Harry Partch Bitter Music (1935)** & The Delusion of the Fury (1966)

David Moss** (speaker, percussion, electronics)

Heiner Goebbels (director)

Ensemble Musikfabrik

Lincoln Center Festival
New York City Center
July 23, 2015

“Some seventeen years ago,” wrote Harry Partch in his 1947 treatise Genesis of a Music, “I abandoned the traditional scale, instruments, and forms in toto [...] and struck out on my own. I came to the realization that the spoken word was the distinctive expression my constitutional makeup was best fitted for, and that I needed other scales and other instruments.” A perpetually dissatisfied wanderer who lived for several years as a homeless migrant, Partch spent his life searching, like one of the figures from the Greek myths that were so integral to his dramatic cosmology. In search of a place to sleep, in search of steady work that wouldn’t bore him, in search of materials (blocks of spruce and redwood, Pyrex cooking bowls, an aluminum ketchup bottle) for his slowly evolving jungle gym of homemade instruments: Partch was a Depression-era Odysseus who made his own versions of reality, so sick and tired was he of the realities available to him. Few composers in the history of American music have had his combination of boundless curiosity, restlessness, and frank disgust at the blithely accepted conventions of Western performance practice, and Partch alone channeled them into the creation of entirely new scales and new instruments.

Yet critics have long been all too eager to define Partch exclusively in terms of his proclivity for striking out on his own, and he has been variously labeled a “hobo composer” (as one of the two existing biographies, by S. Andrew Granade, does in its title), a DIY instrument builder, or an oddball who entertained some quirky and even “revolutionary” ideas about music. Like his better-known contemporary John Cage (whose music Partch actually found “precious and vapid,” as he wrote to Ben Johnston in 1952), Partch is frequently summarized through his philosophies about sound, rather than via the sounds he actually produced—that is, when history books acknowledge Partch at all. His harmonic system, the details of his instruments, and most importantly, his musical works themselves: all are too often overlooked.

So it was an unusual and even momentous occasion when the Lincoln Center Festival put on a pair of productions demonstrating the two sides of Partch’s inventiveness. In Bitter Music, speaker/reader David Moss imbued words taken from real-life California vagrants with a humor and sensitivity as colorful as Partch’s 43-tone scale. About an hour later, the members of Germany’s Ensemble Musikfabrik could be seen traipsing across a cluttered stage, frequently pausing in their choreography to hammer on one or another of the 27 Partch instruments (some of which looked quite extraterrestrial) reconstructed by instrument maker Thomas Meixner—all as part of his opera Delusion of the Fury, here given in the surreal incarnation of director, composer, and Partch enthusiast Heiner Goebbels. Seemingly disparate as could be, the two performances nevertheless allowed listeners to trace Partch’s quest for an ideal form of storytelling, from the unadorned spoken human voice to an astonishing assortment of scales, speculations, and instruments. By sidestepping both the established uses of the voice and the traditional concert orchestra in its entirety, Partch was able to fashion himself into a composer of genuine originality, an inventor in the vein of Cage or Luigi Russolo and his “Orchestra of Noise Instruments.” Maybe Partch never found exactly what he was looking for, but his tireless searching led him to aesthetic and musical discoveries that still demand to be seen and heard today.


Alongside Japanese Noh drama and the writings on acoustics of the 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, one of Partch’s foremost influences was ancient Greek theater. “For the Greeks the noblest purpose of music was to enhance drama,” Partch wrote in Genesis of a Music. Music should aid storytelling, by constantly remaining subservient to the narrative. Embodying this idea of drama-enhanced-by-music, Partch’s Bitter Music consists of texts that “should never be sung” accompanied by fragmentary piano music, when possible; the composer notes that “if the reader is not piano-minded, he of course will ignore the music entirely.” (Falling into the second category, Moss supplemented his readings with various looped sounds, electronics, the noises made by crumbled and shredded pieces of tin foil, drumsticks, and a couple of miniature Partch instruments.) The “bitter music,” then, hinges on the rise and fall of a single spoken voice.

