Primary Sources | Two Studies of Harry Partch: Conversations with Danlee Mitchell and Betty Freeman Jake Johnson

Harry Partch (featured image)

Danlee Mitchell (b. 1936) was Harry Partch’s confidant, assistant, and close friend for a number of years, and he played an especially pronounced role in Partch’s last decade. Mitchell was also a featured percussionist on several recordings and videos of Partch’s music. He now serves as Executive Director of the Harry Partch Foundation. I sat down with him on the University of California, San Diego campus on September 25, 2008 and discussed, among other things, Partch’s relationship with music patron Betty Freeman. 

JAKE JOHNSON: So a few questions. There’s not a whole lot and feel free to elaborate—or not—as much as you [want].

DANLEE MITCHELL: …as much as I can remember. It’s been a long time ago. I’m almost seventy-two years old and things are fading away.

JJ: Can you describe your first encounter with Harry Partch: when that was, the circumstances surrounding that…

DM: Oh, my first encounter with Harry Partch was when I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in 1956, and they brought him there to supervise a performance of a work of his called The Bewitched. And so I was a percussion major there—a hot-shot percussion major—and so I was asked if I was interested, and I said yeah I’ll check it out and went over to his—the instruments were in what was called a studio there—so I went and looked at the instruments and it was really quite interesting to see all those instruments, all percussion instruments (and that was the orchestra). And so I started investigating, started playing the instruments that first time. I was a good mallet player in those days, so I sort of leant towards what is called the diamond marimba and that’s what I played in the Partch ensembles. Then when I became a graduate student, I became his graduate assistant for three years and then when I graduated he also left. He was under a research support there, not a teaching support, so they supported public performances of his works—that’s how he got his work done there. After that, I graduated, he moved directly from Champaign-Urbana back to California, and I taught college for one year as a replacement and then for one year I was a member of the Oklahoma City Symphony and then during the summers of those two I went out and visited him. Then fortuitously in 1964, I was hired [at] the university at San Diego State University, [to be] on the faculty there, and Partch moved down to San Diego and our collaboration lasted until his death in 1974.

JJ: When you were playing these instruments in the ensemble, as a performer, was it a difficult task to adhere to his instruments, to his method of composing?

DM: Oh no. Partch is a Romantic composer. He writes music that starts somewhere and goes somewhere in a direct line just like the music of Western society, from Perotin to…some modern composers still adhere to this aesthetic of music moving forward in time with purpose and direction…

JJ: Linear.

DM: Linear. Partch was a linearist. He was just a Romantic, so it was very easy for all of us to fall into his music. Plus, the ensemble was a lot of percussion, some plucked strings, and some keyboards and the occasional wind instrument and/or bowed string from the orchestra but just a few instruments. But here we were, we were the music—we were not the color, we were the actual music—so it was really a satisfying experience to be in those ensembles.

JJ: That’s fascinating. I’ve seen videos—The Dreamer That Remains, the video that Freeman was very influential in [making]—and it seems like you all are having a lot of fun.

DM: You should see not only The Dreamer That Remains. That was his last piece, and that is not really a typical Partch piece. Typical Partch pieces are pieces like The Bewitched—I don’t think there is a video of The Bewitched, only audio—and Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and his last work Delusion of the Fury. Those are works that really are typical late Harry Partch theater—corporeal works.

JJ: Speaking of Delusion of the Fury, Betty Freeman was really influential in getting that produced.

DM: Yes she was. She was the money behind it.

JJ: Right. Can you…

DM: She produced it.

JJ: Can you give any insight into the struggles? I’ve read about the struggles involving the back-and-forth between bureaucracy…

DM. I don’t recall any bureaucratic struggles with that. The first director was on the UCLA faculty, and he was a very amenable man and he understood Partch’s concepts, but I think he felt that it just wasn’t his expertise. So the directorship was then given to a choreographer that had worked with Partch previously, and that was Jenny Storey and her husband John Crawford. He was the set designer and Jen Storey was the director and choreographer of Delusion of the Fury but for bureaucratic problems, Betty was the whole financial backing of that.1 We started with the instruments at the UCLA campus in a building that was actually vacated and was about to be torn down, and then they moved us to Culver City, and Betty paid for the rent of the studio there and she paid for the moving of the instruments as I recall; I’m sure it wasn’t UCLA. And then for the performance we came back to the campus to Macgowan Hall and I’m sure Betty paid for the transportation, probably UCLA and the theater department picked up the tab for Macgowan—I don’t know all these details and these details may be just lost in people’s minds and in records and whatnot.2

JJ: So, this is backtracking a little bit, but can you describe when [it was] that you first met Betty Freeman?

