The San Diego Union-Tribune
Instrumental genius
Festival will pay homage to musical-device creator Partch
By George Varga
October 5, 2004

The New West Electro-Acoustic Music Organization’s (NWEAMO) sixth annual Festival of Music at SDSU this week will showcase envelope-shredding music performed on an electric toothbrush, a high-tech bicycle wheel called an Electroacoustycle, and a 10-stringed hybrid of a koto, slide-guitar, fretless bass and hammered dulcimer. Yet, while more than 30 mavericks from around the world will perform during the festival between tomorrow Saturday, the most significant artist whose work will be featured has been dead for 30 years. Harry Partch, who died here in 1974 at the age of 73, devised a musical world all his own by creating a unique array of instruments so visually striking they were once exhibited in the San Francisco Museum of Art.
NWEAMO 2004 Festival of Music
8 p.m. Thursday (free) and 7 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday; Smith Recital Hall, San Diego State University; $12 per night; $8 for seniors and students; (619) 594-6036; www.nweamo.org
He gave them suitably exotic names, such as the Surrogate Kithara, the Chromolodeon and the Quadrangularus Reversum. And he designed and built them to produce music that otherwise would not, and could not, exist. The instruments were the result of Partch’s revolt against the conventional 12-tone scale used in Western music and against what he called the “tyranny of the piano.” In their place, he devised visionary new approaches to intonation and intervals, along with a radically expanded scale that has 43 tones to each octave.

“Partch was an iconoclastic genius on the level of John Cage, Gertrude Stein and John Lennon,” said NWEAMO festival organizer Joseph Waters, SDSU’s director of Electro-Acoustic and Media Composition. “When I was a kid, I used to describe his work as ‘Martian folk music,’ because that’s what I thought it sounded like. I’ve been interested in creating instruments myself – and in honoring the memory of Partch in my teaching. With this year marking the 30th anniversary of his death, I decided to make the theme of the festival ‘invented instruments,’ and to seek out builders of weird instruments from around the world.”

Festival lineup
Here’s a look at the schedule for the NWEAMO 2004 Festival.

All performances are at SDSU’S Smith Recital Hall.

Tickets for tomorrow, Friday and Saturday are $12 per night and $8 for students and seniors. Call: (619) 594-6036 or log onto: www.nweamo.org:

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.: Trio Neos (Mexico); Richard Felciano (USA); Georgina Derbez (Mexico); Joseph Waters (USA); Juan Filipe Waller (Mexico/Netherlands); Rodrigo Sigal (Mexico); Conlon Nancarrow (Mexico/US, a posthumous salute).

Thursday at 7 p.m. (free admission): “Multi-Media Retrospective on the Dramatic Works of Harry Partch,” with Danlee Mitchell and former Partch Ensemble members Francis Thumm, Jon Szanto, Phil Keeney, David Savage and Geordan Mitchell.

Friday at 8 p.m.: Jeff Trevino (USA); Chris Penrose (USA); Joseph Waters (USA); Trio Neos (Mexico); Nathan Hubbard (USA); Martin Stig Andersen (Denmark); Gil Weinberg (Israel); Shawn Greenlee (USA); Salulekip (Poland).

Saturday at 8 p.m.: Ken Ueno (USA); Holland Hopson (USA); Juan Filipe Waller (Mexico/Netherlands); Michelle Broudeau (Canada); Chris Morgan (USA); Rodrigo Sigal (Mexico); Trio Neos (Mexico); Bradford Reed (USA); Bruce Hamilton (USA)

Partch would surely approve of Waters, who has devoted himself to bridging the gap between contemporary classical music and more vernacular styles, such as hip-hop and electronica.
By making this year’s NWEAMO event a celebration of unconventional instruments, Waters is helping to spotlight unorthodox musicians with direct and indirect ties to Partch, who designed and built instruments that sound and look like nothing else imaginable.

To do so, Partch used everything from eucalyptus boughs and brass shell casings to empty bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry and nose cones from vintage airplane gas tanks. For his aptly named Cloud Chamber Bowls, he utilized 12-gallon Pyrex bottles (obtained from a radiation laboratory in 1950), which were carefully cut in half to produce various bell-like tones. The eye-popping bowls – suspended in midair from a frame – resemble translucent jellyfish.

“Partch is sort of the patron, the godfather, of alternative instrument-making in the Western world, and also of a (unique) tuning system and of integrating musical performers in a total theater philosophy,” said SDSU music professor Danlee Mitchell, who will retire in 2005 after 40 years at the school. Mitchell will host a Thursday night NWEAMO festival program billed as a “Multi-Media Retrospective on the Dramatic Works of Harry Partch.” He was a longtime collaborator and confidante of the Oakland-born Partch, who briefly moved to San Diego in 1964, and (after a few years in Los Angeles) lived in Encinitas from 1967 until his death seven years later. Mitchell assumed leadership of the SDSU-based Partch Ensemble in late 1974. He led it until 1989, when all of the Partch instruments were given on “permanent loan” to New Jersey’s Montclair State University. Mitchell is also the head of the nonprofit Harry Partch Foundation & Archives, housed near Balboa Park.

Both before and after Partch’s death, the ensemble that bore his name included such notable area musicians as frequent Tom Waits collaborator Francis Thumm, veteran San Diego Symphony percussionist Jon Szanto, and Randy Hoffman, currently a member of Cindy Lee Berryhill’s band. Thumm and Szanto will join Mitchell and former ensemble members David Savage, Phil Keeney and Geordan Mitchell at Thursday night’s NWEAMO event saluting Partch. It will combine slides, tapes and video footage, along with readings of the texts to some of Partch’s theatrical works, with additional comments by Mitchell and his colleagues. A Q&A session will conclude the program.

“Partch regarded the player and the instrument itself to be one performing unit, and the ‘visualness’ of the player was as important to him as the ‘visualness’ of the instrument,” Hoffman noted.
“For me, the 43-tone scale Partch created is the least interesting thing about him, especially compared to the physical and rhythmic drive of his music and the visual beauty of his instruments and stage sets. He did not like concerts of abstract music. His instruments were designed to be theatrical pieces and the musicians theatrical performers.”

As illuminating as the Partch retrospective will likely be, other NWEAMO festival events sound just as intriguing.
Danish composer Martin Stig Andersen will present “Essential Tree Work,” a piece for bass clarinet and electronics, while the Polish duo Salulekip will perform a work that uses a cello, synthesizers, computers and video projections. Then there’s Mexico’s Rodrigo Sigal and Kentucky’s Margaret Schedel, who will explore the relation between gestures and sounds in separate performances, and Israeli electronic musician Gil Weinberg, who will team with local saxophonist Nathan Hubbard and pianist Rick Helzer, SDSU’s associate director of jazz studies.

Not to be outdone, festival organizer Waters and Mexico’s Trio Neos will perform his composition “On the Transient Nature of Magic,” for which Waters recorded the sounds created by a marsh-full of frogs and transcribed them into musical notation. He then programmed the sounds of different frogs from around the world into a custom-designed computer program, which also enables him to convert his laptop into a live musical instrument. “The piece re-contextualizes the frogs in several ways, so it’s really a case of art imitating life imitating art,” Waters said. “The goal is to create music for everybody – specialists and people who are curious but have no musical education – ideally within the same piece. That’s what Partch did, and that’s what I aim for in my music.”

© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.