I was reading today’s paper, looking at the obituary of George Jones, when I glanced across at a photo of someone who looked familiar. I realized it was Dean Drummond, an American composer, musician, teacher and acolyte of Harry Partch, whose musical instruments and scores Drummond assembled as founder of the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University in New Jersey. I was wondering what an arts piece was doing in the front section of the New York Times, when I realized, shocked, that I was looking at an illustration for Drummond’s obituary.
I was very lucky to have met Drummond at his Institute in the spring of 2011 when my good friend Michael Prince, a professor of American literature at a Norwegian university in Kristiansand, invited me to accompany him while he was researching Partch’s music for a book he was working on. Drummond was very generous with his time. It’s one thing to allow a fellow academic to sit in on a class you’re giving to post-graduate students, but Drummond didn’t give a second thought to letting his colleague bring along a friend, even when the friend (I mean, me) arrived late after having trouble finding the place.
The Institute is in the basement of a beautiful arts center at MSU in a large room filled with strange instruments of Drummond’s and Partch’s design. I recognized some of them from an album cover of some of Partch’s short pieces put out by Columbia records in the 1970s: the cloud chamber, made of giant glass bottles cut in increments and hanging by wires from a wooden frame to make one of Partch’s unusual scales; the kithara, a large stringed instrument; and the Chromelodeon, a harmless looking organ-type keyboard that makes otherwordly sounds.
I also recognised Drummond from that album cover. He has been a member of Partch’s orchestra since he was a student in at USC. He was virtually unchanged, except a bit grayer and with shorter hair. Drummond’s marimba-like zoomoosophone (the name of which I didn’t know until I read the obituary) stood on the other side of the room from Partch’s constructions (or, actually, Drummond’s reconstructions of them).
During the class, Drummond showed the video of a ballet set to what many consider Partch’s masterpiece, Daphne of the Dunes, as the students, Mike and I looked at the unusual score. He explained with some amusement that the choreograher, Alice Farley, had chopped up the piece to fit it on YouTube. He wondered why anyone would bother posting a video if they couldn’t put the whole piece on. Nevertheless, you do get a sense of the strange beauty of Partch’s music (and Farley’s spectacular ballet of it) from the video below :
Mike had told me that after the class, Drummond would be rehearsing student musicians of his ensemble Newband for a world premiere of one of his pieces that was just weeks away. I was also welcome to stay for that. We didn’t stay long. Drummond was annoyed that some of the musicians had skipped previous rehearsals, even though they ‘d been having trouble with the very difficult polyrhythms of the score. Although he didn’t show his anger, he painstakingly–and I mean, excruciatingly, painstakingly–stopped and started his musicians every nine or ten notes (it seemed to me) to repeat them until they more closely resembled the sounds in Drummond’s head.
I didn’t get to see Drummond’s premiere, and in fact I hadn’t heard any of his music until today. The video below is from a 2012 performance of Drummond’s 1999 piece Congressional Record, written to protest Congressional politicization of federal arts funding. You’ll get the idea why the piece has that title pretty soon into it:
I was lucky to meet Drummond, a true musical pioneer like his mentor Harry Partch. (Thanks, Miguel, for that privilege.)