Helen Bledsoe

1’04: My Name is Helen and I play flute with Ensemble, with the Ensemble Musikfabrik. My first choice of Partch Instruments was the Cloud Chamber Bowls. Because I wanted to be part of the percussion line. Partch has, had such a wonderful sense of feeling, of rhythm and polyrhythm that I really, that it attracted me more at first in the actual tuning… universe was is rhythm universe and the sound of the Glass Gongs attracted me and also the fact that the, it’s a particular instrument, that you don’t have to be a virtuosic percussionist to play because you can’t hit them very hard and you can’t really move around them really fast. Even, even a good percussionist, it’s, it’s difficult because of the distances and you know you play squatting down and standing up. That was another thing that attracted me, is that it’s a very active instrument. You’re not just standing there and playing, you really have to go down [lowed] the bowls that are low and the high for the high pitch ones. And I notice, and I’m glad that I did that you know, I notice when I have rehearsals, when I play Cloud Chamber Bowls, and then I go back to playing flute, you know playing flute is such a static thing, and I, I’m much more, I’m tired, I’m exhausted after a long rehearsal playing flute, but when I’m playing Cloud Chamber Bowls and being active, I’m less tired. So I think that, that was a good choice.

2’39: But then I did become attracted to the strings instruments of Partch, especially the Harmonic Canons. Less to the Kitharas. The Kitharas are fascinating for me because of the number of [Hack sets] they have and the possibilities for tuning, but I don’t really like the sound of them, the way they are, I mean Partch was constantly developing the Kitharas, he went through many versions of them, he had a very primitive version and his latest instrument, the Kithara 2 is a wonderful instrument, and had he lived longer he would have developed it, and finally gotten the length, the woods, the strings sort of proportion rights so that it rings properly and doesn’t have a twine. But unlike the Kitharas, the Harmonic Canons have a wonderful [decals] of sounds, I mean a lot of it has to do with the fact that you have like eleven strings pitch to the same instrument. There’s a wonderful decay time. And this sound attracted me a lot more. Also the fact that he describes the Harmonic Canon as, in a way as a blank canvas. With bridges you can, you have this forty-four strings and you can draw it any way you want, make kind of a… you know any kind of tuning system you want, as long as you have the time to move the bridges. And you have the individual bridges, enough bridges to, to move them around.

4’09: So that, really did that I also did a lot of experimentation and came up with a lot of interesting tunings myself and I use the ones from the Genesis of Music which some of the ancient tunings are really beautiful. So that’s… Trying to think if I played any other instruments. Ah, I also played the Guba Guby, which is also know in Japanese as the hectora, I don’t see it know, but it’s the one  string gourd instrument that you also plug or hit and changing the pitch by squeezing the, the thin, the thin wooden plates. It’s rounded. So that’s the instruments. Anything else?

04’54: (Eleni) So just tells me a little bit about the Partch Repertoire, how easy it was for you to learn or to hear or to tune or what are the technical requirements that Partch had, and then go a little bit into the new commissions that were given, and if you had to do something extraordinary or you try to, try out something that was not at all in Partch or you didn’t came up thinking yourself that it was possible in all the instruments you played. And what do you think that are the possibilities, if you see any possibilities of developing the instruments further, or the notation that Partch uses, or especially for the Canons because I got some pieces and I got also a lot of recommendations of how probably that should be notated because we have this kind of blocks that have the same pitch and then, how fast is it for you to recognized the strings that you won’t plug because if you’re going up and down I suppose it’s easy but then if you have to be specifically […].

