Written by 6:00 am Audiophile Music

Celebrating Composer Harry Partch’s Sonata Dementia On New CD and Tidal Stream By The Partch Ensemble

Mark Smotroff attempts to review a musical jaw dropper…

When I first put on Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 (new from Los Angeles’ Partch ensemble), I was transported to relatively modern musics I knew well by the likes of Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. When I got to the end of the CD and picked my jaw up off the floor after hearing a live recording of the composer performing his 1941 work “Barstow” before a large and loving audience — in 1942! — I had to rethink my perspective quite a bit. More on that in a moment…  

AR-PartchCover450.jpgA bit of research quickly dismissed a passing notion I had that Mr. Partch might have been mentioned on Zappa’s legendary “Freak Out List.” Surprisingly enough it turns out that Zappa wasn’t super “into” Partch (at least from quotes I’ve read on the Internet). That is a bit surprising since large chunks of Zappa’s catalog seem to bear his influence.  

“Seem” is the operative word here. Zappa didn’t embrace the universe of unusual tunings as Partch did and felt that his music ultimately was too repetitive. So while both composers can create music that is challenging and aurally exciting, there was no firm parallel for me to make. And that is ok. But I can still offer the observation that if you, Dear Readers, enjoy the more avant garde side of Zappa’s work along with that of Captain Beefheart and later period Tom Waits, you might well appreciate Partch’s music. 

AR-PartchEnsemblePeforming450.jpgFor those of you not even remotely familiar with Harry Partch, some background from the press release for Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 might be helpful:

“PARTCH has established itself as the preeminent ensemble specializing in the exotic soundworld of American Maverick composer Harry Partch, whose body of work re-configured the contemporary music landscape through his 43-tone octave scale and the singularly unique instruments of his own invention… Between 1930 and 1972, (he) created one of the most amazing bodies of sensually alluring and emotionally powerful music of the 20th century. Partch wrote music drama, dance theater, multi-media extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music–all to be performed on the extraordinary orchestra of instruments that he designed and built himself.”

AR-PartchSheetMusic450.jpgI am a relative newbie to Harry Partch’s music. Prior to this release all I owned was his 1969 landmark LP on Columbia Records called The World of Harry Partch.  I thus don’t pretend to know everything about him and his music (so mea culpa if I made any mistakes here!). I do however encourage you to buy Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 because it sounds terrific and the CD comes with a booklet containing copious liner notes and photography.  

Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 is the PARTCH ensemble’s third release for Bridge Records and it features a rare collection of works from their namesake composer, several making world premieres!


Included are the title track “Sonata Dementia” with its movements appropriately entitled: “Abstraction and Delusion,” “Scherzo Schizophrenia,” and “Allegro Paranoia.” “Windsong” was Partch’s first soundtrack composition, written for Madeline Tourtelot’s film by the same name and now newly recorded. 

And as amazing as the performances by the PARTCH ensemble are, the bonus track at the end of the album was perhaps the album’s most stunning moment for me: a 1942 live recording of one of the composer’s most famous works, “BARSTOW: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California.” This piece was written in 1941 and this is apparently the earliest known recording of it!

I asked the label about this and apparently this pre-magnetic tape recording was recorded on a transcription disc and restored for this release. The fidelity on this track is pretty incredible for 1942 as are the performances. If you are like me, hearing this may make you re-think just how aware the public was to the avant garde underground back in the war torn 1940s. It clearly wasn’t all big band dance music and Andrews Sisters escapism at the time.  


Here, Harry Partch plays solo, I assume on one of his “Adapted Guitar” models and it sounds like something Tom Waits might have performed at a late night dive bar open mic on a snowy Tuesday night in December. You hear occasional audience chuckling during the performance followed by a loud rapturous applause from an obviously sizable crowd! 

These people were there for Harry Partch and clearly enjoying his performance. Seriously, “Barstow” sounds like a modern art piece which might raise eyebrows even today. Partch was that ahead of his time. 

But back to the new album: recorded and mixed by Nick Tipp, Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 is considered by the group to be its best release yet. Indeed, the quality of the sound is arguably demo-worthy even for “just” a CD.  This music is also available in high resolution form via HD Tracks as a 96 kHz, 24-bit download. (Please Note: I will update this review in the comments section below when I listen to that version which just arrived as this went to press). Someday, it would be great to hear this album in 5.1 surround sound. 


For now this CD is more than adequate for me as it sounds pretty amazing, putting you front and center before the ensemble. The very comfortable Stereo soundstage delivers details that make you feel like you are almost up there with the group or perhaps sitting a few feet from where they are playing. 

You can hear Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 streaming on Tidal also in CD quality which also sounds great as 16-bit, 44.1 kHz streams go (click here for that). You will also find many other Partch albums there and on Qobuz as well (alas, the new recording is not up there yet). 

But really, you should support the group and buy their CD of Sonata Dementia: Music of Harry Partch, Vol. 3 to help keep this important music alive and being performed live, without a net. I can’t wait to see them in concert sometime soon!  

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