Harry Partch – Plectra and Percussion Dances

Partch: Plectra Percussion Dances

Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances
Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 2
Bridge Records, 2014

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Harry Partch: Plectra and Percussion Dances


A big congratulations to John Schneider and the Partch ensemble for their 2014 Grammy Win for Best Classical Compendium and Nomination for Best Chamber Performance. Also note executive producers David and Becky Starobin via thier Bridge Records. Partch is an ensemble that specializes in the music & instruments of American composer Harry Partch (1901- 1974). Since their formation in 1991 to perform the music of Lou Harrison and Harry Partch, the group has gone on to commission and premiere works by Larry Polansky, Mamoru Fujieda, John Luther Adams, Mari Takano, Sasha Bogdonawitsch, James Tenney and others.

Harry Partch was dedicated to composing in just-intonation, including scales dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones derived from the natural harmonic series. Theory aside, Partch wrote music drama, dance theater, multi-media extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music—all to be performed on the extraordinary orchestra of instruments that he designed and built himself. A true innovator and eccentric but brilliant in his musical output.

The force behind this project and the guitar work is the excellent John Schneider who produced and performed on the album. Schneider is well known for his work with just-intonation and micro-tonality as well as his performances of Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Harry Partch.  You can also read a recent review I wrote of his Ben Johnston recording.

Plectra and Percussion Dances is the first complete performance of Harry Partch’s major cycle in three parts (Castor and Pollux, Ring Around the Moon and Even Wild Horses); the original 1953 recording was missing movements and instrumentation. The album also includes a 7 minute spoken introduction, given by the composer in 1953 on the occasion of the broadcast premiere of this work.

Partch Ensemble
Partch Ensemble

With a vast array of Partch’s custom-designed instruments it is no surprise that this album is sonically fascinating with vast timbral interest to delight listeners. The album ranges from rhythmic romps such as Pollux Insemination to beautiful (if not a little frightening) soundscapes as with Second Phase. The array of sounds from the invented musical instruments can give electronic music a run for its money and the mishmash of references ranging from Happy Birthday to counting up to 22 into xyz keep you curious. The music might at first conjure up thoughts of gamelan, sitars, and out of tune harpsichords but quickly the listener will realize they are hearing something more unique and structured. The transforming motifs at first confuse but the constant motivic exploration becomes meditative as you adjust your listening. The average listener will be able to take in the rhythms quite easily while the harmonic language, although highly refined, will mystify. Those more familiar with the somewhat later Fujieda and Harrison will find much of the same joy of exploration and raw energy. Music buffs and general listeners alike will be intrigued if not amazed.

Listen to the album for curiosity, historical interest, or want for great quality ensemble playing and recording. Filled with curiosity, humour, satire, and an endless array of sounds and rhythmic motifs this album should not be ignored. I can’t even begin to imagine the work that was put into this project both on an organizational level but also by each musician learning Partch’s notation and instruments. Bravo to John Schneider who is a relentless force in both the guitar world and the expanding microtonal music scene. Schneider is a professor of music at Los Angeles Pierce College, hosts the KPFK weekly radio program “Global Village”, and is founder of MicroFest. You can learn more about Partch at partch.la; make sure to check out the instrument and media page!

FYI, here’s some more album info including musicians+:

© 2014 Bridge Records

Funded in part through a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc.

Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Eroica & cymbal), Paul Berkolds (voice), Alison Bjorkedahl (Kithara), Matt Cook (Canon, Surrogate Kithara & Eroica), David Johnson (Cloud Chamber Bowls & Chromelodeon), Ulrich Krieger (Saxophone), Yumi Lee (Percussion), Tom Peters (Canon), John Schneider (Guitars & Canons), Derek Stein (Adapted Viola), Nick Terry (Bowls, Bass Marimba, Eroica & fight bell), T.J. Troy (Bass Marimba & voice), Alex Wand (Guitar & Canons).

Producer: John Schneider
Recording Engineer: John Baffa
Editing: John Schneider
Mastering: Ron McMaster, Capitol Records Mastering
Graphic Design: Casey Siu
Executive Producers: Becky & David Starobin
Publishers: Schott Musik, Mainz

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