Friday, February 08, 2008

Landmarks (32)

Harry Partch: Castor and Pollux (1952) for kithara, surrogate kithara, harmonic canon,
diamond marimba, cloud chamber bowls & bass marimba.

One of three Plectra and Percussion Dances, Castor & Pollux is at once Partch's most formally clear and compact composition and the work which decisively embraces the capacity of his instruments to enjoy a full spectrum of tonal relationships well beyond the simple harmonic relationships usually favored by practitioners of just intonation. [The emphases in Partch's music changed and developed over time: the initial impulse was to accompany the microtonal contours of a speaking/reciting voice; later, his harmonic ideas (the tonality diamond, in which a harmonic series is crossed with its subharmonic inversion, ironically duplicating the structure of the twelve-tone array) took precedence, but the translation of these tonal materials to his ever-increasing ensemble featuring idiophones and plucked strings, invited Partch to apply his tonal materials with ever greater freedom, eventually even using the word "atonal".*]

The form carries the narrative of the dance: the seduction of Leda by Zeus-disguised-as-a-Swan, followed by conception, incubation, and the birth of twins is assigned to a repeated structure of three duets and a sextet made of the superimposed duets: first Castor and then Pollux. This "process" -- Partch's own word, and it's use here is significant and prescient -- ritualizes the sequence of rape, gestation, and birth, in a pattern not unknown in some traditions outside of the west (the Javanese Patalon, for example, the overture to shadow puppet plays, in which each part represents a successive stage of life). One suspects that Partch, never a simple man, and someone who elsewhere referred to birth as a "decent and honorable mistake", was very much intent on this surprising mixture of emotional distance in the duets and celebratory violence in the sextets. I have never seen Castor & Pollux on the stage, but as the dance world is always in need of more work for evil swans, it ought to be a repertoire item.


I first encountered the music of Partch when I was 13, from a chance encounter with a public TV documentary. I was hooked and then quickly spent paper route money on the two then-available discs, and, a few years later, Partch's book Genesis of a Music. The workbench in my parents' garage soon became the scene of countless instrument-building experiments, as much a musical education as practicing my trombone or doing harmony exercises from MacHose or Piston. Eventually, through the good offices of Erv Wilson and Lou Harrison who owned sets of scores, I was able to transcribe a good number of Partch pieces into a notation of my own devising, and got something of a handle on how he did what he did. That was quite an education in itself, but perhaps more importantly, Partch showed me an example of a how "a music" (that indefinite article means everything!) could be built from research and experiment, negotiating between first principles and traditions.

* The cloud chamber bowls contributed to this in no small way, due to breakage, the parts for this array of suspended glass carboys had to be rewritten many times, with Partch each time re-imagining the harmonic, melodic, and timbral qualities of an unpredictably evolving instrument.

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