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The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch
Incredible Harry Partch documentary originally made for BBC4, found here on UbuWeb
Director: Darren Chesworth
Time: 59 mins
Music: Harry Partch
His obsession with the subjective human voice and the musicality of speech; his partly relativistic deconstruction of the twelve-note scale as an arbitrary straitjacket; his ethnographic sensibility towards different modes of conceiving language, tuning and existence; his need to create channels suited for his new microtonal chromatic universe; his expansion into convergent fields of expression such as film, theatre and dance; and his desire to capture the vernacular as a locus for the textures of being - all these probably make Partch's the most encompassing of modern creative utopias. Such an overarching project of existence and creation, obviously, could hardly be comprised in an one-hour documentary, and it would take a considerable amount of creativity and an unflinching focus to cast a shadow of justice over Partch's vision in such a short time. One aspect that could have been jettisoned is, as usual, the biographic mode, the linear movement from A to Z that suggests apparently logic explanations and connections for processes and objects that are far from logical and linear, supported by an invisible voice-over narration that simulates contextualization and sequence. Narrative becomes a form of containment and disambiguation: Partch's struggle with devitalized modes of composition and the 12-tone octave is all of a sudden brought into light by the reading of one single book, On the Sensation of Tone by H. Helmholtz, and his "discovery" of the arbitrary nature of the Western scale smoothly harmonised with his several inner and outer "deviances", sexuality included; inversely, Partch's long-celebrated and romanticised decision to follow a hobo trail for almost a decade is simply glossed as a reaction to the Great Depression and left strangely disconnected from the surrounding acts. There are the usual statements by friends, patrons and composers, such as Lou Harrison, Gavin Bryars, John Schneider, Phillip Blackburn, and Phillip Glass, adding very little to our understanding of Partch's universe, and it is from biographers and archivists that the most illuminating comments stem from. While the focus on the apparent eccentricity of the man seems to be a fruitless compromise with the conventions of current personality cults - including a minor polemic with Cage to boot -, it is not surprising that the most rewarding sections focus on the technical aspects of his work, microtonality being efficiently summarised bur perhaps not fully explored in its symbolic reach. The eclipse of "the truth of just intonation" was seen by Partch as a conspiracy in which "pure" musical structures had been corrupted and dilluted by a powerful but stifling hierarchical model, one that curtailed freedom and fostered forms of conformism. This supposedly pure tuning of ancient Greek tradition, which Partch tried to build into his microtonal edifice, and its promises of a wider access to the the truth that is supposed to inhere in the human voice, holds some of the keys for the composer's universe: a romantic search for a temps perdu, thought to be found both in ancient traditions and non-Western contemporary societies, guided, as ever, by a subversive desire to implode homeland strictures. -- Eye of Sound