Saturday, November 17, 2012

Harry Partch Explains It All For You

The following is a lecture delivered by composer Harry Partch at UCLA (May 1966):

There has been, at least ever since Aristotle, a certain strong tendency in the West towards explanation -- a kind of syndrome. The first and initial step is fairly innocent -- to consider a verbal explanation of a creative art as necessary to the understanding of the art. The second step is less innocent. In this second step the explanation of the art becomes a substitute for the art. But the third step is really something. It is a sort of apotheosis. Where the explanation actually becomes the art.

Words are not only surrogates for action but are just as good as action, and whole shelves of libraries are eloquent testimony to this tendency. Here is an example. We have preserved and preserved Aristotle and Plato, who explained everything in the then known world, including scales and modes. We have preserved Aristoxenus and Euclid, who also explained scales and modes. But the enharmonic, one of the most beautiful modes invented by man, was lost as an art and as an act long ago. Anyone who knows ancient literature knows the explanation of the enharmonic; Yet, I seriously doubt whether anyone who knows all the explanations of the enharmonic has ever thought to consider it not as an explanation but as an act.

I have noticed that most interviews for radio, TV, magazines and newspapers are far else interested in hearing my music or seeing a show of mine than they are in hearing me explain in words why I have created this music. How does someone explain his reason for existence? If I could come up with a version of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" in unusual timbres, produced, for example, by using beer cans, the interest in my music might suddenly become enlivened. This was actually suggested to me in a phone call from New York by a TV producer. I did not, I hasten to emphasize, include all interviewers in these observations.

There are areas of human endeavor where words are inadequate (the enharmonic is a conspicuous example). where they should be considered as vehicles of illumination, and where they might actually become inhibitory to insight, as they did in the case of the enharmonic. And if I seem to be suggesting something that might tend to undermine the whole university system of education, well I'm not really that radical. it has been said, in public print, that if my ideas were to become dominant in music schools it would be the end of music as we know it. May I say, first, that the danger is singularly slight. However, beyond this is the implication that music must be monolithic, that whatever is decided by the majority or the most powerful must be adhered to by everyone. This idea is totally outside the thrust of western civilization, which has prided itself for over two thousand years, off and on, in the concept of allowing strong individualism without alienation. Monoliths are just dandy -- in stone. They do not belong in the world of ideas. To be sure, they have their advantages: because of the present musical monolith it is possible for twenty or thirty musicians to get together in a recording studio and to create, practically on sight, a sound track for a film or TV series. This is fine. Let the commercial people have their monolith. But in schools of higher education, It is an obstacle to higher creative thinking, and I prophecy that it will not be tolerated forever.

Underlying the various musical systems and philosophies in our libraries is a common, basic assumption: 12 tones, equal temperament -- the piano scale. But when we force acoustic intervals into an octave, or x octaves, we falsify every interval involved, we effectively close all doors to any further adventures of consonance and also, amazingly, we close all doors to any meaningful adventures in dissonance.

A great deal has been said about quarter tones, about cutting each semi-tone exactly in half and creating twenty-four tones to the octave. This would not give us acoustic intervals; on the contrary, as far as I can see, it would simply provide material for a twenty-four tone row.

It is not necessary to assume anti-music or non-music attitudes. It is not necessary to resort to noise or non-rhythmic music, or even excessive dissonance to achieve dynamism in creative art. We have done no more than scratch the surface of possible harmonic music.

One way in which musicians have endeavored to break out of the monolith is by so-called "improvisation." There are some exceptions to what I am saying, but, generally, the improvisers use the same instruments that were developed by this monolithic culture -- the same harps, celestes, pianos, vibraphones, woodwinds; they even use the same chord progressions we have been hearing for 100 years! The only difference is that now these things are "improvised."

In this matter of breaking down the barriers to individualistic freedom in music, I suggest that the answer is not in improvisation, not in light-hearted chance, but in the contribution of several lifetimes of lonely dedication.

I use the word "ritual," and I also use the word "corporeal," to describe music that is neither on the concert stage nor relegated to a pit. In ritual, the musicians are seen; there meaningful movements were part of the act, and collaboration is automatic with everything else that goes on. How could it be otherwise? The various specialists do not come from sealed spheres of purity -- pure art, pure music, pure theater, pure dance, pure film. As far as large involvements of music in this modern world are concerned, we have really only two choices: we have the pit, or we have the excessive formality of the concert stage.

On the theater stage, with Bertolt Brecht, and occasionally with others, there is something like a ritualistic approach -- a corporeal approach to music as an integrated part of theater. But the degradation of either the actual pit or the mental pit is the fate of nearly all other music. If this ritual or corporeal approach accomplishes nothing else, it frees the beautiful rhythmic movements of musicians from the inhibitory incubus of tight coat and tight shoes.

Reprinted from source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973 by Larry Austin & Douglas Kahn (University of California Press: 2011)

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