DM: I came out in here 1964 and got on the faculty as San Diego State University and Partch was already here living in the San Diego area. He had moved down from Pataluma, California to live down here. He was brought down here by some people from the University of California at San Diego when it was first forming in the early ‘60s. He was brought down here in hopes that he might fit in with the faculty, so that’s why he was here. His instruments were in a house that was rented for him in Del Mar, and it was pretty crowded. And I’m a little foggy on the chronology here; it’s all in Bob Gilmore’s book if you want to get the chronology right. Consult Bob Gilmore’s book and you’ll have the correct dates and everything.

JJ: Okay.

DM: But Partch moved back up to Los Angeles and he was brought up there by a gentleman named Emil Richards, or Emilio Radocchia, his professional name is Emil Richards—a very famous Los Angeles, Hollywood movie musician and jazz musician—and Emil was very interested in all types of esoteric music so he brought Partch back up to Los Angeles, sort of promising him that there’d be some happening going on up there.

But so Harry Partch was down here first, and then he left San Diego and went up to Los Angeles. Up there, for some sponsorship or something, he was sponsored to give a concert at the Pasadena Art Museum and Betty at the time, Betty Freeman as I know, didn’t know him, but she was a patron of the Pasadena Art Museum—a very important patron. I guess at the time also she was a patron of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, maybe other things. Betty, I guess in her younger years, was a musician, a harpist.3 I never heard her play harp, I never discussed the issue with her. So anyway, at this concert, this presentation, this performance at the Pasadena Art Museum happened and Emil Richards was the person responsible for getting all the musicians for the music that they played—not me, I didn’t even go to the concert. And I guess, as I recall from what I was told, Betty went to this concert and became enthralled with Harry Partch’s music, kind of seduced by Harry Partch’s music in a very strong way, and so she somehow met Partch, probably after the concert, and said, oh how interested I am in your music, can I get with you or something and we’ll talk about what you do.

So that was the beginning of Betty’s support for Harry, and I think in those early years she would support him with an amount of money here and there; maybe she paid his rent in this city, this suburb of Los Angeles, [the name of which] I’ve forgotten…it starts with “C.”4 I just can’t remember what it was. And this sort of blossomed to more support. Partch came back down to San Diego because support at the University of California seemed to be stronger, so the University of California, San Diego did get him a space to put his instruments, and they also put on a few concerts which were very successful here. Then Betty arranged for Delusion of the Fury to be performed at UCLA. She went, from what I know, to the department chairman at the time, Walter Grupseman, and said, I will underwrite this performance, and UCLA—with that type of support—became interested, and so it happened. Then after that, Partch moved back to San Diego again and died here, with the instruments in his house—not on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.

JJ: Partch was a colorful character…

DM: Yes, very colorful.

JJ: And Betty would often have to, well, let’s say they had to be somehow compatible to work together for over ten years. Can you describe the situation? What do you think made it work so well?

DM: Well, Partch was a very uncompromising person when it came to his own works. He wouldn’t compromise for any type of publicity gain or financial gain. He was very disciplined towards his vision and his ideas. I think it can be put very simply: Betty adored him because she was dealing with a very unique, creative, intelligent person. Partch was an extremely intelligent person. He had a photographic memory and he could assimilate things, he could connect two opposites in one concept, one creative concept. So [what] it boils down to [is that] Betty listened to Harry. It’s as simple as that. She was a good disciple and she didn’t argue because if Harry said it’s got to be this certain way, she would kowtow to it. Maybe she wasn’t that way with other people that she dealt with, but with Partch, that was their relationship.

JJ: And Partch had other patrons prior to Betty?

DM: Not in the extent of Betty Freeman. I’m a little fuzzy on individual patrons. Yes, there might have been people who helped him out, but [in a way that was] minor compared to Betty Freeman. Betty Freeman put a considerable amount of money into the support of Harry Partch: paid for rent of studios, things like that.

JJ: How prolific do you think her involvement was in Harry Partch’s music being known today and more in the last years of his life?

