On April 7 Paul Simon announced the release of his new album, Stranger to Stranger. Rolling Stone has called the album “genre-bending” and “experimental,” and other websites have used similar descriptors. Stranger to Stranger features collaborations and sounds that are new to Simon’s work: African and Peruvian instruments, synthesizers, gospel quartet, and beats by Italian DJ Clap! Clap! Most notable (for me at least) is Simon’s use of some of Harry Partch’s instruments on the album; the sounds of the Chromelodeon and the Cloud Chamber Bowls (see below) can be heard on the albums opening track, “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”
As usual, the flood of references to Harry’s work contain misconceptions about his music; they tend to focus almost completely at his so-called 43-note scale. The best (or worst) this time has been from Paul Simon himself who is quoted in the Rolling Stone article: “Partch said there were 43 tones to an octave and not 12 … He had a totally different approach to what music is and had to build his own instruments so he could compose on a microtonal scale.” To be fair to Simon, the second part of his quote hits the nail on the head, but the first statement about 43 tones misses the point about Harry’s music and his use of mircotonality. As I explained in my review of Musikfabrik’s New York City performance of Delusion of the Fury, much of Harry’s music is based upon 12-note Western scale forms; instead, he utilized a system that allowed for each of those 12 notes to have multiple tunings or frequencies. In fact, Harry never said an octave has 43 notes, and the way people focused upon the issue of 43 tones was something that dogged him throughout his life. He even once lambasted those who focus on his systems of scales are missing the point about his work and music (Harry Partch speaking on “Introduction to King Oedipus” from Innova Records’ Enclosure V):
Thankfully however, the various articles and press announcements have been better than usual this time around. Oddly enough, it seems that the less people try to say about Harry’s work the better they are at describing what is actually going on. Paul Simon’s own announcement describes Harry as “the 20th century American composer and theorist who created custom-made instruments in microtonal tunings.” A better description comes from AFP’s article (published by a variety of news outlets) when they said “Simon also looked to the 20th century music theorist Harry Partch who designed his own instruments with microtonal scales—meaning with smaller intervals than those usually used in Western music.”
Simon’s album (along with the growing interest elsewhere) shows that Harry’s work is gaining wider acceptance, appeal, and recognition—which is great! Coupling this with the recent Grammy for John Cage shows growing recognition for the American experimental movement of the 20th century, proving that these composers were truly on the vanguard doing important and valuable work.
This article was updated on June 4, 2016; the embedded video was changed to “Insomniac’s Lullaby” from “Wristband.”