A Corporeal Classicist or The Trouble With Harry

Sometimes, because I am not the world’s quickest thinker, it takes a long time for me to get a meaningful grip on a conundrum. Over the past two months I have been thinking about Harry Partch’s division of music into the Corporeal and the Abstract, and sometimes it makes a lot of sense and sometimes not so much. It troubled me constantly and I could not put my finger on just why.

This morning, while painting the spare room, I put on a CD of C.P.E. Bach’s late symphones (WQ 183 and WQ 182). These are masterfully emotive constructions yet, despite a lot of dramatic key changes, are fully within the rhythmic and harmonic classical musical tradition of the latter 18th century. There is much here that will appear in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Abstract music, yes.

But, to me, also wholly and completely Corporeal. This music speaks. Yet, would Partch (who did not even consider C.P.E. Bach in Genesis Of A New Music) place this in the Abstract or the Corporeal? I had a sense that he would put it into the Abstract, with Corporeal leanings. Then I began to think about what Partch was actually working with when he developed his theory. In the late 1940s there were not a lot of recordings of classical (compared to today) and its doubtful if there were any of C.P.E. Bach’s music. At that time C.P.E. was probably even more neglected than his father before J.S. Bach’s great 19th century rediscovery. So Partch would be evolving his opinions from a limited number of recordings, radio broadcast and public performances. Much of his concepts would also derive from printed scores.

The C.P.E. Bach symphonies I listened to today were performed by the Kammerorchester “Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach” conducted by Hartmut Haenchen and recorded in 1986. They recorded in the newly reemphasized ‘authentic performing practice’ style that aims to recreate, as much as is possible (with C.P.E, who wrote extensively on performing practice, this much easier than with other composers) a performance as it would be heard in the late 18th century.

This is very different beast from performance practice in the 1940s. Orchestras in those days stressed professionalism of performance (i.e. adhering strictly to the score) that could lead to an almost sterile rendition of a living, breathing masterpiece. Not to mention that the symphony orchestra of the day was radically different from that of the 18th century, being larger and using instruments that had evolved significantly away from their earlier precursors. Anyone who thought that this was classical music is almost inevitably going to regard it, in terms of human expression, as woefully inferior to the folk and popular forms that Partch happily labels as Corporeal. And I suspect that a performance in the 1940s of C.P.E. Bach’s symphonies would handily box them into the Abstract.

But that’s not how I hear it. Instead, I hear a wonderfully vibrant, rhythmically charged, harmonically challenging yet completely satisfying, and melodically emotive series of Corporeal masterworks. With this, I think I have finally fingered why Partch’s definitions have been unsatisfactory for me, as well as understanding more closely exactly where he stood.

Overwhelmed

I’ve been introduced over the past two weeks to a flood of early recorded music of all kinds, much of it completely unfamiliar, and frankly I have been overwhelmed by it all. When most of this music was recorded the maximum exposure any record buyer would have from any disc would be two sides of about 3 and half minutes of music. Now it is possible to buy collections of literally hundreds of songs – often the entire lifetime’s output – by almost all artists of note whose recordings have been preserved.

In itself, this is a fascinating phenomenon. There is clearly a commercially viable market for this old time music, indicating that many listeners are choosing to explore the roots of today’s popular music. Why they might be doing this is open to conjecture, but I suspect the paramount reason is that this is simply good music. Music that appeals directly to the emotions and is free of the calculating artifice that mars much commercial music. Not that calculated artifice is a new concept – bad music has always been recorded, but because it tends towards the ephemeral it is usually forgotten. It is always pertinent to remember that what we listen to when we examine the recorded music of the past is the distillate, the cream of what was made. Thus we lose the original context musically as well as historically. In fact we lose the musical context doubly. Not only do we not hear the bad and forgotten music of the time, but also we have heard masses of newer music, some of it influenced by those old classic songs and performances. Indeed we often hear the same songs performed by more contemporary artists.

All this conspires to filter the music of the past through the sensibilities of the present. Even the technology we use, presenting these scratchy old recordings in a clear form free from further degradation, insulates us from that time.

So what remains? Well, what remains is the music. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, The Carter Family, Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers. These are just some of the artists that I have been listening to over the past weeks. Their music is gripping and involving. As I said before, it is overwhelming in its concentrated quality. It’s going to take a long time to tease out the individual threads presented by this magnificent quilt of American roots music of the early 20th century.