06’30: Ok so the new techniques I had to learn… Yeah the new techniques were basic percussion skills for the Cloud Chamber Bowls, but they were different from, you know, normal percussion techniques in a way, because, you know, normal percussionist will sit and do these sorts of exercises, where I had to do this kinds of exercises to play on the top bowls. That was all very interesting and I think very useful for my coordination. Another… the interesting thing about the Harmonic Canons, I didn’t really had to learn any new techniques. I, I’m an amateur harpist myself and it’s very funny because I think Partch had a… He had a misguided concept of how harpists actually play. He was allergic to harp players and said harp players should stay away from the Harmonic Canons, because he, you know, he said they, they plug the instruments with this sort of gentle thing, which is not true, I mean a concert harp takes a lot of strengths actually, to plug the instrument. But he knew it. I know what he’s talking about, he didn’t like this sort of (she plays) things. He, he uses it every once in a while in his pieces just for effect, but the technique of playing Harmonic Canons is a very, is a very robust one. You need hard picks, I don’t… this is not a hard picks, it’s a medium one, where you really… You, you have to push it down into the string to get a sound. (she plays) That creates the, the sound that he… That he is really, really after. It can also, as you hear from the other players you can [be…] those [summer?] sticks like this and that takes you also (she plays)… What is also cool about the Harmonic Canons are, they’re in a way they’re a lot a different instruments, to me, that seems to be put together. I mean you’ve got this sort of [zipper] (she plays) sort of sound, and you could also produce [cotoal] sounds by (she plays). And if you… if they’re [brittle] enough, it can even sound like a sitar (she plays) because sometimes you get the bridges that [brittle] more than others and then you have really cool sort of effect. With a raspy sound and an [then it go soundy].

09’13: Other composers have asked us to bow, especially the low notes, using a bow. I think Hannah can show you that, she probably has a bow and she can demonstrate that.

09’24: About reading a notation, I’ve got used to the Harmonic Canons notation for Partches instruments. They are a bit weird because if I remember correctly for eleven Intrusions, he numbers… he numbers the strings and… but it’s actually backwards from what you do, so when the notation is low, you’re high here, and when it goes up you, you move down the strings, that was a little bit weird at first, but that, I’ve got used to it. The notation from, for the Chromelodic Canon is the trickiest actually. Because you have forty-for strings that are really… you don’t have a [senctuense?]. What you have is a… You have one octave (she plays) divided in forty-three tons (she plays). This by the way has a wrong kind of strings on it. These are too thick, these are too thin, you need sort of something in the middle but we don’t have them. And because our Harmonic Canons have to be… they have to played double roles, this is chromelodic tuning now, but sometimes we have to tune it to the… eleven Instrusions, that’s pentatonic tuning so… we need these strings just to be easy, that, that’s another issue with Harmonic Canons, that’s the strings. Which strings for which tuning. But anyway.

11’01: The thing with the notation it is that it’s, it’s very difficult to see it and you can see that we’ve puts… everything with a division of five has the, has red tape here and the division of ten has the white tape so that you can orient yourself. You see that if it’s string five you sort of know it’s here and then string six… Partch normally uses these […](she plays) sort of effect. And this sort of play (she plays) and he wanted that. But with some of the new pieces, we’ve get thing where we need to go (she plays). Where you have to really just find our way around the instrument. And for that you sort of have to memorize because these aren’t instruments that we are playing since we’re young, like our own instruments that we learned at conservatory. They’re completely new to us so it’s difficult if you have a, a conductor standing there and you’ve got the notes in front of you in the instrument and you’re searching for string seventeen and trying to play on the third quintuplet of the… It’s, it’s tricky. And I wish, I wish the composers wouldn’t write like that but they do. And it’s much easier to do for Chromelodeon because it’s all there in the notation, it’s a little bit more pianistic, you know where it is. So there you go. Also Partch is guilty of that as well, in some cases, but normally he did that to accompany the singer, like in Ring around the moon for example. When you’ve got a voice going and he uses this Canon, he uses sometimes the same pitch as the singer’s high.

12’43: Singing is another thing. I’ve tried to do, not as much as Carl who’s the proper singer in our ensemble, but I’ve sang one of the eleven Intrusions and I sang Ring around the moon and… That’s… it’s also… Yeah I mean it’s a new technique that I had to learn as well. I’ve spend a lot of time taking voice lessons and it was just a very interesting thing because Partch it’s, wrote for non trained singers or singers that weren’t supposed to be operatically trained, he hated that kind of singing, but on the other hand, you have to have some kind of training, you can’t just get up, you can’t just take someone on the street and say “hey sing this”. You have to… You have to be able to, to know what you’re doing, and since, since the words for Partches music are so important, it’s, I mean you need to learn, like, like people on the radio have to learn how to speak properly. People who sing Partches music also have to know how to enunciate properly so that the words come across. And I think that it was interesting because at the, at the end of the day, the, once you can sing the parts, they’re very intuitive because he, Partch invented his microtonal system to, to fit the voice because they weren’t enough notes in the octave to express the range of, of human speech. So, it all worked out at the end.