DM: Oh she was very important in getting Partch out. If it hadn’t been for Betty, Delusion of the Fury probably wouldn’t have been produced anywhere. And another thing I should mention is that in Los Angeles, with Delusion of the Fury, again Emil Richards was the gentleman who recruited all the musicians—these were top-quality musicians from the Los Angeles area. I was the conductor, and then after the instruments came back down to San Diego, Betty produced, funded the last biographical film on Harry, The Dreamer That Remains.

JJ: Speaking of The Dreamer That Remains, you were involved in the filming of it. Can you comment on the production aspects that Betty was involved [in] with Stephen Pouliot? Of the time she was there, the role she played…

DM: I think she is the person who somehow met up with Stephen Pouliot, which was a very good choice on her part, and Steve directed the film. He wasn’t the cameraman, a guy named John Monseur was the cameraman, but Steve directed—he was the director. And that whole thing went fairly smoothly, this making of the movie. Betty was involved in the final editing and cut of this film, which I think is a very good film, but the first big problem with that arose as they didn’t ask Harry, they didn’t ask Partch—I call him Harry because I knew him so well and most people say Partch—they didn’t ask Partch to come up to LA and help edit the film and that infuriated him. You’ll find letters to Betty and Steve about how they failed him in not letting him be a part of this. He liked film; he was involved with Madeline Tourtelot. I don’t know if you know Madeline or not. Madeline was a Chicago filmmaker and she was one of Harry’s patrons, rescued him after the first time he left Illinois. Madeline really rescued him and brought him from Yellow Springs, Ohio to Chicago where Harry did the soundtrack to Windsong and then she made the film Music Studio. Madeline was a very important patron of Harry, not quite to the extent of Betty, but Madeline was old money, Evanston, and so she had resources to support Harry—and Betty is old money, New [England].

JJ: Do you know much about where the money came from? Family?

DM: Oh, family, yeah. Although Betty was married at the time she was involved with Partch, she was married to a Los Angeles industrialist, I forget his first name, but he was an industrialist and I don’t know how close they were as a married couple who had been married with three children for probably at least twenty-five years. But there’s an interesting story. Betty found out that her husband, what he was doing in his business (he was making a lot of money) was he was getting videotape and cutting it up into audio tape, and you can’t do that. And she got infuriated when she found this out that he was not on a, not a person who was, you know, on the up and up.

JJ: Ethical.

DM: Ethical, that’s the word I’m looking for. He wasn’t an ethical person. I never met him. He was never around when I was at the house. He was always away somewhere. I did meet Betty’s children who were nice kids, they were in their, I’d say, over twenty [years old], and they were nice people. Betty was a very nice person. I really liked her and she was very honest, very direct, [an] uncomplicated type of woman when dealing with Partch and myself, anyway.

JJ: Can you describe [the] relationship you and Betty have had since Partch’s death?

DM: Yes, on and off. After Partch’s death Betty again produced at UCLA a San Diego production of The Bewitched. She financially underwrote the UCLA at Royce Hall production of that. She was very enthused about it. She also formed a organization called the Harry Partch Foundation, which is the receiver of the royalties of Partch’s music —that’s what it received, that’s what it owns is the royalties of Partch’s music—and at one point after Partch’s death and after Bewitched, Betty wanted to put Partch’s music, his manuscripts, letters and whatnot in the library of Yale University. She’s from New Haven and she probably has a connection with Yale philanthropically, and I disagreed with this and so at that point I claimed—I was Harry’s heir in his will, I was the inheritor of his estate, instruments, papers and whatnot. So at that point I claimed ownership, and not the Partch Foundation, because the Partch Foundation’s only claim to Partch was getting his royalties and being his heir; I claimed his instruments and papers. So I thwarted Betty wanting to put the papers and these scores and whatnot in the Yale library. I just thought it wasn’t the place to put them. The University of Illinois was the university that really supported Partch over the years and there was an archive started there by Tom McGeary and faculty composer Ben Johnson, so I felt that these things should go to Illinois; that’s where by and large all his stuff had gone. The biggest collection on Harry Partch is at the University of Illinois. Now we look at 2008 and the University of Illinois is not that supportive of Partch and his instruments and his music because it takes 2000 square feet to house the instruments and so, it’s sort of an impasse here. So right now, the instruments are owned by a gentleman named Dean Drummond, and they are at Montclair State University in New Jersey, which is not necessarily a high level music school, not like Illinois or Michigan or Indiana. These are the three. Oh I guess you could also say Eastman is one, or North Texas State.