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The work, a hybrid opera-journal, chronicles most of the year 1935, which Partch spent roaming across California, jotting down the mumbled conversations he overheard between fellow itinerants in trains, transient shelters, and “hobo jungles.” Frustrated by the lack of financial support he had been able to muster at that point for his creative endeavors—one of which was the construction of his earliest set of instruments—yet unwilling to “resume begging under the apology of my music,” Partch took to the road, where he noticed words everywhere, like the graffiti scrawled along the highways. Eventually he began recording the spoken words of those all around him (“A guy can’t even take a proper piss”; “They sure don’t give you time to shake off no drops”), sometimes setting them to piano melodies only vaguely outlined in traditional music notation—an aberration for the already microtonally-minded composer. Just as often, however, the words appear without music, demonstrating the importance of the speech itself over and above the constraints of melodic wandering. “Much of that which is man-made we ignore, such as the music of speech,” Partch wrote on June 13 of that year. “Well, I’m not ignoring it.”

In his 1998 biography of Partch, musicologist Bob Gilmore wrote that “any assessment of Bitter Music [...] must take into account the fact that he destroyed the manuscript of the journal sometime around 1950, thereby registering his dissatisfaction with it.” Part and parcel of his eternal dissatisfaction, Partch was notoriously temperamental, burning manuscripts and bridges alike. In the latter case, he always seemed to regret flying into rages, and would write apologetic letters to friends and family members, full of remorse after the fact that he had been unable to contain himself in a heated moment. He took up the offers of on-again-off-again friends to support productions of his theater works and then wrote angry letters reacting to the slightest logistical hiccup, denouncing their friendship and calling off the performances. Setting aside any sense of guilt we might feel at intruding upon the work despite its temperamental composer’s efforts at suppressing it, Bitter Music can (and should) be assessed in terms of its musical, literary, dramatic, and sociological qualities, rather than as a biographical curiosity.

And as Moss pointed out in his introductory remarks to the audience, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Partch’s friend Lauriston Marshall, who had the foresight to preserve Bitter Music via microfilm, eventually allowing for its reconstruction and publication in the form of a collection of journals, essays, and libretti. In his introduction to the printed volume, Thomas McGeary observes that unlike other Depression-era literature, Bitter Music is “distinctive in Partch’s use of music to heighten the realism of dialogue and events”—though it could be argued that the inverse is just as true, and that the dialogue heightens one’s awareness of the “music” in the clamoring conversations of disheveled, wayward souls. Bitter Music is invaluable as a social and historical document, to be sure, but in locating realism in the voices of those usually ignored, Partch crafted both drama and a singular music to match in his relentlessly candid, often grumbling, but never pretentious manner.

David Moss

David Moss

This refusal to indulge false pretentions invests Partch’s search for his own voice—and by extension, his music itself—with its significance. The many Americans of his day who “get together and then turn on the radio for their music,” Partch asserted, were quite simply “the least interesting stratum of American life.” Partch’s willingness to isolate himself from his colleagues and contemporaries and immerse himself in the world of uneducated hoboes is more the result of a superiority complex rather than an inferiority complex. He knew what he was “supposed” to listen to, but it disgusted him. In the June 13 entry of Bitter Music, Partch indulges in a rant on the subject of one of his pet peeves: the European classical music establishment. Unlike Bach and Beethoven, who “turned on a faucet of revolt in me,” Partch insists that “American folk and popular songs have one of their greatest bulwarks in bumdom.” He sneered at the common perception of a divide between popular and classical musics; despite his frequent mocking of John Cage, Partch shared with the younger composer an enthusiasm for the music of everyday reality, for the hearing of all sounds, and not just those flowing down from the “revolting” faucet of the traditions inaugurated by Bach and Beethoven.

