The conclusion of Johnston’s string quartet cycle. In the words of composer/author Kyle Gann - “possibly the most ambitious string quartet project in history.”
I’m very happy to see that Jon Szanto, former Partch ensemble performer and current Partch archivist and curator, has put together this limited edition vinyl release entitled “Harry Partch: A Portrait” via our friends at New World Records. The record features a remastered version of The Dreamer that Remains among other pieces. Szanto is one of the unheralded champions of Partch’s music and I know this project was done with a lot of love and care. I scanned the entirety of the Partch photo archives a couple years back, and I’m thrilled that some of the images are getting to see the light of day.
Harry Partch: A Portrait Limited Edition LP Release (700, 180g vinyl) with Twelve-Page Booklet Featuring Rare Photos 90001-1 Selecting illustrative works from the lifetime of a creative person is a daunting task; doing so with a singularly individual artist like Harry Partch is all the more difficult.
Today is the Ides of March, which means it’s Ben’s birthday. 90 years ago today, Ben was born in Macon, Georgia. We’re going to be celebrating by publishing new content leading up to the release of the new Kepler Quartet recording of Ben’s string quartets 6,7 & 8.
To start us off, here is an insightful new NewMusicBox article by Kepler violinist, Eric Segnitz, with lots of media supplements, including snippets from the upcoming album:
Ed. Note: Today, March 15, 2016, is the 90th birthday of maverick American composer Ben Johnston. To celebrate this major milestone, the Kepler Quartet-which has spent the last 14 years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music-has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of his entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records which will be released on April 15, 2016.
*Thanks to Frank Oteri and our friends at NewMusicBox for running this tribute.
(Pictured: Bob laughing during the taping of an interview in 2006)
In Memoriam: Bob Gilmore (1961-2015)
It’s never easy to say goodbye to a loved one. In writing this, my eyes swelled and my heart fluttered and I felt that selfish feeling of wanting more time with Bob that simply won’t happen—and that dissipates as logic takes over and I take solace in the fact that he was relieved of his pain.
This is a new music blog and for a number of reasons, this site and this project wouldn’t exist without Bob Gilmore. His numerous accomplishments merit a page of their own, so I’d like to use this platform to share some of my memories of this unique and wonderful man, who was equal parts teacher, scholar, writer, musician, father and partner.
The first time I was in contact with Bob was in 2004. I had just settled on the idea of going all-in and beginning the process of producing a feature-length documentary on the composer Harry Partch; reading Bob’s amazing biography on Partch was the tipping point for me with that decision. So, of course he was one of the first people I reached out to, not only to solicit help from, but also to receive the blessing of, for lack of a better expression. A few months later while I was living in Paris, I made arrangements to travel to Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, in the south of England, to meet with Bob in person to discuss Partch and my plan of action. Once I arrived he arranged a room for me at a local bed and breakfast since he had no guest room, and offered to treat me to dinner to make up for it. We began that afternoon and worked most of the next day together. He made time for me, a relative stranger who was wet behind the ears, and he shared research with me that he’d compiled over the years. In subsequent years, I would take the Partch land deeds he photocopied for me and track down the family land, shooting film in that desert far away from the British Isles. Later, I videotaped interviews with people he never had the time to track down. I wanted to do justice to his research, but more than that, to the eloquent manner in which he told these stories. He showed me a VHS tape of a BBC doc on Partch and we talked about the faults of their representation of the man and his work (as well as sharing a laugh at the fact that they had backlit him so poorly that he looked like some kind of hidden-identity informant!)
From my journal:
“Bob shows up, shakes my hand, grabs his mail, and we head off to his office. We start by talking about what I’m doing in Paris, and how he got started on Partch. I tell him the story of how I was introduced to the work of Partch. He starts showing me all of his Partch archives. We look through documents and photographs first.”
After I finished thumbing through piles of notes and re-photographing prints he’d collected, we took a few pints together with two of his mates (Chris Pressler and Michael Bassett) at an old pub on campus. We broke bread together and shared stories about music, travels and his homeland of Northern Ireland. Afterward, we went back to his friend’s flat and when they asked what to listen to, Bob exclaimed, “Let’s listen to Partch!” But even with our two votes for Partch, Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts won out, and we sat, drinking red wine while the hours slipped away as the conversations fluidly progressed back and forth between serious bits and observations and moments of levity. For the record, Partch’s The Bewitched played next.