JJ: Based on your relationship with Betty and interactions between Partch and Betty and yourself, can you describe any more than you have already her personal taste for music, or her aesthetic for art?

DM: This I don’t know. I only knew Betty in her support for Harry Partch. After Partch’s death—oh, let me back up again. When we were filming The Dreamer That Remains, I put a camera in Betty’s hands and said, I want you to please shoot some pictures because I was involved and didn’t have time to, I was playing or something and I wanted some pictures taken. She had no idea what a camera was. So I just said you advance the film with your thumb and you press the button and I set the camera up with the right exposure. So she started taking pictures at that production, The Dreamer That Remains. So after Partch’s death, or during that time, she became interested in photography because of that, what she saw she had done, and she took some pretty good pictures because I taught her how to focus the camera, how to press the button and advance the film—that’s all you had to do. And so she went out, I guess, and bought some really expensive camera equipment and started learning how to use it, and she incorporated it with her interest in other composers. What she wanted to do, I think, with her life was to support the musical arts and support innovative composers, which she did if you look at her photographic books. All of the famous twentieth-century composers, she documented, informally. I will say this: I feel Partch wasn’t beloved by a lot of the famous standard—Partch was not supported, by and large, by the accepted group of so-called contemporary composers, and you’d have to talk with each one as to why. It could have been because they thought he was just an old-fashioned Romantic, which he was—I mean, his early pieces are beautiful lieder, German lieder, only they are in English. They are the end of the Romantic art songs, Partch’s early music. Then his middle music was hobo music, documenting his hobo experiences. Then his final music was against the aesthetic of abstract music, it was totally against it. It was all visual, physical music, and I don’t think that the other composers of our Western tradition really understood or appreciated what Partch was. And Betty got involved with a lot of these people—I’m not going to mention names—but she got involved with a lot of these people. And I often suspected that these people pooh-poohed Harry Partch, it’s as simple as that, and she might have lost some of her enthusiasm towards Partch, who knows. You’ll have to find that out.

JJ: I wonder to what extent, because Partch was maybe not her first composer she supported but definitely her first significant…

DM: I don’t know. I think Partch was the first, but I don’t know. You probably know more than I do.

JJ: The only thing I know is she gave a small amount of money to La Monte Young to bail him out of a marijuana charge in Connecticut.

DM: What year?

JJ: That was in 1961.

DM: ‘61, okay that was before [Partch].

JJ: As far as I know that is the extent [of Freeman’s patronage prior to her relationship with Partch], and that was rather indirect. At any rate, certainly the first significant exchange she had with a composer, and I wonder—and you may be able to comment on this [further]—to what extent Partch’s aesthetic, [and how much] of Partch’s personality and the relationship they formed, affected how she interacted with composers and artists in her later years.

DM: I just think she went for people who attracted her by their unusual approach to composition, I think. And she went for some big names who had already established themselves and she wanted to get involved with her camera, documenting them, being in their circle. After her divorce with her husband she had a very strong relationship with an Italian sculptor named…

JJ: Assetto.

DM. Assetto. He was a really great guy. I didn’t see any of his works; all of his works were in Italy. But that was a really good relationship for her. He was a very competent, creative person, just the type of person that Betty needed, I think.

JJ: One final parting thought, unless you want to contribute any more thoughts…

DM: Well, what do you know about the dedication of The Dreamer That Remains?

JJ: Not much.

DM: You don’t know about that?

JJ: No.

DM: Okay, well, this is back—I’m sure it’s in Bob Gilmore’s book quite clearly. Harry fell in love with Steve Pouliot and it wasn’t returned and early on, Harry dedicated to Betty in the score The Dreamer That Remains—he wrote a dedication to her. And then Steve Pouliot came into the picture as the director and he and Harry became close, as they naturally would— he [Pouliot] being a director. As director, he wanted to find out more in depth about his subject. So Harry fell in love with him. He was a very handsome guy, Stephen Pouliot. And Harry changed the dedication of The Dreamer That Remains to Stephen. I would have told Harry, “don’t do this, it’s not a good thing,” to put it simply, but I had no control of it. It just happened, and there it was. So [it] hurt Betty considerably that Harry had done this, but I think she has gotten over this because her fame is quite impressive in [terms of] the fame of patrons in the arts and her creative work in photography. So that’s about the extent of what I have to offer, unless you have some more questions.

