I was a Bum Once Myself: The Boxcar Revelations of Harry Partch
17 November, 2013
It just so happens that the quickest way from my house to the Wonderland Spiegeltent is the Capital City Bike Trail. The path winds alongside the weeds and algae of Railway Canal, through the underpass with its collection of burnt-out sofas and past the humming towers of the electricity substation. Dark tunnels “subject to flooding” dip under weirs before spitting you out at a six-lane freeway crossing: the mouth of the Melbourne Docklands. The Docklands are a monument to the hubris of Melbourne’s property boom, having little to show for a decade of furious development but a warren of empty apartment blocks and shopping precincts blaring music to nobody. Nowhere is the emptiness felt as keenly as Wonderland, the tiny amusement park wedged between the Melbourne Star (a gigantic ferris wheel built to rival the London Eye, but left motionless since buckling in the summer heat in 2008) and Costco. I could not imagine a better venue for Chris Rainier’s resurrection of the music journal Harry Partch kept while homeless in 1930s America.
Today Partch is best known for his experiments in microtonal tunings and adaptation of instruments to divide the octave into 42 microtones. As in many ancient and non-Western cultures, Partch did not use the extra tones as discrete pitches, but to add nuance and alter the temperament of his otherwise tonal and modal music. In order to perform Partch’s works, Rainier enlisted the help of Preston-based luthier James Mumford to re-fret an acoustic guitar in the style of one of Partch’s early modified instruments.
The altered tuning and fretting of Rainier’s guitar allowed him to reproduce the songs and speech patterns jotted down by Partch on his travels. Partch was studying “hobo speech” as opposed to art music speech and in doing so provided a remarkable document of his time. In “Eight hitchhiker’s inscriptions from a highway railing in Barstow, California,” Partch sets the haiku-like narratives of down-and-out life to his own jagged, colouristic guitar accompaniment. It’s fascinating to think of that ephemeral graffiti about handouts, joblessness, sex, hunger and humour making it all the way to the Dockland streets, which, though empty for different reasons, may serve as portents of depressions to come.
While many people are familiar with Partch’s combination of notated declamation and sparse accompaniment, few know that he also wrote pop songs for money in the late 1920s. Rainier began the concert with “My Heart Keeps Beating Time,” a lilting tune from 1929 that wouldn’t have been out of place crooned over the radio. Rainier used this tune as a thread throughout the concert, performing its 1935 revision as a precursor to his affecting performance of Partch’s “Letter from Hobo Pablo.”
Diary fragments read throughout the performance painted the portrait of a peculiarly self-pitying man at once bemoaning his condition and his traveling companions while reveling in his isolation and proclaiming that “life is too short to spend time with important people.” Partch never seemed to lose this obnoxious, almost adolescent anti-establishment posturing, proclaiming his distance from Western music while using its oldest modes and his ear for a good hook. It is to Rainier’s credit that he was able to present such a three-dimensional image of the composer. Rainier’s soulful performance of these little-known works by Partch is the most engaging and seamless combination of research and performance I have ever witnessed on a concert stage.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.