Darren Chesworth, “The Outsider: the Story of Harry Partch” (2002)
Whoever gave the green light to this documentary at BBC 4 should have been gifted with the position of Head of Programming or whatever appropriate position that puts him or her in charge of an unlimited budget to make documentaries as wonderful as this film on US avant-garde composer / musician / instrument maker Harry Partch (1901 – 1974). That Partch should have deemed a worthy subject of an hour-long documentary is a miracle itself, let alone be presented to an audience not used to the kind of music he made and inspired. The film is a mix of interviews with Partch, musicians and composers such as Gavin Bryars and Phillip Glass together with archived films and still photographs.
The film does a good job of delineating Partch’s life from the time of his birth through to his death and of emphasising Partch’s consciousness of how different he was from the rest of society and how he was determined to remain individualist. Various issues and tendencies that thread their ways throughout Partch’s life include his homosexuality, his non-conformism and the problems that this created with the music establishment, the musical instruments he created, his heavy drinking and the effect the Great Depression of the 1930s had on his career. Partch’s achievement in developing a unique microtonal scale and various instruments such as the keyboard Chromelodeon is covered very well; the instruments (playing on Partch’s 43-tonal scale) provide the music soundtrack of mostly string and percussion music that to Western ears sounds clunky and often out-of-tune by conventional music standards but not necessarily ugly. Indeed, the music heard here varies greatly in sound, ambience and inspiration and usually sounds very robust, life-affirming and jolly. It also often has an Asian sound which isn’t surprising as Partch was keen on traditional Chinese and other Asian styles of music.
The film moves efficiently through the decades and tends to present Partch’s life as though it was more or less on a continuous upward trajectory even though there was a period during the 1930s when Partch gave up music and became a hobo wanderer. Topics such as his determined non-conformism, only to be later embraced by the very critics and upper middle class intellectual types he disliked, and his competitive nature against John Cage and similar experimental music contemporaries arise during the course of the film and are treated in some detail. Sponsors such as Betty Freeman were very important in advancing Partch’s career and Freeman herself is interviewed for the film.
By far the music is the undoubted star of the documentary so it is a little disappointing that not all of it receives a credit during the running of the film (as opposed to popping up in the end credits) – and the instruments on which it’s played aren’t always identified. Some attention given over to significant instruments invented or modified by Partch would have been welcome. Happily the documentary also covers what happened to Partch’s instruments after his death from a heart attack in 1974: the instruments are held at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, and are still played by two ensembles several times a year.
If you know very little about experimental music or music created in unconventional scales such as Partch’s 43-microtonal scale or the just intonation favoured by US musician Pauline Oliveros, this documentary serves as an ideal introduction to the scene.