14’20: (Eleni) so, how is the coordination with other people, with ensemble, especially if you have a conductor, because normally Partch did not have one, and do you experience any kind of difficulties, for example the tuning that not match, or the instrument is very week compare to other instruments, percussion instruments maybe… Do you have these problems or do you discussed it with Thomas and…?

15’03: it’s not [forcedly] the case that we almost always played with amplification, you can’t really get around it, especially if you have the Harmonic Canons, the Kitharas… And even with the Cloud Chamber Bowls, we know because we’ve recorded Delusions and we’ve been listening back to it. With the Cloud Chamber Bowls you’ve got very lowest gongs, glass gongs, you don’t hear very well. And because you know you have the microphones up here and the gongs are down there and it picks up everything else but not that, what it’s supposed to pick up. It’s a problem. But there’s… you always have to make comprefises… Comp… You always have to make compromises, even with amplification. It’s not a [perfect] solution either. We don’t discuss, or at least personally, I haven’t discussed acoustic improvements with Thomas particularly… So, I don’t know about that, but you asked about playing together, that’s… That’s usually… That can work very well if… But the problem we have is that we often play many pieces together, which require almost all of the instruments on stage. So even if you’re playing a small chamber piece, with maybe four instruments, you might still have, be very far away from each other, because you know there is a Kithara in the middle of somewhere because that has to be there for the other piece. These are practical problems, and for Delusion of the Fury, one of the things that Heiner did, Heiner Goebbles did, that looks very nice but it’s completely impractical and I don’t think Partch ever would have done, is to have everything, all the instruments on the stage in perfect lines, so that everything is very spread out and you see that, I mean… I think Partch hated straight lines, he would never have gone for that, but it looks really nice, but it also makes it difficult because you know you’re on a perfect line and you can’t see the Gourd Tree. I’m sitting here on the Gongs and the Gourd Tree there’s, there’s a Kithara in the middle you know and… But you, you get around that somehow. We had solutions that somebody who is in the front would actually give a beat for us. So… we find… you know we find practical ways around this sort of things.

17’26: You asked also about improvements to the instruments… Like I said, I think if Partch had lived longer, he, he was always improving the instruments and it’s just, you know that’s a shame he passed away when he did. One practical solution I can think for the Harmonic Canons is if you look at the Turkish Canons, they have on the side, they have all this little levels where you just go zig zig zig zig zig and you’re already in another tuning. It’s very practical. We can’t do that, we have to physically move bridges or we tune which is not recommended, even, even Partch says in the Genesis of music that, you know, string instruments are extremely conservative. You put them in a tuning and they stay there. And it takes you know weeks before those settle into a new tuning so any tuning that has to be done is better to move, is better to move the bridges. But that also takes time, if you, you can’t do that between every piece and if you spend the entire intermission of your concert moving tunings you don’t get a break yourself and then you have to play some, yeah it’s, it’s stressful. So, that’s, that’s why we’re a bit conservative here about saying “okay guys, let’s, let’s use Partches tuning and if you wanna [write] another tuning than make, make a small adjustment, that’s ok, but basically keep things the way they are.” So.

18’51: (Eleni) to come a little bit back to the notation, do you really want to see only the strings that you’re playing, because you’re trusting that the tuning is stable or you really need to have the sound result as well?

19’08: as a player I don’t need the sound result, it’s ok, I think the version that Caspar Johannes Walter has, is, is good because it shows the, the pitch and the string number in a circle on top… That’s fine. No I don’t… I think it’s good to have the resulting pitch just to know, see that you can spot mistakes or inconsistencies but for me, the, the inclusion of the string numbers is also a must.

