Difficult Listening Hour: Beck's Harry Partch Tribute

Of course NME and Pitchfork are trying to make it all about a beef with Radiohead (who, by the by, do tend to get overpraised even though, no, they don’t blow) but the point is: Beck has a new song up for streaming on his website. Be patient if it takes some time to load (as it did for me). The new track isn’t actually “10 and a half minutes of insanity,” though “Harry Partch” is indeed a very engaging and lovely tribute to the American oddball composer of the same name.

Don’t worry if you don’t know from microtonal composers. Basically, during the 20th century, it was the real crack for oddball composers to break all the rules. Partch was one of ’em, and he invented a WTF 43-tone system (again, don’t sweat this beyond knowing it’s unusual). Beck’s song reportedly takes on the task of running through that very same just-intonation scale (though it seems with the help of some pitch-bending software). If you’re curious, the indispensable Avant Garde Project has a vinyl rip of the old Columbia LP The World of Harry Partch available to download in mid-quality mp3 here. (Album notes and fidelity-geek FLAC files are available here.)

But back to Beck. Great to hear him stretching out like this on his website. Fuck a record contract; I want this kind of music from him. This 10 minute opus may actually outstrip Prince’s classically strange “Crystal Ball” for the distinction of “most adventurous extended composition by a mainstream(-ish) star.” I’m not sure, but around the 3:40 mark, I think I hear Beck singing the word “Barstow,” a town in California, home of the 1941-era graffiti that apparently inspired Partch to write one of the compositions on the above-mentioned Columbia LP.

Though I haven’t been able to reach Beck for comment (ha), my guess is he’d like you to spend not that much time worrying about boring indie-band beefs today, and instead luxuriate a bit in the wondrous legacy of mostly-unknown composer awesomeness.

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.