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The Classical Avant Garde: Harry Partch and Greek Music

Sean Gurd

The University of Missouri, Columbia

Dissonance (Gurd 2016) makes the case that the remains of Greek song from the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE represent the earliest avant garde movement known in European cultural history, and invites a comparison between this tradition and the various avant gardes that populated the 20th Century (and, to a lesser extent, the early 21st). After a very brief overview of some of the evidence supporting the comparison, the purpose of this paper is to attempt to specify what it means to use avant-gardism as a basis for comparison in musical research. I do so with reference to the work of Harry Partch (1901-1974), whose life was dedicated to a self-consciously innovative musical practice that was also fundamentally about antiquity.

            I am aware of three ways of using comparative evidence. In the first, evidence from different cultures is used to supplement gaps in evidence concerning a target culture. In the second, a maximally large cross-cultural data set is compiled in an attempt to identify “universals” shared globally. This approach is particularly favored in biological approaches to music: neurologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary theorists alike have an interest in identifying musical capacities which are species-specific (Mithen 2007; Patel 2010). The third use of comparative evidence is less commonly found, but I would argue is critically important: emerging particularly in the work of Walter Benjamin (2002) and then canonized by Theodor Adorno (1998), this method involves finding and juxtaposing different phenomena without attempting to resolve the difference, but rather creating dissonances that, in effect, generate new meanings.

            My contention is that any posited link between ancient music and the avant gardes of the twentieth century must imply a comparison of the third, dissonant or juxtapositional type. The basis for comparison lies, primarily, in the fact that both modern avant gardes and ancient art music (at least before 400 BCE) sought innovation in order to achieve fresh sensation at the expense of commonly held, socially-enforced expectations. Both were, to put this differently, systematically contrary to prevailing historical trends (Poggioli 1968, Burger 1984). This implies, however, that the basis for comparison between ancient music and modern avant garde music is, in fact, no basis at all, but a common refusal, a common commitment to having nothing in common with anything else.

            Such a claim is, I recognize, paradoxical and perhaps infuriating, but it has value particularly in its ability to explain the curious and persistent fascination with ancient music among 20th Century avant-garde composers. This fascination I propose to illuminate through a discussion of Partch’s incoherent attempt to “revive” ancient Greek music through a resolutely modernist musical practice. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern that takes place in Partch cannot be resolved: rather, it generates something new from the dissonant combination of radical nostalgia and committed innovation. Points of reference for my analysis will be his major work of theory, Genesis of a Music, his settings of poems by Li-Po, and portions of his production of Oedipus Rex.

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Ancient Music and Cross-Cultural Comparison (organized by MOISA)

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