JJ: That’s about it. I was just going to follow that up with any ideas or comments about her personality, although you have given many accounts.

DM: Her personality was an outwardly reserved patroness of the arts. She didn’t seem to be, I don’t think, too warm to people, but she was very interested in the arts. She was very supportive; I’m sure she adored Harry. Through it all I think she adored him because I think he was the composer—she was responsible for a lot of his success, and he was the composer who may have [had] the [most] longevity or fame, although she was around some very famous composers. It seems to me that Harry’s fame is growing quite a bit after his death, while other [composers’] fame is dwindling after their death because some of these composers that are household names in the schools of music—schools of music still don’t understand Harry Partch. Schools of music can’t deal with Partch because if you are going to get into Partch’s music, you’ve got to retool your mind to different tunings and different symbolisms of tunings and it’s very difficult. It’s not difficult. It’s not. People are just overwhelmed at the initial confrontation of this. They want to understand Partch’s music. It’s all tablature so you would have to reduce everything to ratios and then know his tuning—his harmonic system—to figure what he did, and what he did to me was just Romanticism, though it was Romanticism in a very microtonal way.

I don’t foresee in our creative culture a breakout in investigative tuning in any strong way. Maybe I’m totally wrong. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see it. [Partch] is the person who realized that physicality and the visual aspects are important. Let me just say one more thing in closing, and that is: one reason Harry’s mature music is so—Partch was very influenced by African music and the music of especially Bali. The first thing he ever said to me when I met him was, have you read A House in Bali? I didn’t know what that book was, by Colin McPhee, and so Partch’s music is based upon the social foundation that you find in Bali and Africa. So I went to African and Bali to find this out, and those musics are all communal; it’s not done by professionals, it’s done by the townspeople in a very sophisticated way in both Africa and Bali. This is what Partch’s aesthetic is all about. That’s why his music is hard to digest by a culture like ours, which is not communal. It was before you were born, in the sixties and seventies, it was a very communal society. That’s why in the ‘70s Partch’s music was so successful, especially here in California, because I had a commune of musicians who were dedicated to his music, and that’s what it takes to really put together convincing performances of his theater works is a communal approach. And we had that. In Los Angeles we had a communal approach with Delusion of the Fury, at the University of Illinois we had a communal approach, at San Diego we had a communal approach. I just wonder if this communal approach is still in the psyche and the psychology of people today. I wonder about this.

***

I met Betty Freeman (1921 – 2009) on September 27, 2008, a little over three months before her death. We gathered in her Beverly Hills home, the location of so many years of soirées musicales devoted to contemporary music. She was frail, visibly exhausted from the effects of pain medications, and in a sling from a recent fall, yet she was in good spirits and always the polite host. A large David Hockney painting depicting her outside her home filled one wall of the dining room. Piles of photographs and memories scribbled on little scraps of paper or post-it notes littered the area; she told me she was rehashing the material she wanted to publish on the composer Harry Partch and quickly set out asking my advice on which of her prized photographs of Partch should go in what order within the text. In what was perhaps her final interview, Freeman allows glimpses into her fears that the music she long supported will not continue after her death, as well as the often humorous quirks of a life with Partch.5

JAKE JOHNSON: You were saying something about when you met Harry and first became interested in his music.

BETTY FREEMAN: It would be [the] 1960s when I first met Harry in Pasadena. I was working at Pasadena in [the] 1960s.   I was with another group—there were three of us, Leonard Stein and one other person—and we worked through the Pasadena Art Museum, which was then in a Chinese building, and we presented concerts—about five or six a year—to a small audience, maybe maximum a hundred people. I forget what the tickets cost; they were something like a dollar in those days for a real contemporary. The first person in our group was John Cage, you know in the sixties. And then I worked on the second concert of this little group and this would be 1962 or ‘63 and the composer was Partch, a guy I had never heard [of].6 It was the rehearsal for the concert, and so after the rehearsal I asked him if he would like to have a cup of tea at the nearby drug store and he said yes so we went for a cup of tea and he said that he had just given away his car. His car was in the driveway at the museum where we were and he had just given it away because he wasn’t going to drive anymore. It was some old car. So I said, well, I’ll drive you home. So we had the tea and I still remember that tea: he covered his mouth with a cloth—like a washcloth—through which he drank the tea which didn’t strike me as terribly odd, but I guess it is. [laughs] But nothing Harry did struck me as odd because he was so much a person; he was [very] together, actually. So we had tea together, Harry drinking through the cloth, having just given away the car. So I of course offered to drive him home. Little did I know that from then on I’d be driving him for the next ten years.

