Harry Partch was a classical music composer who invented unusual instruments to be used in the performance of his compostions. Hillsborough resident Paul West became familiar with Partch, who died in 1974, while studying for his undergraduate degree in music theory/composition at Montclair State University. The Cali School of Music at MSU is the home of the Harry Partch Institute, which has the largest collection of Partch instruments in the world.
Then, while studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree at the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles, West met John Schneider, a guitarist and composer whose concerts often included Partch's vocal works. That led to West becoming part of a quartet that recorded Harry Partch: Bitter Music (Bridge Records), the first-ever complete recording of Partch's rambling diary with music. On the recording, West plays the kithara, a 72-string harp based on the ancient Greek lyre. The album has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the 'Best Classical Compendium' category.
West, who grew up in Saddle Brook, is currently a teaching assistant at the Matheny School, part of the Matheny Medical and Educational Center, a special hospital and educational facility in Peapack for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. Hoping to eventually teach music composition at the college level, West learned about Matheny from his wife, who is a music therapist. He quickly discovered that his music background would help him in his special education classroom. "Music," he explains, "being extremely humanistic in nature, allows one to operate on a metaphysical level of communication." For example, West will hum into a student's ear if he notices the student becoming agitated. "This seemingly nonchalant gesture could be enough to calmly redirect the student's attention," he says. "Additionally, the intuitive aspects of creating and performing music -- knowing what another performer is going to do before they do it and knowing how to react without discussing it -- gave me the skill to be able to learn and read the students and notice when something was about to go awry." His colleagues must have noticed this calming effect because they nominated West as the Matheny School's paraprofessional of the year for the 2012-2013 school year.
The Grammys will be presented on February 10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, but, whether or not Bitter Music wins, West is happy that Partch will have received some recognition. "It's nice to see some kind of awareness for a great American figure who nobody knows about," he says.