necessarily inferior, to be sure. But my impression,
as one who studied these matters rather seriously at one time, is that Greek
choral delivery must have been very measured, more like singing than intoned
speech. A highly
intelligible singing, yes. But that would have owed at least as much
to the perfect rhythmic correspondence of words and music as it did
to any intonational subtleties.
Partch often implies that the
traditional scale is simply incapable of the subtleties that setting words
to music requires. And it is true that his own practice of "intoning" in
unusual intervals creates an effect one couldn't get in any other way. But
we need only look at certain popular traditions of our own, at Gilbert and
Sullivan, Brecht and Weill, the American musical and tin pan alley, to see
that words can come across clearly in musical settings without resorting
to any special scales. Not that all these are shining examples of verbal
and musical subtlety. But there is no reason the principles they use
could not be developed further. And one principle is that the words are often,
as with the Greeks, composed directly to a musical rhythm.
Since Partch was not a poet himself, this kind of "composing" was not
something he could easily tackle (he had, after all, enough hats to
wear!). More importantly, he chose not to: the irregular rhythms of free
verse and prose, the use of "found" texts and other "nonpoetic" materials,
were essential to his art. The first version of Oedipus, using the
Yeats text, was superior in a literary sense, but the version using his own
text is better musically and dramatically. His most considerable setting
of lyric poetry, the Li Po songs, uses a prosy translation, which, from the
little I know about Chinese verse, probably doesn't represent the highly
formal rhythms of the original very well, but left him free to express the
images and drama of the poems in his own voice.
Wouldn't it be possible to combine musical-poetic
meters with microtonality and just intonation? Of course. But it all depends
on what effect one wants. Proponents
of just intonation often assume that it is simply a superior tuning, and
that the only reason for not using it is its difficulty. But there may be
stylistic reasons as well. Could one imagine Schoenberg's
Pierrot Lunaire, which Partch admired, composed in anything other
than the twelve-tone scale? In a style based on avoidance of "concordant"
intervals, what would be the point of a tuning system that makes
those intervals as pure as possible? Or take the songs of Kurt Weill (who
had in his collaborator Brecht a perfect source of musically interesting
they play on the characteristic harmonies of early twentieth century popular
music, whose effect,
might be argued, depends on the acoustic ambiguity of added thirds, sixths,
and "altered" chords in equal temperament, an effect that would be destroyed
by the "pure" intervals of Partch's tuning.
As for using intervals smaller than a semitone, or other "nonstandard"
intervals, it seems clear that singers
(especially those outside the classical tradition) will do this anyway when
good declamation calls for it; the only question
is whether the practice needs to be rationalized by the tuning, or can be
left up to the performer. Lotte Lenya knew nothing of just intonation, I'm
sure, but her highly individual singing wasn't exactly "equally tempered"
Partch himself clearly saw his tuning system as a personal choice, suited
to the ethos of his work, as was his decision to set words according to their
prose rhythm instead of a metric scheme. It was the ethos of an outsider,
for whom everything that smacked of a "mass" expression (such as choral singing)
was a denial of ancient "corporeal" man. Partch's frequent parodies of musical
conventions are much more extreme than anything in the
Threepenny Opera; it's as though those conventions had been cast,
his words, "into
a sea of ancient rules and rituals," and emerged sounding quaint, naive and
distant. It's a delicious effect, but one that pays little tribute to the
things parodied. Nothing Partch wrote is likely to show up years later on
the hit parade, as did some of the Threepenny songs.
The question of how one uses conventional music can be of some importance
to composers involved with words and story-telling, and drama in particular.
Do you want all conventional forms to be distorted through the prism of
a pure tuning, like the marching band in Partch's Revelation in the
Courthouse Park? Or do you want to be able to compose a fairly straight
tango, say, like Weill's "Pimp's Ballad," with only a bit of
tinkering with harmony and phrasing to convey the ironies in the text? These
of style, and appeals to theory will
not settle them.
Whatever one' s personal choices, it is undeniable that Partch's work
has greatly expanded the resources available to word-conscious composers,
and composers in general. The variety of modern musical theatre owes a mostly
unacknowledged debt to him, and poets should give him first place among those
who have shown, in our century, that words and music need not be forever
For more information on Harry Partch:
Meadows. By Webmaster Jon Szanto, a percussionist and veteran Partch
performer, where you can find reviews of a recent performance of Partch's Oedipus by Alan Shaw and others.