Harry Partch and the Music of the Rails

March 6, 2014
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The Chromelodeon

Early in 1939 Harry Partch, the hobo son of missionaries, arrived in California and signed on to the California Writers’ Project for a second time.
    As a writer he had a distinctive style and an eye for detail, but even more, he had music. Partch the composer would become one of the most distinctive voices in modern music. At the time, the ancient Chinese poet Li Po inspired him to take a viola and adapt it to a new microtonal scale.
    Partch would go on to adapt and invent instruments like the Chromelodeon and the Boo II that still inspire performers today.
    For surviving, though, he turned to writing for the WPA. Two years before, he had worked on the Writers’ Project in California, editing and writing until he grew restless to move again. “Life is too precious to spend it with important people,” he said later in life. He found hoboes and the people he met on the road more open-minded.

The Boo II
The Boo II

    “The bums’ courage in remaining stoically humorous in the face of even the gravest misfortune was a value Partch treasured,” noted his biographer Bob Gilmore. The composer’s second stint with the WPA was more agreeable, it seemed. At least he stayed with it longer — through the publication of the WPA Guide to California that spring and on through the end of the year. Then it was back on the rails, later immortalized in U.S. Highball.
    Not long ago my old English professor, J. Gill Holland, a polymath who has translated Li Po and other Chinese poets, was delighted to find this video of Partch’s musical adaptation, ‘17 Lyrics of Li Po.’
    Holland has published a short piece about his own use of Li Po’s quatrains in creative writing classes in the online journal Enter Text, where he notes that “class presentation of lovely poems like these is always full of amazement and delight, and the notion of a dialogue with past poets is true to Chinese literary tradition.”
    Just last month, that Li Po/Partch combination inspired songs in The Third Life of King Lear, performed in Brooklyn. The dialogues continue.

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