Sousa Archives exhibit honors experimental musician

By Emily Scott

The life and music of American composer Harry Partch cannot be described in words.

But the University’s Sousa Archives and Center for American Music has pictures, manuscripts and audio and video recordings in its newest exhibit “Transient Journeys: The Life and Music of Harry Partch,” which can begin to describe Partch’s life and ties with the University.

The exhibit, located in the Harding Band Building at 1103 S. Sixth St. in Champaign, opened in June and will run until April 2016.

Scott Schwartz, archivist for music and fine arts and director for the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, described the exhibit as a snapshot of Partch’s life during his residency at the University in the early 1960s.

“(The exhibit) will let you meet the man and realize that he was a very cool maverick of the music scene here at the University of Illinois,” Schwartz said.

Graduate assistants Nolan Vallier and Katie Nichols began compiling objects and writing scripts for the exhibit this past April, under the direction of Schwartz. They said the main challenge was finding objects that would be both aesthetically pleasing as well as informative.

According to Vallier, the University is “one of the first stops you need to make if you’re studying (Partch).”

Partch, born in 1901, took on many creative roles during his lifetime, including composer, music theorist and inventor of instruments. He produced experimental music, created instruments that would produce unique sounds and put on major productions and theatrical works until his death in 1974.

After living a transient life, riding the rails and doing odd jobs during the Great Depression, Partch came to the University as a resident artist in 1960. During this time, he created two student musical productions, “Water! Water!” and “Revelation in Courthouse Park,” that challenged the boundaries of traditional music.

“Traditional music here on campus was often ‘boxed in’ in some respects … all sitting in nice neat boxes,” Schwartz said. “Partch, like many other composers of experimental music, was trying to break those barriers down. In essence, the music and the art were intricately linked in ways that had not been thought of or rethought of before.”

Visitors to the exhibit can watch video footage of one of Partch’s productions that Schwartz said, “you have to see to really begin to understand the crossover” of music and art.

“His continual exploration of all of the sound possibilities that instruments could make themselves and how you could change those instruments to make new sounds … was pushing our concept of music and the production of that music,” Schwartz said.

Instead of using the standard 12 pitches in an octave, Partch used 43 pitches, establishing his own “microtonal” scale. To accommodate this scale into his works, Nichols said Partch had to create his own instruments, often modifying existing instruments.

“To our ears, it sounds out of tune,” Vallier said of Partch’s music. “His tonal scale was not one we’re used to.”

Some of Partch’s instrumental creations were the monophone, the Spoils of War and the Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Vallier explained how Partch often had difficulty finding venues for his works as an experimental musician, which led to his decision to turn to institutions such as the University. But his unconventional style led him to move around frequently.

“Partch didn’t fit that grain,” Vallier said.

The composer hoped to attain a faculty position at the University but was unable to do so. He left the University in 1962.

Despite his short time spent at the University, Schwartz said he left a legacy.

“As a microtonal composer, his lasting legacy is a continuation of the dynamic creativity associated with music here on campus and within the community,” Schwartz said.

Vallier described him as an important composer to study when looking at experimental musicians.

“He definitely had an amazing mind,” he said.

[email protected]