Partch would have appreciated Moss’s encyclopedic but grounded performance, even in spite of his deep-set disdain for electronic music. The voices of the bums, alternately retreating from and then overtaking the subtle blend of echoing, crackling effects, melded together effortlessly, their trains of thought chugging past each other as startlingly and swiftly as the hobo trains that rushed past one another on the California railways. It didn’t sound as if Moss was reading from a book, nor as if he were acting out a one-man show. Instead, musings on everything from pissing in the rain to the trouble with American musical life flowed into an itinerant music of voices never noticed and never to be heard again. Throughout the performance, Moss’s little lifts and drops in inflection surged forth to coalesce into fully formed characters, some nasal, some with a slight drawl, some booming (like Partch’s memory of Yeats), some high-pitched, with a British accent (like Yeats’s secretary). None of them were sung, and none of them felt like exaggerations. The music was in the realism.


After the composition of Bitter Music, Partch passed several more decades of wandering both literal and figurative. By the time he completed his largest work, Delusion of the Fury, in 1966, he had passed another stretch as a hobo, acquired homes and jobs in a few different states, and constructed dozens of new instruments, all of which (except the “Adapted Viola”) can be heard in Delusion. He had also more or less abandoned his earlier fascination with realistic voices, in favor of a more all-encompassing yet fantastical form of theater. In his introduction to the work, he wrote that

dialogue as such is never present. I feel that the mysterious, perverse qualities of these story ideas can be conveyed through music, mime, lights, with more sureness of impact than with spoken or sung lines, and spoken or sung lines in reply. There are exactly ten recognizable English words. [On writing the scenario:] Words cannot proxy for the experience of knowing—of seeing and hearing.

Partch also spoke of “singing, or—to be more general—sounds from the throat” overlaying the 27 instruments playing the 43 tones of Partch’s scale in frantically scampering arpeggios and jumbles of skipping ascents and skittering descents straight out of a game of Chutes & Ladders.

Christine Chapman & Marco Blaauw of Ensemble Musikfabrik

Christine Chapman & Marco Blaauw of Ensemble Musikfabrik

Partch’s preferred “delusional” mode of performance does not materialize easily. It took 50 rehearsals spread over the course of a year for the 21 Ensemble Musikfabrik instrumentalists to learn the requisite choreography, vocal vibrations, unfamiliar harmonic system, and new sets of instruments. (Instead of being “assigned” to a single Partch instrument, the musicians traded off between them, perhaps picking up some mallets to pound the Diamond Marimba for a spell, before hopping across the cluttered stage to strum a kithara.) And the rehearsals could only begin once Meixner had built the instruments, Partch’s increasingly fragile originals being currently housed at the University of Washington in Seattle. It is hoped that the second set of instruments will encourage not only more frequent performances, but the composition of further music written in Partch’s tuning system. And perhaps it could be hoped that non-Partch-penned music for Partch instruments might inspire composers to create their own nontraditional noisemakers, keeping alive Partch’s aesthetic as well as sonic legacies.

Given the intricate and extensive planning involved, the most impressive aspect of the performance was this delusional element, this conveyance through sights and sounds of a wordless reality—or as Partch put it, “the awareness of unreality.” The two acts are performed without intermission, as is true of all of Partch’s theater works; Gilmore characterizes this as an act of “revenge” on those for whom intermission is the focal point of an evening at the theater. The first act is “a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death” inspired by Noh theater; the second is “a reconciliation with life” based on an Ethiopian folktale. But despite the Japanese and African influences, Partch insisted that “the tone is American. The furious irony is deeply and certainly American.” It was therefore unsurprising to observe, during the Lincoln Center performance, corporeal references to American life and to Partch’s hobo past. The principal characters range from the young warrior and murdered ghost of the first act to the old goat woman and farcical justice of the peace (materializing in the form of KFC mascot Colonel Sanders in Musikfabrik’s rendition) of the second, with Partch explaining that “both convey the mood that reality is in no way real.”