19’40: (Eleni) And do you have a preferable system according to the approximation of, for example, are quarter tons better for you or simple that it’s higher or lower because… There is another problem about Ben Johnson actually has a lot of symbols for describing every harmonic and then in the end, in order to read a score it’s almost impossible, you have to learn a new language, so… Which kind of approximation you would like to prefer? Because other composers, I mean I know Johannes that has like a kind of seventh, eleventh and the fifth, and then everything is approximated to that, so actually three new different symbols, but I saw composers that had quarter ton and even eighth ton as approximation. Which makes that maybe a little bit easier to have like two different symbols extra than… What is that for you…

20’43: I mean as a Harmonic Canon player, as long as you have the string number, it’s I think you can be as precise as you want to be, because that main thing that you’re going to look at is the string number. I’m happy with Caspar Johannes Walter’s system because I think Partch only went up to the eleventh, or maybe… I think only to the eleventh prime anyway, so I’m ok with that.

21’10: (Eleni) And the ratios? Are you fast enough now or do you have to calculate, or did you had to calculate in the beginning?

21’18: To be honest, when, it’s only, for the notation purposes I don’t look much at the ratios, only when I have to tune the instrument am I really looking at the ratios. That. But when I, when I’m reading the music I prefer either the notes or, you know preferably the string number, but […] the note.

21’38: (Eleni) And would you like it to have it actually in blocks, I mean the notation, for example… I don’t know… like a…

21’51: we can go over there and look at the notation if you like

22’15: Yeah, like this, for Partch the string numbers, you see like a sounding here and… These are the kind of blocks you mean or?

22’24: (Eleni) no I mean like from one to eleven like as [block a], because then you find your orientation faster maybe if you have to play like independent strings and note. Partch did never use that, it’s like… Yeah, always…

22’49: this is Carola Bauckholt’s… Do you mean like this? No those are ratios…

23’06: (Eleni) I’m not sure […] like a… I think one composer from Poland which I have the score that he marked like the blocks like right, left, and block A and then…

23’21: Ah yeah, ah yeah, that’s fine yeah.

23’23: (Eleni) But […]

23’25: I don’t have those scores with me. That’s also, that’s also fine. Yeah.
23’31: (Eleni) good. And how did you experience the all project of rebuilding the instruments yourself? Did you took part […] active? No.

23’46: No I didn’t. Only in so far as once the Cloud Chamber Bowls was finish. They were cut by the glass makers, and when we got them from the glass makers I had to make the, I had to make myself the, the things that were hang. Thomas cut the pieces of wood and I had, but I had to take the rope a make the actual things that they, that they depend on… myself, that’s what… what I did.

24’17: (Eleni) and how was the project for you? I mean did you had feedback during the… all this years that… did you get to see the instruments in the making process?

24’32: no unfortunately I didn’t. I didn’t do that, I didn’t do that at all. [And you know] just a… No, I was, I wasn’t part of that. So, I can’t say

24’47: (Eleni) Yeah. So, I want to ask a personal question because that [invest] me. In case of what is historically correct and you mentioned that Partch would have continue to develop the instruments if he lived longer and that is my opinion, but I hear a lot of people saying that “no, they have to be exactly one to one because he wanted it to be that way and we don’t know if he actually wanted to develop them, and then we’re kind of interfering in what is in the composer’s, instrument maker’s idea and I wanted to ask what is your opinion in that.

25’37: well Partch… it’s not my opinion but you can see that Partch, he was, he was always making revisions to pieces like… I mean, take the Kitharas for example. They are versions where he wrote for a, a piece, I think an example is one of his songs, I don’t, I can’t remember which one. It was written for a particular Kithara and, you know, that’s, that’s the original version. But he himself revisited it, went back, because he invented a better Kithara, and he went back and he changed the score. And I believe there are, I think also his [… bewitched?], there are also version of that with different Kitharas because once he has something better he used it. And I, I don’t know I mean, I think if we get… I heard about developments that they’re doing in the Swiss re, rebuilding [all] the instruments, that they’re doing down in Basel, that they’re also improving the Kithara, they’re making some improvements. I think, I think that’s a good thing, I think you can easily play all that, all the Partch repertoire on those instruments. And what I think you have to be true to is a particular… I think, you know, what we would call the [Geist] of Partch. Because I mean he build this instruments so that they can reflect the tuning that they’re supposed to reflect and that they reflect the… yeah, the spirit of what he, the kind of music that he liked, which was, you know, he didn’t wanted to sound academic at all, he didn’t wanted to sound like an exact folk music, but it still, I think they still have to be made of wood or sound like wood, I mean if you made a Plexiglas Harmonic Canon that might be a little strange with a… Or if you decided to uses [goat] strings on them… That would be a little strange to, that’s also not really in the spirit of, of the sound that he wants. In my opinion. Yeah, I mean they are different ways of improve, improving instruments. You know, I think some could go in the direction of what Partch wanted and others might go in the direction of, you know maybe wanted to play really loudly, which would go against the, also the spirit of Partch I think. It’s, it’s just my opinion. But…

