I'm one of the thousands of people enchanted by the compositions of Harry Partch.
Partch lived from 1901 to 1974. Others can and have told his story better than I can or will.
I'm instead going to take one little snippet from the Partch story, and use it to expand on an altogether different theme. Partch, for those unfamiliar with his work, composed music. He invented his own instruments, designed to play in scales which he felt corrected the impure scales which western music used.
The resulting works achieve a distinctive sound, sometimes very accessible to modern ears, and sometimes a bit astract or even seeminly unmelodious.
Partch, like a lot of folks, spent a lot of his career being told that he was a genius, and yet feeling that the (to my mind remarkably considerable) assistance he received with his music demonstrated a woefully inadequate appreciation for his work. Like much of the avant garde, one now hears little actual Partch performed, but tons of Partch-influenced work in everything from luxury car commercials to
suspense film soundtracks. To illustrate how wide his swath cuts, it is almost impossible to conceive of either Tom Waits' latter albums nor most early Residents albums without the Partch influence. To me, he is niftier than a gamelan, and that's saying something.
When Partch took a free hand and composed works "in his element", he took us to alternative galaxies with life on different and altogether human planets. I am thinking now of a passage in his work "The Delusion of the Fury". It's a bit of fevered percussion, which sounds like a cross between a frenetic gamelan and
those curious wooden percussion instruments that rock drummers used to play,which sound for all the world like someone making a "clock, clock, clock" sound with one's cheeks, or striking wood with a wooden mallet.
Even if one does not (and, indeed, I do not) understand all the theories of Partch's music, one hears that passage of staccato-wonderful percussion and one is just at one with the man.
I do not write, tonight, though, to merely praise Partch, but instead to praise this notion of theory made flesh. I believe that words do become flesh and dwell among men. If one accords the Idea the power to positively transform life, then we may one day live in a world in which people do not cross borders to slaughter children.
So many times the power of ideas and imagination is overlooked. Who could "see" that mold contamination could result in penicillin? Who could understand that the fossil record disproved matters accepted not just as fact but as the fabric of reality? Both leaps required ideas, and imagination.
Our own country has seen the virtue of the Idea, and the vice of limiting the Idea. Our "founding fathers" understood that people could live as if other people had "inalienable rights", as if people were ordained by a higher power to be treated with dignity. The same group that adopted this historic document, though, also countenanced slavery and even assessed a slave as 3/5 of a person for voting census purposes. Yet despite the serious flaw in implementation, the idea that people should have rights outlasted the flaws in the people who put the idea into place.
I think of Roger Williams, who preached civil religious tolerance, even though his own theology did not admit of universal salvation. Williams understood that freedom of religion need not be stifled as an article of faith. In this time, he won minimal credit for this notion.
I think of Galileo, forced to recant on penalty of potential death merely for accepting and expanding the proof of the idea of what we now consider rather elementary truth. I'm amused, suddenly by the idea of our local state textbook officials, notorious "stealth" anti-science forces with a fundamentalist agenda, insisting that the textbooks be written because the theory of the earth revolving around the sun is only a hypothesis.
But in addition to the "great" ideas of science and politics, imagine liquid paper.
Someone rather humble thought of this notion, and made a fortune with it. Picture Les Paul, exploring the potential of an electrified guitar. For that matter, imagine Sun Records, where the studio understood that a new music could be born,
emanating from country kids melding sounds. In a more recent time, who would imagine an on-line auction modeled essentially on a high tech yard sale would be perhaps the first truly profitable internet company?
But I'm intrigued not only by the ideas which work, but also by the crucible of ideas. It is my wholly unoriginal theory that in order to generate one good scientific discovery, we must have dozens upon dozens of flawed theories. In order to make social change, new ideas must be trotted out and tested and in the main discarded.
So often it's easy to think that someone without money or power or official approval must also be without gifts or talents. But the facts don't support that form of thinking. People we read today sometimes nearly wholly failed in their own era. The popular literature, including the "critically acclaimed" literature, of a different era may be obscure today.
I think that one thing important to remember is how often people who made a real contribution labored in complete obscurity. An advance in theoretical science may not be recognized as amazing for a generation or two. A "crackpot" historical theory can become accepted as more evidence assembles to support it.
I do not mean to say "the wild-eyed idea is always right". Mr. Hal Lindsay promised us Armageddon, accompanied by a descent of the great Communist bear. That didn't happen on his timetable. The fabians were sure that socialism would phase in as naturally as the evolution of society towards justice and equality. Two World Wars later, fabianism has lost its luster, a bit. Th 20th Century (and the 14th, which seems to revisit us today) proved that power and cruelty can co-opt what seemed to be constructive ideas for reform and rejuvenation, and that some ideas of the most barbarous sort can be put to predictably barbarous uses. I speak tonight, though, of the benign idea, of the idea which is bread, rather than a serpent.
I must confess that I love that musicians release music into the ether of the internet that only dozens hear. I love the unheralded theologian, the football coach in favor of running the outmoded formation, and the self-published poet, trying to create a new "aesthetic".
I wonder, sometimes, if we spent more time on the pursuit of individual theory, and less time on mass consumption of culture, if we would not have a better world.
I love TV, don't get me wrong. But there's a sense of community in pursuing one's own private Key to All Mythologies, cautionary novels aside.
I sometimes follow the modern fashion of denigrating those whose work is not tangible or obvious. But so many things I find of use are neither tangible nor obvious. Life is too short to live always in other's expectations of one. Granted that the first law is compassion, perhaps the second may be whimsy. And the third law? Why, the Idea, of course. Compassion, Whimsy, and the Word. In this three lies everything.
The urge to create can lead down so many useful alleyways. The need to explore an idea can transform oneself, and one's surroundings. If one can just put aside the
self-derision, who knows what can be accomplished? It's a matter of being able to conceive a thought, and to live as if that thought mattered.
It's a faith thing, really. One must believe in the things in which one affects to believe. It's not that one will find happiness or success--it's that one will find a kind of active peace with oneself. Who knows? Maybe others will find it, too, in what results.
I do not believe that all theories are universally true. But everything we learn as a species began as a thing someone else scorned. I take some lessons from that.