However, that’s how I did meet him—I did drive him home. He was living in the valley then, Van Nuys. I drove him to his house which was very hard to get into, you had to go in sideways and it was full of instruments, a little house he was renting in Van Nuys. He was looking to move because he didn’t have a car anymore, so he couldn’t drive to the liquor stores so he had to walk to the liquor store which was pretty far away so it was very inconvenient for him not to be able to buy a bottle of whiskey. So I did find myself offering to drive him and for the next ten years I drove Harry and that’s the way I learned the LA freeways. I would never have gone on them if it hadn’t been that he directed me onto them wherever we went.

He was ready to move from this little apartment where he couldn’t walk to the liquor stores, so I helped him find a new place with the assistance I guess of his friend Danlee [Mitchell]. We were able to move him from Van Nuys, his little house, to I guess it was West Los Angeles, Venice area. We did find a laundromat that was perfect because the laundromat had just closed and all the laundromat machines had been lifted up onto a one foot raised section so that was all clear and the machines had been taken down so there was this little shop with a one foot extension in the middle where the machines had been which was perfect for his instruments. So we moved all of his instruments into this shop and although it wasn’t legal he slept in the corner there—you weren’t allowed to sleep there, but he just put up a screen and just slept behind it. Everything was fine until one day he’d been living there for a while—we had already made a show for UCLA there—but there were a few black people which were causing him trouble because they were peeing on his store front. The little shop in Venice, I’d guess you’d say—these two men would pee-pee on the front windows. They thought it was funny. Harry didn’t think it was funny.

[laughs]

So he was all set to electrify the windows so when they’d pee they’d be killed. I think they’d be killed if they made pee-pee on an electrified window, I don’t know.

[laughs]

JJ: It seems like it.

BF: It seems like it’s possible. So when I heard that he was doing that I decided we should move. So right fast away as we could I looked for another place and I did move him. It was very easy to move him; he didn’t have that many instruments. He had a houseful but still we could move them, with the help of Danlee actually. So we moved out of there, we moved to another place and, oh, we moved about every year actually, and finally I bought a house with him in Encinitas. I think it cost $23,000, so I paid half of it—or somehow I paid the twenty-three or maybe he paid the other half—so we bought half, I bought half of the house with him in Encinitas, a very nice little house with a garden which he stayed in for about two years I guess, and he picked apricots there, he was in my film there. Then after two or three years he grew restless and wanted to move closer to Danlee Mitchell in San Diego. This was in Encinitas which is a little before San Diego. So he moved again and then again so he was closer to San Diego. So that’s how I met Harry. Then very fast, I gave up my half of the house, I think the next year. I made him a gift of my half of the house so he owned the house and he was able to sell it then when he wanted to move closer to Danlee Mitchell.

JJ: Partch was not the first composer you supported, is that right?

BF: I think that La Monte [Young] must have been the first. I still like La Monte, I do. I think he is a wonderful composer. He is now I guess in his seventies. I helped support Cage for all these years. I didn’t support him because every time I gave Cage a check, I gave him $5,000, which in those years was a good sum of money—I gave him $5,000 a year for years, it must have been starting about 1980 or closer, and I noticed that every year he endorsed that check—and I never said a word to him about it—over to Merce Cunningham. All of my checks were endorsed over to Merce.

JJ: Was he in more of a need of the money at the time?

BF: Well, I never questioned it, honey. That was really his business what he wanted to do with it once I gave it to him, so he gave it to Merce. He kept Merce’s group going with it, or helped keep it, for years.

JJ: Getting back to Partch, are there any ways that you can tell that by working with him he affected the way you worked with other composers later in the years? Did he alter your perception of being a patron at all?

BF: Well, first of all, I never thought Partch was unusual. I never thought he was freakish or that any of these things were strange, there was just Partch. The strangest thing about him was his system of talking in voices, which scared me at first. It was always Partch in another room, such as a bathroom, with another man shouting in a completely other voice. And the door would open and Partch would walk out with nobody else there. The first time I heard this was a little scary but after that I got used to even that. He never did anything for me that was unusual, that was just not Partch. Whatever he did was fine with me.7 Oh yeah, and then I did arrange that he had an opera [produced], an older opera, it wasn’t my opera.8 So I spent ten years with Partch and I never thought he did anything unusual or freakish except this talk in voices, which you get used to.

