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A Speech-Musical Modernism: Harry Partch's Lyric Media

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Abstract

Recent work at the intersection of literary history and sound studies has taught us to regard lyric poetry as a sonic medium in its own right, but what sort of medium is it? This article unfolds lyric's intrinsic intermediality by way of the American composer Harry Partch and his brief collaboration with William Butler Yeats. Rekindling Yeats's turn-of-the-century dream of a new art uniting word and music, Partch's experiments setting poetry to microtonal music involved notating the subtle melodies of speech with new scales and instruments–homemade lyres, in fact. Built to compete with the phonograph, these new-old media pressed lyric to its absolute limit as a symbolic medium, clarifying both lyric's intermediality and its sensitivity to technological change. When Partch, who spent several years as an itinerant “hobo” in the 1930s, transplanted his Yeatsian speech-music to the transient shelters of the Depression-era West and began notating migrant voices, this compositional practice heralded unprecedented possibilities for the literary inscription of speech.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © 2020 Matthew Kilbane

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