April 16, 2012

The Music of John Cage and Harry Partch

New World Records had a good thing going in the late 1970s. They released dozens of various-artists records back then, all of them gatefolds with paste-on black-and-white covers and four pages of liner notes in nine-point font, all of them quite good. They’re all over the place, these records, from Native American to pre-blues to war songs to this twelve-inch split of Harry Partch and John Cage. It came out in 1978. At least five can be found on the Internet for $24.99 to $41.91 plus international shipping, and there’s one without a cover for four bucks.

One side is stereo and the other mono, and the cover art bears an etching by Cage. The liner notes are just shy of impenetrable. A skim of three quarters of the first page reveals that the two composers had met once but they didn’t much care for one another. Partch was born in 1901, Cage in 1912. Cage’s music was abstract and Partch vilified abstraction. Partch created his own instruments. “Yaqui Indians, Chinese lullabies, Hebrew chants for the dead, Christian hymns, Congo puberty, Chinese music hall (San Francisco), lumber yards and junk shops” influenced his music. All of his pieces on this album, except for the one recorded in 1947 and the other recorded in 1973, were recorded in 1950. That's when the beats were just beginning to do their thing. There's no indication that Partch was a beatnik. These recordings precede the Acid Tests, of which they are only vaguely reminiscent. 

The first three paragraphs of Cage’s bio on page three suggest that Dadaism influenced him, that “it is particularly the Dada art of Marcel Duchamp to which Cage affirms affinity”. This music isn’t reminiscent of a urinal or a bicycle wheel on a stool, though it could fit in with a shattered glass installation. He answered dumb questions with absurdity or silence. There is much silence in this piece, Music of Changes, which takes up all of side two and was performed on March 23, 1953 at the University of Illinois at Urbana by David Tudor. Don't forget to turn off the mono after the record has played.

The first side of this album recently played on a pair of $70 outdoor speakers on a back porch in the Deep South. Side two was heard inside several days later.

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