The Hobo Composer, Resurrected

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

No day has ever been sadder in American music than Sept. 3, 1974, the day Harry Partch died in San Diego. However much we may have mourned the loss of other great American composers, however tragic their deaths, we always knew we would have the music. With Partch, we couldn’t be sure, and 22 years after his death, we still can’t. After all, his work--with its one-of-a-kind instruments, meant to be seen as well as heard, and its reliance on the sound of his own voice--is formidably difficult to reproduce. But now a few new CD releases contain indications that this most maverick of American mavericks may not be lost entirely to us.

Partch was--according to the notes in “Enclosure 2: Harry Partch,” a new four-CD set compiled by the Minnesota Composers Forum on the innova Recordings label--"composer, microtonal theorist, instrument builder, writer, visual artist, satirist, philosopher, flunky, musicologist, copy editor, hobo, man of letters, publisher, iconoclast, record producer, eccentric, teacher.”

As a composer, he devoted himself to what he liked to call the corporeality of music. For him, music should have its roots in the body (its tones modeled after natural speech, for instance) and should affect the body (deep, deep bass notes, say, that cause the floor under one’s feet to resonate). And given the fashionable emphasis of body on all ways of thinking about art and society in today’s gender-obsessed world, Partch was a true visionary.

Partch, who was born in Oakland in 1901, was the quintessential outsider. He hated institutions--a few months at USC was practically all it took to turn him against the musical establishment for the rest of his life. He hated the traditional ways of concerts and what he saw as their fake formality. So he lived a famously unconventional life that included years wandering around as a hobo and building his own instruments and fashioning his own musical language.


That language took its cues first from the way we talk. In one of the spoken excerpts that pepper the invaluable innova Recordings collection, Partch complains that the English typically found in music is the kind “that is totally impossible of communication in any place in the British Isles that I know, of anyplace in this country, Canada or Australia. It’s a refined and particularly stylized English speech that just distressed and appalled me.

“When I was a hobo, I began studying the hobo speech around me. And this is what I wanted . . . the speech around me and not this strange language sung by people in opera and on the concert stage.”

And so Partch created a music all his own. He invented a 43-pitch scale of microtones (as opposed to the 12 tones used by Western music) to better capture the vocal inflections of common speech. He made instruments to play those pitches, fabulous instruments. They include huge marimbas, strange organs, adapted violas and guitars and an array of bells made out of cloud-chamber bowls he got from the glass shop at UC Berkeley’s radiation lab in 1950. Partch developed a peculiar singing style, and he produced a new kind of music theater that was based on principles from ancient Greek theater, Chinese opera and heaven knows what else.

Partch was well known to cognoscenti of new music but not beyond, in part because of his own impossibly crusty personality and his uncompromising nature. He left some disciples but not too many: “If anyone calls himself my student, I will happily strangle him,” he can be heard saying on these recordings.

All of this makes it nearly impossible to know Partch’s work anymore. The instruments are exceedingly fragile and now housed in New Jersey. (Partch once refused an offer from the Smithsonian to produce a duplicate set.) When the San Francisco Symphony inquired about transporting them for its American Festival, which concludes this weekend, it learned it would have cost nearly half a million dollars to do so.

So the best way to get to know Partch has been through his recordings, though few and until now fairly hard to find. They may not be of much use for accomplishing the primary function of corporeal music, but what is found on the new innova discs, rare performances from the ‘40s, along with the sound of Partch’s own voice in his introductions--has lost none of the provocation.

Much of his best-known music is here, particularly “Barstow,” eight hitchhiker songs with texts from Depression-era graffiti, a work Partch liked to refer to as his “Hobo” Concerto, and the other hobo work, “U.S. Highball.” But there are also rarities such as Partch’s rendition of “Yankee Doodle,” which must be heard to be believed.

One disc is devoted to a riveting dramatic performance of excerpts from “Bitter Music,” Partch’s hobo journal, that are read and sung by Warren Burt with Sheila Guymer accompanying on piano. These help fill out the Partch portrait, shedding new light on his personality and work, especially his own fascination with all things corporeal, including the tensions caused by his being a homosexual in the hobo community.


Along with the CDs, innova has issued “Enclosure 1,” a videotape of four Partch films made in 1958. They include the accompaniment he made for a pretentious gymnastics art film, a guided tour of his studio and performances of “U.S. Highball” and “Windsong,” which is a modern version of the Daphne and Apollo legend that later was called “Daphne in the Dunes.” The films, made by Madeline Touretlot, do not particularly hold up today, but they too help fill in the historical picture. And further help is expected from “Enclosure 3,” a 500-page Partch scrapbook to be published later this year.

Still, this “Enclosure” series (the name derives from a work of “enclosures” Partch hoped in vain to produce before he died), however valuable, can hardly address the significant problem of how to keep Partch’s music corporeal today. It has taken Ben Johnston, once a disciple of Partch and a first-rate microtonal composer in his own right, to find the first really workable, if controversial, solution--arranging the music for conventional instruments. Partch probably would not have approved, Johnston acknowledged recently when he performed his version of “Barstow Songs” in San Francisco with the Kronos Quartet. But “Harry was wrong,” the composer said. At any rate, no one could stop him, because the songs are now in the public domain.

Johnston’s arrangement can be found on “Howl, U.S.A.,” the new Kronos Quartet recording released by Nonesuch. Johnston, who recites and sings the graffiti texts Partch collected while “on the rails” during the Depression, captures almost perfectly Partch’s unforgettable vocal manner, wild outbursts and all. But more important is the fact that Partch’s instruments are missed less than one might imagine. It had always been assumed that Partch’s music was inseparable from his sounds, but the music proves strong and distinct as music, not unlike the way Mahler symphonies can survive piano transcription.

The other way Partch can continue to mean something to American music is for composers to move on to the next step, and the Kronos disc, which also features three new works for narrator and string quartet, suggests that that is, in fact, happening.


Michael Daugherty, a young composer from the Midwest fixated on pop culture (he’s taken regular inspiration from Superman, Elvis and Jackie O.), offers up bits of the voice of J. Edgar Hoover on tape, his speech all too closely underlined in the accompaniment, in “Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover.”

Scott Johnson, a composer and electric guitarist long involved in the downtown New York scene, contributes, in his “Cold War Suite,” a sensitive and touching musical illumination of the voice of muckraker I.F. Stone. And Lee Hyla, an academic composer at the New England Conservatory, goes in for expressionistic overkill in his accompaniment to Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” live during a performance.

There are further examples of Johnson’s work on “Rock/Paper/Scissors,” a new disc released by Point Music that includes sampled voices from his answering machine accompanied by a music fashioned from minimalism, classical techniques and rock in a way that seems to suit the notion of our speech today. Johnson does more of the same in the title piece, a long instrumental chamber work, its idiom sounding simultaneously new yet very familiar, its phrases having a sense of the vernacular about them.

None of these composers, from three different walks of musical life, are Partch disciples, and none were probably specifically thinking about him while writing their own music. But they, of course, know of him. And they have achieved, in their own ways, something of what Partch lived his unconventional and often discouraging life to accomplish. They make music that, in reflecting our speech, reflects our bodies and our selves.



The “Enclosure” CD and video sets are available through innova Recordings. For information, call (612) 228-1407; information via e-mail: Also available through record stores and Albany Music Distributors Inc., (800) 752-1951.


Hear Harry Partch


* To hear excerpts from “Enclosure 2,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5722.

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