5 questions to John Schneider

PARTCH, a unique ensemble specializing in the music and instruments of the iconoclastic composer Harry Partch plays in the American Mavericks Festival this Sunday, March 11 at 2:00pm at Davies Symphony Hall. We asked 5 questions to John Schneider, member of PARTCH.

In the pantheon of American Mavericks, how performed/recognized is Partch’s music?

Partch is more talked about than actually performed or recognized – though strangely, there is hardly an artist in music that doesn’t claim him as an influence or inspiration. Luckily, CD’s & downloads have made the music widely available, and a new generation is quite conversant with his inimitable style. Of course he isn’t performed much at all – you have to have the instruments -though several groups, most famously the Kronos Quartet, have transcribed some of his music…

Harry Partch (1901 – 1974)

How did you discover Partch’s music?

I first heard his music in college, and it was completely incomprehensible (though damned funny… a very rare beast in Contemporary music) as serialism was still King, with Electronic Music the heir apparent. It was only when, in grad school in Europe, that I heard non-Americans speak of him with great awe that I began to take the music seriously.

In a society that claims to gets closer to nature (greener, more sustainable, etc.), Partch’s music—that is based on Just Intonation and ultimately the laws of nature—is still marginal. How do you explain this?

Not as marginal as you might think – since the 1980s, most synthesizers have had microtonal capabilities, and are often shipped with Partch’s 43-note octave as a preset. There are now at least three companies that manufacture justly fretted guitars (Freenote, True-Temperament & National Resophonic guitars), and a new generation that came up listening to World Music which is, when unpolluted by Western music, almost invariably in pure tunings. Partch’s music, itself, is still a bit marginal, but much less so as it has become part of the lexicon through the recordings and, of course, live performances if you’re lucky enough to catch one. There are very few people that I have performed for that haven’t succumbed to this music’s charm and emotional strength. But then again, the music isn’t about the tuning – it simply uses pure tuning to further explore the human condition, something that all great music does.

John Schneider performing on an adapted guitar

 Is the construction of Partch’s instruments well documented?

Partch’s seminal Genesis of a Music (1949, 2nd edition 1972) is many things: a diatribe, a music history, tuning primer, music physics book….but it is also a cookbook. All of his instruments are described in great detail, with the tunings specifically mapped out, and many of the exact instrument dimensions published in great detail. Of course every piece of wood is different, so the actual finished products may vary quite a bit from the original, but the information is certainly available – with more to be found in the indispensable award-winning Enclosure 3 published by Innova. And, of course, the original instruments are alive & well at the Partch Institute (a title Harry would have found endlessly amusing) in Montclair, New Jersey.

If you had access to any concert hall, or mainstream media outlet, where/how would you like to hear Partch’s music played?

Partch’s repertoire is so diverse, in terms of content & style, that his music would fit in any venue from Carnegie Hall (where he actually played in 1944) to a night club. The most important aspect of his music is that it should be played well – in the corporeal (earthy, gutsy & authentic) spirit in which it was written. Seeing Partch performed on David Letterman or Saturday Night Live would not be a shock to anyone at this point in our cultural history – most people are thrilled when they hear the music, and find it completely comprehensible & satisfying. But my dream concert would be at the White House… imagine: ties, tails & gowns mixing with Cloud Chamber Bowls & the Spoils of War!

PARTCH performs Sonata Dementia

More information here: http://www.harrypartch.com