This was perhaps most evident in his decision to do away with vocalized English throughout, though the names of the scenes did appear on a changeable letter board during the Lincoln Center performances. Every time one of the musicians traded out the block letters on the sign, it was a jarring reminder of our accepted, named version of reality, and it adequately dissociated this reality from the onstage lunacy flooding our eyes and ears. As had long been true of traditional instruments and scales, words no longer have a place in Partch’s late musical drama. Yet the two stories came across all the same: meaning was conveyed by the alien instruments and scales of a separate universe. With Delusion of the Fury, Partch fashioned Bitter Music’s opposite number, disregarding every existing version of reality—even those that are usually ignored, anyway—in order to invent and communicate his own version of reality. The plots and emotions of the human experience were present, but the sonic and visual aspects had been distorted into an unfamiliar, wondrous galaxy whose stars and planets whizzed around each other and around our ears, ultimately revealing a startlingly lucid geometry.

As the Musikfabrik musicians, dressed in futuristic industrial garb, bounded their way across the stage and waded through the sea of instruments, this galaxy spun into life. Sounds spilled across the stage and collided with each other in bursts and shoots of curious cosmic harmony. A sense of time or place was absent, irrelevant; instead the stories unfolded in terms of sounds and movements. Partch wrote in the libretto that “it is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place,” and that, moreover, “the instruments are the set.” Centering the drama around the sound sources overturned the usual imposition of an absent but accepted reality atop the reality of the concert hall. Instead, the drama existed solely within Partch’s world of sounds, structures, and movements arranged in space. For a man who lived most of his life as a migrant and loner, sharing such an intimate, elaborate version of reality with an audience of total strangers was tantamount to a “reconciliation with the world,” as the composer’s protégé, the percussionist Danlee Mitchell, claimed of Delusion of the Fury.


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As far back as the early 1920s, Partch had begun to experience pangs of disillusionment with the reality of the musical establishment, noting of his unfinished university endeavors: “This was the artificial (to me) world of reality. I finally knew that I could not reconcile it with my real child-world. And I had to find my real child-world again.” Partch’s lifelong struggle arose from this recognition, that his own version of reality was not “real” in the eyes of other musicians and composers, and that the accepted version of “reality” was not, to him, at all real, but rather contrived and constraining. In one of the many astute observations contained in his biography, Gilmore observes of Partch’s search for his “real child-world” that “this reconciliation process involved an acceptance of his own essentially childlike perception of the interconnectedness of music and other art forms and, more profoundly, of the fusion of art-making activity with everyday life.” Gilmore later elaborates: Partch was reluctant to “undergo a training in which extramusical impurities must be extracted, one by one.” The accepted forms of musical expression and education felt so foreign to Partch that he reclaimed these “impurities” and reverted back to the wide-eyed state of childhood.

Despite his lifelong resentment towards the educational and musical establishment, Partch’s curiosity persisted throughout his whole career, and it was this curiosity that led him to seek out ignored sounds, found sounds, and new sounds. He heard music everywhere: in the forests of California, in the grunts and growls of illiterate hoboes, and in the tones between the notes of the ever-dreaded twelve-tone scale. Even more significantly, he heard this music as an element of storytelling rather than as an event in itself. Partch never allowed any one element of his music theater—not even the music—to dominate the whole. Instead, the usually “separate and distinct” elements of music theater coalesce to form another world, so that the parsing of these elements is made impossible. With Bitter Music, Partch conveyed his memories of the Great Depression via speech and graffiti, letting the music of the human voice transmit both the drama and realism of the human experience. Thirty years later, with Delusion of the Fury, he had transcended the limitations of words, and was able to convey tragedy, comedy, and divine justice in the knowledge that “reality is in no way real.”

Rebecca Lentjes is a writer, pianist, and assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. She writes about sound both as a doctoral student in musicology at Stony Brook University and for publications including I Care If You Listen, Bachtrack, and Tempo.


All images (except Moss): Stephanie Berger