A Brief Comparison of Two American Composers: Harry Partch & Frank Zappa

Here we have two composers, American eccentrics we might think of as existing at best on the extreme periphery of mainstream public consciousness, fiercely devoted to their own particular conceptions of music, possessed of the belief that something in their immediate musical environments stinks. Such vague statements make the conflict a toss up between two equals — and it should be noted that as far as compositional prowess and quality of work goes I am here treating that equality as a given — but to go beyond the surface is to recognise that the question of Partch versus Zappa is the question of idealism versus realism.

Partch, for all his pragmatism — as shown during his somewhat legendary hobo years — very much exemplifies the idealism, the romanticism of the American maverick, a man who would rather accept odd writing and speaking appointments while riding the rails in poverty than ever commit himself to the mundanity of the daily grind. His life was spent in the service of music, and perhaps more importantly in the service of fighting a perceived conspiracy against just intonation, which he believed was more pure, more vital than the sterile, clinical equal temperament which dominates western music.

Partch goes against the grain, not only of modern music, but of western music as we think of it in general; he is a traditionalist in the extreme, and in many ways the only true primitivist composer of the 20th century. He forsakes the western aesthetics that developed over the course of some millennia anno domini and looks instead to Ancient Greece, conceiving of a “corporeal music” which is a complete work of sound, movement, and drama. In some ways he can be compared to Wagner, who sought the complete synthesis of music and drama, yet Partch strips his music entirely of any romantic conception of drama, returning instead to an erstwhile forgotten past of ritual, invocation, and procession.

In pursuit of his ideals, fuelled by his dedication to this conception of music, Partch created an environment, a culture which would support its continued existence, but his staunch position against the broader musical world — which was content to kowtow to a system of wilful musical ignorance — made that environment a totally insular one. His music is written in a 43-tone scale of his own invention, and performances require the use of his own invented instruments, many of which are unique, fragile, and either very difficult or very costly to reproduce. The physicality of his music is strong, but the same cannot be said when it comes to the means of production, and his refusal to entertain 12TET may ultimately remove his music from the stage for good.

Zappa is in many ways the polar opposite of Partch. While they may both be viewed as outsiders of equal extremity and eccentricity, Zappa was perfectly happy to engage with the systems and cultures which he personally disparaged, and would often delight in doing both simultaneously — to play the game to his advantage at the same time that he was disdainfully mocking it. It could be simplified, though it may be gross to do so, down to this: Zappa is equal parts Stravinsky and Lenny Bruce: a composer, a man of business, able to make his way by composing and performing alone; a satirist, a transgressor, observing from a distance but then engaging directly, often uniquely with the target of his mockery.

Yet his irreverence towards the establishment, both in classical and popular music, did not extend to a general aversion to hundreds of years of western musical development, nor was it total. Zappa, despite his reputation as a hard-edged, acerbic man for whom disdain was the closest thing to praise it was possible to muster, was a lover of all kinds of music. Rather than disliking any one genre or style or tradition, his only professed dislike was that of mediocrity, which he felt was abundant in all areas at all times, and his responses in interviews, as well as his numerous guest DJ appearances on radio, showcase a broad and deep knowledge of and a passion for the music of the world in general.

If Partch is music’s greatest primitivist, it is reasonable to suggest Zappa for the title of its greatest post-modernist. Everything is fair game in Zappa’s music, from unabashedly sappy pop tunes to intensely complicated chromatic figures, from the augmentation of western and eastern music to a search for and investigation of the potential applications of computers and sampling in the creation of entirely new forms and styles. He was able to make of his body of work a microcosm of the musical world, but also to imbue it with his unique perspective. This is mirrored in his choice of musical collaborators over the years, who would come from backgrounds as diverse as pop, rock, jazz, classical music, Romani folk music, Indian classical music, and Tuvan throat singing. What might possibly have been his ultimate goal, the synthesis of all those things into a bold and unique “omnistyle,” he was clearly approaching with his final works.

Unlike Partch, Zappa, by reconciling his own musical vision with the tools and techniques of modern western music, was able to craft a readily translatable and arrangeable body of work, much like Johann Sebastian Bach, which ensured the permeation of his work into many different areas of music in futurity. Today his works are performed by orchestras, chamber ensembles (including HIP ensembles), jazz groups, big bands, solo performers, rock bands, and electronic outfits around the world, and there is no sign of this stopping any time soon, in fact much the opposite appears to be happening. Zappa may not have cared about being remembered, but some twenty-odd years after his death, his work has done nothing but flourish and spread, and this because he chose not to isolate himself from the music of his time.

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