I never wanted directly to give Partch money. I wanted to do it indirectly, so indirectly I was able to give him a check for $3,000 towards the purchase of this house. I shared the purchase of this house, that’s what I did. I never did just want to hand him directly money. I always gave it to him through a commission or performance, actually, which I did. Oh yes, the performance was at UCLA in 1967 and it was one of his operas; Madeline Tourtelot had written it.9 I do forget the name. It took me two years to promote it to UCLA to do it and the music department wouldn’t do it.

JJ: This was Delusion of the Fury?

BF: It must have been Delusion of the Fury. The music department wouldn’t do it. However, the drama department did it and I had to sign a paper to cover the losses for the four performances. There were four performances on a small stage, however I did cover the losses but there were no losses; it was sold out. It was a little theater as I remember, and it was music by, I guess, Madeline Tourtelot—it wasn’t my music—and it was a big success.

JJ: It wouldn’t have been produced otherwise.

BF: Yes. Then he had to live near the theater so he could get to rehearsals every day, so he somehow lived in a little town near [UCLA], and the four performances were a big success. Anything else?

JJ: You commissioned many, many pieces. Is there a piece that you haven’t commissioned that maybe you wish you would have?

BF: [laughing] Well, I’m still commissioning. I’m commissioning Olga Neuwirth. I don’t know if you know that German composer. She’s a girl, just turned forty. She’s very good, honey. She was a friend of mine, and she went through a real, real bad period this year. Two of her operas were cancelled in Europe, in Germany (she’s from Germany) and that was a terrible blow—that they were actually canceled. She was in a real bad way. I got a terrible letter from her that I thought was suicidal. And so I gave her a commission, I gave her two or three commissions even, and so she’s been doing them so she’s picking up now. That I did because I really felt the need to do that. Oh, I have commissioned this marvelous Swedish composer from Stockholm that I like so much, and his name is Hillborg, his last name is Hillborg. I’ve given him a commission, I think about a year ago, to do a work with Esa-Pekka [Salonen] conducting with the LA Phil, and he’s writing music for it. It’s going to be with an eight-member chorus. A big piece. He’s such a good composer. You don’t even know his name?

JJ: Anders, right? Anders Hillborg?

BF: Yes, his name is Anders Hillborg.

JJ: I’ve heard of him.

BF: You have?

JJ: Yes.

BF: So this commission is for either [September 2012] or [September 2010].10 Anyway it looks like it’s going ahead. It will be presented in Chicago and LA and I don’t know where else. He’s such a good composer; he lives in Stockholm. If you don’t know his name, you will eventually. And there’s another composer I’m crazy about, and not everybody is; he’s unusual. His name is Gerald Barry. He’s awfully good, I think. He’s from Dublin, yeah. He’s awfully good, I think. Anyway, he’s wild and unusual.

JJ: I’ll ask you one more question: Is there a particular commission that you are most proud of that you have done? Is there one you could single out?

BF: There was one when I was involved at Salzburg. I gave a commission to [Kaija Saariaho]. I gave her a commission because I was involved with it [Salzburg]. And, I didn’t like the piece. I didn’t like it when I saw it was on water. Peter Sellars directed it on water: somebody loved somebody from afar and had to paddle across this water to get there and when he got to her he died, so I gave a big commission for that piece for Salzburg when Gerard Mortier was the head. It was called “L’amour de loin: Love From Afar.”11 Since I was the commissioner, I saw it the first time: I didn’t like it. The second time, I didn’t like it. The third time, I didn’t like it. The fourth time, I didn’t like it. The fifth time, I began to like it. The sixth time I really began to like it. By the seventh time, I liked it.

[laughs]

It was Peter Sellars’s direction on water and there was a little boat—the man who was infatuated with the idea of some woman across the ocean had [taken] a little boat, and actually Peter had four inches of water on this stage, and they did it in one of the theaters in Salzburg. They had a stage that was waterproof, and they had a boat that they paddled across in, the boat. When he got there—met her—he was on his deathbed and he died. So, it took me seven sittings to really like it, but I finally did in seven times begin to like it. But until then I thought it a little bit fancy.

