In the context of our concert at Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens on February 23, clarinettist Carl Rosman answered some questions about the fascination with Harry Partch’s music and his instruments:
Do you see Harry Partch as a pioneer and innovator or one more interesting and important 20th century composer?
Perhaps you could say that there are two things that a composer needs to have done to be properly recognised as a pioneer or an innovator (as opposed to just a cult eccentric!): They don’t just need to have done something new, they need other composers to have followed in their footsteps. I’m not sure you could say that that happened with Partch, at least not yet – the need for special instruments has made it a bit tricky for other composers to take up where Partch left off. Of course composers since Partch have pursued the idea of just intonation without using his instruments, but I think one thing that that work has made clear is how much of Partch’s work is actually inherent in the instruments. They aren’t just a means of obtaining particular pitches which on standard orchestral instruments are harder to get at reliably – his work isn’t just about the pitches, it’s also very much about the physicality of the instruments.
It’s an interesting paradox for me: Partch set out with his instruments to explore certain harmonic areas, but as the instrument collection grew, it came more and more to accommodate instruments where the pitch really isn’t the only element in the foreground, and even instruments which work against the idea of fixed pitches. The chromelodeons obviously are great at providing a kind of fixed pitch ‘backbone’ to the music; originally the harmonic canons and kitharas must have been intended that way as well, but the glass rods that he introduced to those instruments move away from the sense of the pitch of the instrument being fixed – and the same is true of the guitars, which are only played with slides. The cloud chamber bowls are visually spectacular but because of the way the instruments are built (cracking enormous (and expensive) bottles and hoping the crack happens in just the right place!) the actual pitch was even for Partch not something he could rely on. But of course he kept using them: they’re such an important visual part of the impact of the music in concert.
So the idea of Partch’s music as a pitch system (which is something later composers can most easily take up, since it doesn’t require these specific instruments) is something that he didn’t consistently put at the centre of his music; on the other hand the actual instruments are something other composers haven’t really had available to them. And in any case you could say that Partch’s attitude to instrumentation isn’t something you would replicate by rebuilding his instruments – if you wanted to replicate his attitude you would have to do that on your own terms, by building instruments from materials specific to your time and place, as he did.
Anyway, fortunately we don’t have to worry about questions like that constantly – we can also just play the pieces.
What do you think that is the most challenging and interesting element of Partch’s work, except of course of his self made instruments? How difficult it really learning to play those instruments comparing to the conventional ones?
I can’t speak for all my colleagues here so this is just my experience… I’m a clarinettist, and so I often come on stage with things that aren’t the instrument I first learnt – sometimes I play other sizes of clarinet, sometimes it’s saxophones, or slightly more distantly related instruments such as chalumeaus or recorders, or recently even a nose flute. (I’m very careful with what I take on with saxophones and recorders, of course, since there are already wonderful musicians who specialise in these instruments.) And then sometimes I have percussion to deal with, or other instruments which produce sound in a completely different way from the instrument I originally trained to play. Those are the instruments where you have to be particularly careful, since the reflex of producing the right sound at the right time on an instrument you’ve been playing for 20-30 years is so internalised and so caught up with a particular way of making the sound that you really do have to unpick that process when you’re dealing with an instrument you pluck rather than an instrument you blow. It’s not that the instruments themselves are inherently difficult to play, it’s that the process of making the sound needs rethinking, and with your ‘native’ instrument that’s a process you’ve internalised over many years. That and Partch’s notation, which since he normally doesn’t use traditional staff notation but a kind of tablature takes a lot of getting used to, and I’m not quite sure if he always chose the most efficient way of communicating the information to the player…
The most challenging element? For me, it’s actually been a matter of getting past the specificities of the instruments and the harmonic language to the point where we can ‘just play the music’. A musician in the classical repertoire who is constantly preoccupied with their playing techniques isn’t… well, isn’t quite a musician yet!
What do you think of Parch’s harmonic language and particularly his multitonic system? Was it just a fascinating curios or a valuable addition to the ever going evolution and progress of music?
I think it’s easy to forget to what extent the harmonic language current in any time and place is caught up with its tuning system and instrumentation. For example, strict equal temperament came along rather later than we sometimes think. Partch thought it was J.S. Bach’s standard practice, which as far as I’m concerned is at least a century out – for me the arrival of really strict equal temperament is historically speaking not so long before classical music starts to get away from the idea of pieces of music being in a single main key, or even in a key at all. So, in one sense, for me Partch is an interesting manifestation of that – a completely different harmonic language and instrumentation needs a different music. I don’t think his music was ever going to flow into the mainstream, and I don’t think he would have expected it to, since it needs a completely different set of instruments, not just because of his harmonic language but because of physicality of playing his instruments and their physical presence is so caught up in the music. But maybe what’s most interesting for me is the way the extreme specificity of Partch’s music might help us wonder whether other things in classical music are also more specific to their time and place than we sometimes pretend, or than we pretended in the days when anything we would hear in classical music would be played on the same piano or by the same orchestra.
It was important to us that we didn’t just acquire a replica set of Partch instruments (I say ‘just’ as though that were a simple matter, which it very much wasn’t, especially for Thomas Meixner, who built most of them) and then perform his pieces – that’s why we have commissioned several pieces for the Partch instruments. That’s slightly tricky for the composers, of course. Generally if we commission a piece they can count on performances by other ensembles but if the piece is for Partch instruments that isn’t quite as likely!
Doesn’t Parch music really need a conductor or you work best this way, that is without one?
I think in any piece of reasonably complex ensemble music there are bits where the players can best sort things out for themselves and bits where an external hand silently showing the beat really is the most efficient way of keeping the group together. So there isn’t really a yes/no answer here, or for a lot of ensemble music, not just by Partch.
Our first Partch project (Delusion of the Fury) is a piece for about 20 players, but it’s also a theatre piece where the physical presence of a specialist conductor would distort the focus of the performance for the audience. (It would also have made the stage setup impossibly complex if every one of us had to be able to see a conductor!) But at the same time it wouldn’t be quite right to say that the performances have been unconducted – different musicians sometimes conduct where it’s necessary, just as in that piece different musicians sometimes start to sing, or act out parts, or of course move between instruments.
So, yes, sometimes Partch’s music does need a conductor, and then one of us conducts! Of course that does require a lot of discipline in rehearsals when you don’t have a central coordinator. It’s true that sometimes that has led to some rehearsals which have perhaps not operated at the very peak of efficiency…
Is Ensemble Musikfabrik somehow dedicated to Parch’s work or is it one more composer that you play his music?
It often happens with us that certain composers come along in waves – we had a big Stockhausen wave some years ago, for example, when we had planned some performances for his 80th birthday but they turned out to be the first major performances after his death. It’s no big surprise that we’re experiencing a bit of a Partch wave at the moment: he’s always been a cult figure and at the same time we’re the first group in Europe with a full set of instruments to play his music. But we’re not a specialist ensemble and have to cover a wide range of music; we’re actually trained to play quite different instruments and we’re also quite good at those; and in any case it’s extremely important for us to have something planned for when each wave subsides…
What would you say to somebody who hasn’t heard any of Parch’s music neither ever seen you playing live as for describing what is he/she going to experience watching your concert?
If they’ve seen a traditional ensemble concert, then it won’t look much like that: the stage will be full of very strange bits of furniture! Partch’s music is very rhythmic – Even Wild Horses in particular is full of Latin dance rhythms, with microtonal melodies floating over the top.
But in one respect it’s just like any other concert, really: Bring open ears and eyes.