Decoding Harry Partch’s Aesthetic: Satire, Duality, and Water! Water!
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Decoding Harry Partch’s Aesthetic:
Satire, Duality, and Water! Water!

In the spring of 1961, the Student Activities Board of the Illini Student Union was casting about for a new show. Each year, the Union sponsored a student production of a musical, and while 1961’s show had been a success, they wanted the 1962 performance to turn heads. John Garvey, the group’s faculty advisor, had just finished conducting a successful University of Illinois production of Harry Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park.1 Engaging Partch, perhaps best known for using just intonation to divide the octave into forty-three pitches and then building instruments to play in that scale, certainly guaranteed that the show would turn heads. As Roger Ebert (then a student at the U of I) noted in his review for the Daily Illini, “It was an evening with the offbeat mind of Harry Partch. Perhaps, after all, that is really explanation enough.”2

The show in question, Water! Water!, remains a curio in Partch’s output, comparable to Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Aaron Copland’s The Second Hurricane for its place in the composer’s oeuvre as a piece for student productions. Partch seldom mentioned or wrote about the work after its premiere, discounting its place in his musical development. Scholars have followed suit: Bob Gilmore provided the most critical attention by allotting three and a half pages to the show in his biography of the composer.3 Water! Water! is even excluded from innova records’ Enclosures series, which sought to make all known recordings (video and audio) of the composer available.4 It is simply overlooked. [End Page 172]

Despite being generally ignored by scholars and its creator, the show was “as close as he ever came to writing a Broadway musical.”5 As such, it offers insights into this experimental composer’s relationship to American musical culture in the mid-twentieth century and reveals that his disdain for musical elitism in the classical musical realm extended into the popular one as well. Like all of Partch’s theatrical creations, Water! Water! exists in a multitude of tensions. The most obvious set his desire for total control against the necessity for collaboration with others skilled in areas about which Partch knew little. In the other major tension, lofty expectations warred with the realities of his various situations. Exploring these tensions in this obscure work and reconstructing its tortured path from conception through production to obscurity reveal what elements Partch valued in his life-long attempt to realize his overarching aesthetic concept of Corporeality and to create performative authenticity. They also uncover the compromises and disappointments that ultimately led Partch to suppress the work and clearly illuminate his aesthetic priorities.

Water! Water! began with Partch’s sarcastic notion that “eager anticipation and outright relief” fill audiences at intermission as they rush for drinking fountains, where line lengths are “in direct ratio to the degree of anguish generated by the piece presented.”6 His subtitle for the work?— An Intermission with Prologues and Epilogues.7 Partch started the work in May 1961, only a month after completing his second show for the University of Illinois, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and quickly settled on a format of eleven prologues and nine epilogues comprising ninety minutes of music. He also continued his approach from Revelation in the work’s setting: the eternal now, immediately after sundown, drawing from ancient traditions in crafting a modern statement. In the liner notes to the Gate 5 Records disc of excerpts from the work, Partch provided the following synopsis:

Water! Water! is a satirical farce with dolorous undertones. A much publicized international exposition is about to open in the imaginary city of Santa Mystiana. Her Honor, the mayor, is a strong stereotype of both a city and a national narcissism, and the Santa Mystiana Dam—from which the city gets both power and water—is a symbol of the “timelessness” and the “indestructibility” of an attitude. The city is beset by drought, and seeks relief so desperately that Her Honor hires Arthur, a bandleader, who is reputed to have brought rain through jazz. But the...