JJ: Is that one that sticks out in particular as one that you were more proud to be involved with, that particular piece?

BF: Let’s see, that was Salzburg. [Gerard] Mortier left Salzburg, finished five years there, that’s right. He’s the one that was going to be the head of New York City Opera, but I think he is going to back out. They don’t have a place, there’s no rental hall. He has to raise all his own money. He has never had to raise money in Europe; everything is subsidized there. Everything. It is one hundred percent subsidized.

Well, I don’t know, you can commission and you can promote and you really don’t know for fifty years what happens. You don’t even know—I don’t even know—whether [Pierre] Boulez will be regarded in fifty years. It is very hard to predict. The music is long and difficult. You can’t predict. Or, let’s say, I can’t predict.

JJ: I don’t think any of us can.

BF: No. You can’t predict, for example, with John Adams, whether anybody will be listening to his music in fifty years. I can’t predict. I really can’t, based on the music. Let’s see, who am I sure of? I don’t know. Who are you sure of, fifty years from now?

JJ: I’m not sure of anyone. I have a few that I hope are still listened to. I hope [Morton] Feldman is still a big part of our lives.

BF: Oh! That’s very questionable, isn’t it? That would be a real questionable one.

JJ: He is one of my absolute favorites. I am really drawn to him.

BF: You can stay four hours and six hours?

JJ: I have no problem with the time; the scope doesn’t bother me.

BF: Oh, listen to that! I’ll tell you my one cute story of him. I was at CalArts with him, and we were walking down the hall from the music department and a student passed us and said to him, “Good morning, Maestro.” Morton went like this [elbow gesture to the ribs] to me and said, “Did you hear that man call me Maestro?” He was so surprised. I thought that was really dear, because he was already well known.

Now, when do you plan to graduate?

JJ: I finish [school] next May.

BF: Oh, well, you let me know.

JJ: Okay.

***

Jake Johnson is a cultural historian, focusing on American musical experiences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His master’s thesis examined the impact of renowned music patron Betty Freeman, and an article based on this work was recently published in the journal TEMPO. Other areas of interests include the avant-garde, novelties in popular music, performance studies, and American musical theater. Jake also remains a highly sought after collaborative pianist and musical director, having served on vocal coaching and accompanying faculties at Oklahoma City University, DePaul University, and the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, among others. In 2014, Jake began his PhD in musicology at UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles with his lovely wife, two brilliant daughters, and a standard poodle named Alice.

***

Notes

  1. Freeman agreed to UCLA’s condition that, in order to guarantee a performance, she underwrite Delusion. For Partch, such a demand only further implicated UCLA’s (at best) ambivalence toward his music. See Bob Gilmore, Harry Partch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 341-2
  2. MacGowen Hall, located on the northeast corner of campus, houses UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television
  3. Freeman actually was a seasoned pianist, having studied at Julliard and New England Conservatory after graduating from Wellesley College
  4. Partch was living in Van Nuys at the time
  5. Freeman’s incomplete manuscript for her book on Partch is housed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives
  6. According to Bob Gilmore, Freeman and Partch met in October 1964. See Harry Partch, 322
  7. In an earlier conversation, Freeman coolly related a time when, during the filming of The Dreamer That Remains, Partch, under the spell of his “talking in voices,”nearly killed director Stephen Pouliot with an ice pick as they all three slept in adjoining motel rooms. Disturbed by the voices coming from the bathroom that Partch had locked himself into, Pouliot awoke and slipped into Freeman’s room to discuss the peculiar situation. When the voices stopped, Pouliot returned to find an ice pick piercing his pillow and Partch asleep in his own bed
  8. Freeman is referring to Delusion of the Fury, produced at UCLA in 1967. She financially backed the production, guaranteeing any loss of profits due to a scanty audience
  9. Madeline Tourtelot, famed Chicago filmmaker, produced four documentary films on Partch between 1958 and 1968: Rotate the Body in All Its Planes, Music StudioHarry Partch,U.S. Highball, and Windsong. For more information see Philip Blackburn’s Enclosure series, available through Innova Recordings
  10. Hillborg’s Sirens received its world premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on November 25, 2011. It is dedicated to Betty Freeman and Esa-Pekka Salonen
  11. “L’amour de loin” premiered at Salzburg in 2000
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