28’09: (Eleni) Could you tell me anything about the combination with classical instruments as we know how does this work, if you have to play the flute and the Harmonic Canon and what is it for you and how is the balance in sound, because Partch avoided that his all life, he never used…

28’29: oh that’s not true, no, he didn’t… I think… [bewitched?], if I’m not mistaking, yeah bewitch uses piccolo, bass clarinet and a couple of other instruments. It’s a great piece.

28’43: (Eleni) I don’t remember that, but maybe, yes, hold on / we’ve got the score upstairs I can show you / ok / I think it’s wonderful. It’s really, really wonderful, I [mean] as a combination so well. I don’t think he has combined it with many other string instruments, it’s mostly the percussion, the pitch percussion instruments and the classical instruments. It’s great. For me personally, I don’t mind and I don’t mind adjusting to the tuning of the string instruments… I don’t mind if it’s, you know, if it’s low enough, if it’s… if it’s in an environment where you can hear, actually, hear and adjust to it. If it’s theoretical, no.

29’25: (Eleni) for the new compositions that were commissioned, like, do you think it worked well?

29’32: In… Yeah, I would say it worked. Well is just a matter of opinion. I think Carola Bauckholt’s approach was really good because she also made the same attempts as Partch to reflect human speech and she chose instruments that could do that well, like a particular, a kind of recorder that Carl plays and the, and the violin, or the, the adapted viola, actually. So. Yeah, I think, I think as long as, as you can hear what’s going on and you don’t, you don’t have some approach “oh this is theoretical, I want to do this”, and you have to pull like an, the interval fifteen to eleven out of your pocket somewhere, and what is that… Then it’s not… you know it’s neither satisfying nor probably correct so… But if could hear, you could play.

30’29: (Eleni) good. Do you think that they are losing something, the instruments, if they’re not amplifying compare to other instruments? Normal instruments, I mean, do you think that the balance works the same for both categories?

30’47: I think the categories for all string instruments applied to even Partch string instruments, I mean the Kithara, the Kithara is still a Kithara, a harp is still a harp, the Harmonic Canons they have the same kind of strings, the same materials, they follow the same rules. As the percussion instruments, I mean a glass gong is a glass gong, and a wooden , you know a wooden marimbaphone is a wooden marimbaphone, except of course modern marimbas will probably be much more penetrant, no I take that back, the diamond marimba is extremely penetrant, it’s a very penetrating instrument. So, I think, I think it’s more dependent on the category of the instrument then actually if it’s a Partch instrument or a modern instrument.

31’34: (Eleni) how is it for you changing instruments during a concert? Your normal instrument that you’re [trading] to a Partch instrument and then back, do you change your philosophy, [like], body language that you…

31’50: Maybe unconsciously but… But I don’t think, I don’t think so, no only when I, like I said, when I play Cloud Chamber Bowls I think it’s the biggest change, because I’m really active with both of my arms and I do, I do change my posture and my attitude, also because, you know as a flutist you often are in front of the ensemble or the orchestra. You are front close to the conductor and you’re always like this, you’re way in the back, you are like the tuba section of your, with, if you play Cloud chamber Bowls because you’re always put way in the back, so of course you [had to do it] different, you have to be much more alert and watching people and you can’t always look at the conductor, you have to play so, yeah it’s different, completely different.

32’38: (Eleni) would you like to play me something or? / I don’t know if we have time, Hannah just… / oh yeah, we don’t, but thanks very much / sure.