We met up again the next morning after breakfast. From my journal:
“Bob pops in the door. We are both right on time. We walk a couple blocks to take a taxi. Bob knows the driver and small talks him. “How’s the tooth?” and the British driver is like “ooh, iss like wonna dem absess bu du doccta say, it’aint nuthin, just gimme woonna dem injections…” blah blah blah. On like this for 5-10 minutes. Bob pays for the taxi as well, refusing my money. We get to school and he fixes coffee and tea. I take tea and smoke a cigarette outside. He writes some emails while I photograph the rest of the pictures. Then he copies me the rest of the interview cds. We talk more about plans, personalities involved and such things. He gives me a list of contacts for the project, emails, numbers, addresses. He also gives me a lead about some research he couldn’t finish. We make copies of the Partch land deeds because I want to find the land that they owned in Arizona when Partch was a boy. By this time, it is almost time to leave. My 24 hours of Totnes is coming to an end. He arranges a taxi to pick me up at the school. I thank him as he walked me outside. I tell him of my plans to return there, perhaps in March when I can fly direct into Exeter. We shake hands and I take off on a ridiculously long day of traveling.”
I left Totnes with not only his approval to proceed, but also with his encouragement and support, and most importantly—his friendship.
The only other time I was able to visit Bob was during the summer of 2006. He wrote to me before I visited:
“Life is good, very good. Playing the piano quite a lot these days – whatever would Harry think of me!”
I made my way back to Totnes and was proud that I could present evidence that I had successfully followed up on many of the leads he put me onto previously. Once again, even though he was deluged with work, students, his own music and personal life—he made time for me again, and welcomed me as a guest in his home. This time, the camera would be pointed at him—as I wanted to go through the entire narrative of Partch’s life. He agreed, and in two short hours we reconstructed all of Harry’s life with nary a note between us. He didn’t balk at the fact the airline had lost my luggage and I had to jury-rig a tripod out of boxes from his office. During the taping, we were interrupted several times—and one of those times was the delivery of a package. The package contained proofs for the book he was putting together: Maximum Clarity, a collection of writings on music by the composer Ben Johnston. I began looking through the proofs and stopped to look over Ben’s lattices. He remarked something like “makes Partch look like Kindergarten, huh?” Even though I had been working on Just Intonation theory, it still intimidated me—but Bob just encouraged me to pursue it. We finished the shoot and hustled away to the English Riviera to have dinner with the composer Frank Denyer.
When I wrote to him during the early stages of my research, he wrote back to me:
“Get cracking on Harry’s theory - it’s not possible to have a true sense of what he was about, or what all the fuss was about, unless you understand his tuning system.”
And he was absolutely right. So much so, that, thanks to his encouragement, I tracked down Ben Johnston and was able to not only study tuning, theory, and composition with him, but I began to collaborate with him as well. Even though I’d conducted hundreds of interviews over the years with musicians, movie stars, and high level politicians—I was actually intimidated to reach out to Ben for the first time. But Bob had a direct and poignant way of describing Ben that made me realize that beneath that massive intellect was a beautiful and flawed human being. Ben was a Georgia boy who loved numbers and playing cards—just like myself. So Bob once again helped guide the direction of my life. And when I was trying to expedite the processing of Ben’s archives, Bob didn’t hesitate penning a strong letter in support of the cause. He didn’t stop helping Ben once he finished the book. He didn’t lose interest in Partch after he published the biography. He didn’t discount me all those years back when I only had an idea. And it seems like he didn’t give up one damn bit when he got sick.
I had heard Bob was ill a while back but I wanted to respect his privacy. I never asked and he never said anything. The last time I heard from him was a month ago, when he wrote asking me to send him an essay that Ben wrote—and I sent him a video with Ben reading it. I told him that I had been in a motorbike accident and was still healing. I wasn’t responding to many emails at all at that point, but I did for him. And he didn’t write back saying that he was dying…he was just…working, still working.
I’ve lost a lot of friends and family relative to my time on earth, and I know there is not one of us out there that hasn’t had our lives poisoned by this terrible disease—but I know one thing: I’m lucky that I made sure to tell Bob how much of an inspiration he was to me and how much his hard work had changed my life—while he was still here.
I will always remember those piercing eyes, those fiery Irish red locks, those fingers dancing across the piano, that laugh that spread like wildfire, and that incredibly bright mind of his. He always spoke so lovingly of his young, talented progeny Ben and his dear Elisabeth–who truly seemed to define “partner” as he always proudly declared her to be. My thoughts and love go out to them…so much more than any of these words can express. And to Bob, you brilliant, lovable bastard: Thank you. Here’s hoping one day we’ll raise a glass together again in Valhalla.
Available now is a new CD of Harry Partch’s “Plectra and Percussion Dances”–recorded and performed by John Schneider’s Los Angeles based “PARTCH” ensemble.
Listen to a sample:
New book from Bob Gilmore, biographer of Harry Partch and editor of Ben Johnston’s book “Maximum Clarity”:
Claude Vivier’s haunting and expressive music has captivated audiences around the world. But the French-Canadian composer is remembered also because of the dramatic circumstances of his death: he was found murdered in his Paris apartment at the age of thi
Available now from Amazon
If you haven’t already checked it out, the cd/digital download of Ruminations–Ben Johnston’s settings of Rumi and jazz standards is available now.
