Spring in Arizona

April 21, 2010
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With spring comes a blooming of books: this week marks the anniversaries of the WPA guides to Arizona (70 years ago) and Washington, DC (73 years).
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Arizona guidebook includes the work of the peripatetic Harry Partch, who’s recalled now mainly for his music and his invention of new instruments for playing it. (The song “Harry Partch” by Beck uses Partch’s 43-tone scale. Thanks, Wikipedia.) But Partch flirted with becoming a writer before he settled on music, and his wide sense of the world informs his compositions from U.S. Highball to “Daphne of the Dunes.” It’s not clear if Partch is responsible, but the Arizona guide’s essay on the arts notes that the state’s landscapes inspired compositions ranging from Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite and Victor Young’s Arizona Sketches to Cadman’s Land of the Sky Blue Water. And the guidebook’s section on folklore lovingly describes musical instruments brought by immigrant groups, including the gusle: “something like a mandolin, with goatskin across the sounding box and strands of horsehair for string”; played with a bow, it made the perfect accompaniment to a song like “Underground in America,” Lazar Jurich’s lament of a Serbian miner.

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