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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel reviews The Bewitched by Harry Partch

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This album should be considered only one third of Harry Patch's large scale work, The Bewitched. The musician/actors and instruments themselves were also important parts of the whole. Partch, an American original by anyone's standards, was intent upon creating a corpus of "dance drama," a discipline that harkens back to, for example, Greek satyr plays, East Indian dances telling stories of the gods, and the Monkey Chant of Bali.

What Harry Partch did was invent huge, beautiful instruments that were tuned to a 43-tone scale (compare that to the relatively limited Western 12-note scale) and compose a large body of work for them. He wanted with these imaginative and sonically arresting pieces of musical sculpture to be able to express the nuances of human speech. The musicians were also actors, and the wheels on the instruments created mobility.

A dropout from USC, the composer was able to study with William Butler Yeats in Dublin (which almost resulted in a collaboration with the famed poet), rode the rails as a hobo for ten years during the Depression Era, was rescued monetarily with a Guggenheim grant, and moved to Sausalito, California, in 1952. It was there that friends helped Partch found Gate 5 records to promulgate his works and make a bit of money.

This CRI release was originally on the Gate 5 label, and was recorded in the late 50s. The Bewitched has as its central character "an ancient Witch, a prehistoric seer untouched by either gossip or popular malevolence, and with that wonderful power to make others see also." Various hapless characters representing the cultural preoccupations of 1950s America achieve liberation through the machinations of the Witch. The musical example on your left is Scene 5, titled "Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room." The dejected male team magically turn into women, and, no longer concerned about their trivial loss, "fling themselves into something really important--a wild dance...."

Off Ramp's Kevin Ferguson's story about Partch can be heard here.

A short film about Harry Partch can be seen here.