Harry Partch (1901–1974), while one of America's best-known maverick composers, is also one of the least performed—mainly due to the one-of-a-kind instruments he created in order to generate the sounds his music demanded. The instruments themselves are difficult to transport, and they require performers with specialized knowledge of how Partch intended them to be used.
This week during a symposium and festival, co-hosted by New England Conservatory and Northeastern University, many of Partch's instruments will travel from New Jersey to NEC's Jordan Hall, with the help of their custodian, Dean Drummond. Visitors will be able to examine them and hear them used in concert. Scholars will gather to explore the continuing impact of Partch’s work, with a combination of academic conference sessions, interactive workshops, and concert performances housed at both NEC and Northeastern.
In his “Americana” compositions Partch set vernacular texts that he encountered in his travels in the 1930s and early 1940s, from hitchhiker inscriptions on a roadside railing, to episodes from life in federal work camps in California, Oregon, and Washington, to phrases overheard during a hobo trip to Chicago. These works capture and record authentic expressions of Depression-era American life. The presentation will discuss the occasions of the texts, Partch’s aesthetic ideals in setting them, and how the Americana works chimed with broader movements in American art, literature, and music in response to the Great Depression.
The continuity of the Americana works with Partch's previous Li Po settings (performed on last night's concert) will be noted. Partch shortly thereafter turned away from Americana, moving toward theatre works and social satire; but he did return to them in the mid-1950s when he enlarged their instrumentation and grouped the works as The Wayward (1956). The program will include live performances by John Schneider of the first versions for voice and adapted guitar of Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions and an excerpt of U.S. Highball.
Harry Partch is best known as a radically individualistic musical experimentalist, an emblematic “American maverick.” Seeking to create a music close to human speech, he found himself “seduced into carpentry” to create an orchestra of unique instruments and a substantial corpus of instrumental, vocal and dramatic works. His 25-year career cut across composition, music theory, and instrument building, and its conscious links to music making outside of Europe have attracted the attention of a diverse following of listeners, musicians and scholars.