Help support a documentary film on Harry Partch and an upcoming concert of “The Wayward” (Barstow, US Highball, The Letter, San Francisco) at Carnegie Hall.
With the Kepler Quartet hard at work on this final disc of the Johnston string quartet cycle, I thought it would be a good time to re-visit one of the pieces they are working on: String Quartet no. 6, where endless melody folds into a structure based on the Fibonacci series. While we wait for the Kepler’s version, you can listen to the original recording below.
You can purchase a digitized version of the original CRI album direct from New World Records (digital via iTunes or CD-R).
Original liner notes reproduced below (download the PDF here):
From CRI SD 497:
Ben Johnston String Quartet No. 6 (1980), New World String Quartet (Curtis J. Macomber and William Patterson, violins; Robert Dan, viola; Ross T. Harbaugh, cello)
Ben Johnston (b. 1926, Macon, Georgia) is best known for his work in microtonal music, particularly in the use of the ancient “just” intonation. He received his high school education in Richmond, Virginia and his advanced education at the College of William and Mary, the United States Navy School of Music, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, University of California at Berkeley, Mills College, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds degrees from William and Mary, Cincinnati Conservatory and Mills. His principal teachers of composition were Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, Burrill Phillips, Robert Palmer, and John Cage. Since 1951 he has been on the faculty of the University of Illinois where in 1983 he became Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition.
Johnston has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and Associate Membership in the University Center for Advanced Study. He has received commissions from the Paul Fromm Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Fine Arts Foundation of Chicago, the Polish Radio in Warsaw, and the one from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation that made this recording possible.
The concept of microtonal complexity achieved through the most consonant and mathematically the most uncomplicated tuning procedures has underlain most of Johnston’s works since 1961. The extension of tuning based on the first six partials of the overtone series (like common practice in early music, avoiding the compromise of temperament) occupied him until 1970, when he undertook an extension of tuning based on higher partials. Johnston’s music is not written for electronic or other instruments of novel design to make possible the new microtonal resources. Instead, he has studied and altered the performance of familiar instruments. He writes:
“In String Quartet No. 6, I undertook the problem of endless melody so fascinating to late nineteenth century composers. Since it seemed to me that this concept never really met successfully the tests to which it was subjected, I was especially anxious to make it succeed in a non-dramatic, non-programmatic context. The melodic phrases are completely elided, avoiding al! cadences. The punctuation, the rise and fall, and the climax placement of these lines and accompaniments are controlled by an elaborate application of proportions from the Fibonacci series. The length of the solos and their tempos are strictly proportional and result in a gradual increase of activity up to double the initial tempo.
“With this work, too, I returned to a problem that has interested me from many angles: the integration of twelve-tone technique with the pitch procedures of extended just intonation. As in one earlier work (Two Sonnets of Shakespeare), I composed a background against which solo melody could be placed. In the quartet I used a 2,3, 5, 7,11 system in which hexads like Harry Partch’s comprising the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th partials of an otonality (overtone aggregate) or of its inversion, an utonality (under-tone aggregate), are paired, as hexachords in a semi-combinatorial twelve-tone row which has one representative tone from each of the twelve pitch regions of the octave. All forty- eight transpositions of the row are used more than once in a giant palindrome which presents each quartet member in turn as soloist. The solos are freely composed using the tones of the harmonic content of the hexachords.
“The composition of this work was more difficult than any piece I can remember, probably because its moment-to-moment timing evokes for me the ordinary events of daily life rather than its exceptional moments.”
The New World String Quartet, with a repertoire ranging from the standard quartet literature to premieres of contemporary American works, has been acclaimed as one of America’s most prominent young ensembles. Formed in 1977,the quartet has appeared at major halls in major cities and universities. It is currently Quartet-in- Residence at Harvard University.
This recording was made possible by grants from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation. String Quartet-Smith Publ, Baltimore (ASCAP): 21′40″ Recorded by David Hancock, New York City, April 1983. Produced by Carter Harman and Eve Beglarian.
The music on this record was commissioned by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation specifically for performers who had won Naumburg Performers’ Awards. The New World String Quartet won the Chamber Music Award in 1979.
CRI’s Board of Trustees wishes to express its gratitude to the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and the Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation for support during 1982-83.
In case you come across the address nwd.is on the web…that’s us. On platforms like Twitter, brevity is at a premium. Combine that with the ability to retain a recognizable name and create our own custom URLS…it just seemed like a fun and pragmatic idea.
Just wanted to give a heads up to all of our followers.
Thanks, as always, for your continued support and interest.
-Jon and Ben