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Original preface to "Genesis of a Music"



PERHAPS the most hallowed of traditions among artists of creative vigor is this: traditions in the creative arts are per se suspect. For they exist on the patrimony of standardization, which means degeneration. They dominate because they are to the interest of some group that has the power to perpetuate them, and they cease to dominate when some equally powerful group undertakes to bend them to a new pattern. It is not difficult for the alert student to acquire the traditional techniques. Under the pressures of study these are unconsciously and all too easily absorbed. The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality.

Traditions remain undisturbed when we say: let us improve ourselves; let us become better pianists, teachers, conductors, better composers. They remain undisturbed when we say: let us increase the knowledge and appreciation of "good" music. Traditions remain undisturbed, uninvestigated, and therefore a culture of music based upon such palpably noble precepts is already senile.

The quality of vitality that makes any culture significant involves something else, the presence of which constantly undermines tradition; it is found in the perceptive freshness of the Tang Dynasty poets, the bold curiosity of the Renaissance Florentines. In large measure it is compounded of investigation, investigation, investigation. In poetry and in many other forms of creative expression investigation may take an entirely intellectual and metaphysical path, but in music, because of the very nature of the art, it must also take a physical path. A phalanx of good pianists, good teachers, good composers, and "good" music no more creates a spirit of investigation and a vital age in music than good grades in school create a spirit of investigation and a body of thinking citizens. To promote a youthful vitality in music we must have students who will question every idea and related physical object that they encounter. They must question the corpus of knowledge, traditions, and usages that give us a piano, for example—the very fact of a piano; they must question the tones of its keys, question the music on its rack, and, above all, they must question, constantly and eternally, what might be called the philosophies behind device, the philosophies that are really responsible for these things.

Good grades in school are the result of a less commendable ability, and no aspect of the musical scene could be more depressing than the prospect that those with the ability to get good grades in school, to copy others, to absorb and apply traditions with facility, shall hold the fort of "good" music.

Music, "good" or not "good," has only two ingredients that might be called God-given: the capacity of a body to vibrate and produce sound and the mechanism of the human ear that registers it. These two ingredients can be studied and analyzed, but they cannot be changed; they are the comparative constants. All else in the art of music, which may also be studied and analyzed, was created by man or is implicit in human acts and is therefore subject to the fiercest scrutiny—and ultimately to ap­proval, indifference, or contempt. In other words, all else is subject to change.

Implicit in the man-made part of the musical art are (1) an attitude toward one's.fellow man and all his works; (2) a source scale and (3) a theory for its use; (4) more than occasionally a vocal design; (5) a complexity of organized tones which we call a composition; (6) a musical instru­ment or instruments; (7) a powerful emotional reaction to the composition.

These disparate ingredients, which operate through various degrees of the conscious and premeditated and the unconscious and spontaneous, are listed above at random and for three reasons: (1) because twenty-four years of work in this musical field gives me no answer to the question of priority as regards chicken versus egg; (2) because, therefore, any rational sequence would require defense; and (3) because at this point of discussion sequence is unimportant and defense impertinent.

The creative individual, in developing the man-made ingredients and in examining the God-given, finds the way to a special kind of truth. This truth is the product of each new day, of each complex organism, its singular environment, experience, and emotional needs. It is the realization of the daimon.

Musical creators have been, and are, the exponents and the victims of system, philosophy, and attitude, determined for them by textbooks and classrooms, and by the atmosphere in which they grow; in short, by their milieu. Consequently the later history of Western music is of one system, one philosophy, one attitude, and it is characterized by successive bodies of practitioners made up of multitudes of innocent believers and sprinklings of individualists who are frequently unequal to the struggle—the struggle of fundamental dissent with the musical practicalities.

The canons of music do not comprise a corpus juris, common or codified, and the prevailing attitude is a symptom, a danger signal, of possible decay that no person imbued with a spirit of investigation can perceive without misgivings. Investigators and experimenters are at least as reverent toward our European heritage as the average music lover—probably more so, because they are acolytes of the creative spirit that has produced such phenomena as the past three hundred years of Western music. But it is a dynamic reverence.

In a healthy culture differing musical philosophies would be coexistent, not mutually exclusive; and they would build from Archean granite, and not, as our one musical system of today builds, from the frame of an inherited keyboard, and from the inherited forms and instruments of Europe's eighteenth century. And yet anyone who even toys with the idea of looking beyond these legacies for materials and insight is generally considered foolhardy if not actually a publicity-seeking mountebank. The door to further musical investigation and insight has been slammed shut by the inelastic and doctrinaire quality of our one system and its esthetic forms.

Under the circumstances it is not incumbent upon a composer to justify his investigation, his search. The burden of explanation for dissatisfaction rests elsewhere. It belongs to those who accept the forms of a past day without scrutinizing them in the light of new and ever-changing technological and sociological situations, in the light of the interests that stand to profit by the status quo, and in the light of their own individualities, this time and this place.

This time and this place offer today's composer an inestimable advantage over the composer of even a hundred years ago; for the agent that is able to free music from the incubus of an external body of interpreters is now actually with us. Having entered the age of musical recordings—and recordings constantly improving in fidelity—we have only to grasp the opportunity for a truly individualistic and creative music. Never before in the history of the art has the composer been able to hope for a situation at all similar to that of the visual artist, who paints a picture only once. Until recently the composer has had to gear his creative faculties to the traditions, comprehension, and practice of the only body capable of giving his work life—the body of interpretive musicians who alone had it in their power to paint and repaint his picture.

That time is past. The creative musician can now play his music for a record—once—and with a good performance and a good recording be content to end the effort right there. The record requires no body of in­terpretive musicians to perpetuate it; hence it need not be of great concern to the composer that his theories are not widely understood, that his nota­tion is a cryptogram to everyone but himself and his little group, that he has built instruments which perhaps may never be touched again. These were only his tools—his paints and brushes—and there the picture is, on the record. It might please his ego if he thought others would use his tools, but —fundamentally—what matter?

Twenty-four years ago, when I first began groping for answers to problems of intonation, I was a composer. I am still a composer, and my every musical act has been geared to that premise. Not a ratio of vibrational lengths has been put on paper nor one piece of wood glued to another which did not have as its ultimate objective the creation of music.

The music which is the result of this groping has been in the process of composition for seventeen years, and virtually every presentation of it has prompted numerous questions about its acoustical basis, its sociological postulates, its historic antecedents, and its compositional mechanics, the sum total of which cannot be treated adequately in less than a volume such as this.

The work is not offered as a basis for a substitute tyranny, the grooving of music and musical theory into another set of conventions. What I do hope for is to stimulate creative work by example, to encourage investiga­tion of basic factors, and to leave all others to individual if not idiosyncratic choice. To influence, yes; to limit, no.

This is not to say that my attitude toward this work is objective. Objectivity would imply a lack of passion and a complete disinterest, which, if it is not an anomaly in any human being, is at least an anomaly in a composer faced with the subject of music. However I may have weighed the virtues and the shortcomings of the formulas and theories I propound, I expect—and welcome—just as intense a scrutiny of them as I have endeavored to project upon the work of some of my musical predecessors and contemporaries.

Since 1928, when a first draft of Monophonic principles was completed, the work has undergone many evolutions. In its original form it was compounded of a measure of experimentation on violins and violas and an even larger measure of intuition. In time greater knowledge of similar work by others led to several revisions in which history and the comparative aspects were stressed, although the basic principles remained unchanged. Now I have concluded, as with theses propped by the Bible, that any musical attitude can be justified by historical precedent, and that an individual experience in a given medium is by far the best substantiation conceivable. Consequently, what the book contains of history and comparative analyses is presented to clarify the bases of present-day practice and of possible expansion in the future, and not as a basic factor in the evolution of this theory and its application, except in the most general sense. The basic factors are still: experience, intuition.

The word Monophony applies to both music and intonation, for reasons that will become evident in due course. For purposes of presentation the subject matter falls naturally into two divisions: (1) music and the attitude it embodies, a vocal design, and to some extent possible emotional reactions, discussed principally in Part I; (2) scale, theory, and instruments built specifically for the scale and theory, comprising the subject of intonation, discussed in Parts II and III. Part IV is a brief presentation of historic and proposed intonations.

At the same time that I acknowledge my great indebtedness to many workers in music, especially workers in intonation, I should make it clear that I do not intend this book for musicologists, nor even for musicians in the ordinary sense. It is addressed to those who are searching for more than intellectual openings into the mysteries of music and intonation. I have written it for those with a musically creative attitude: (1) for composers; (2) for those who expect to compose; (3) for anyone, even without a knowledge of ordinary musical theory, who has this creative attitude.

—Harry Partch, University of Wisconsin, 1947.

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