Arroyo Grande composer Garry Eister will watch Sunday’s Grammy Awards in style this year — from a seat in the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
He’s nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium along with the rest of the musical ensemble Partch, a Los Angeles-based group dedicated to performing and recording the work of experimental 20th-century composer Harry Partch.
“I was very happily surprised,” said Eister, who spent 20 years teaching elementary school in Santa Maria and the Five Cities area before retiring. “It’s too unusual.”
Eister first encountered the work of Partch — a California composer whose work with microtonal music theory, coupled with his interest in ancient Greek drama, African theater and Chinese opera, inspired him to invent and build several specialty instruments — as a college student in the early 1970s.
Eister, who also attended San Luis Obispo High School and Cuesta College, earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in music composition at UC Santa Barbara.
Years later, he ran into a former classmate, guitarist/composer John Schneider, in downtown San Luis Obispo and agreed to attend a Harry Partch Centennial Celebration at UCLA. It was Schneider, who teaches music at Pierce College in Los Angeles, who convinced him to join Partch around 2000.
The group’s latest album, “Harry Partch: Bitter Music,” takes its inspiration from a travel journal the composer kept while wandering the West Coast during the Depression. It was later published in Partch’s 2000 book, “Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos.”
“Our album is kind of like an audiobook with lots and lots of music examples,” Eister said, describing “Bitter Music” as “a very humane document.”
“Put yourself in his shoes for a minute,” Eister said. “Here you have an extremely intelligent man who, suddenly, during the Great Depression, finds himself without material support. ...
“For reasons that were ‘psychologically confused,’ ” he added, using the composer’s own term, “he decided to hit the road and be a hobo.”
Eister sings and plays piano on “Harry Partch: Bitter Music,” released by Bridge Records in December 2011.
Schneider sings and plays adapted viola and adapted guitar — two instruments Partch created — while Richard Valitutto plays piano and Paul West plays kithara, an ancient Greek instrument similar to a harp.
Partch’s album is competing against two others in the Grammys’ newly created Best Classical Compendium category: “Penderecki: Fonogrammi; Horn Concerto; Partita; The Awakening Of Jacob; Anaklasis,” which features works by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and “Une Fête Baroque,” a collection of Baroque opera compositions.
Although Eister wouldn’t speculate on Partch’s chances of winning, he said, “In our house, we already feel like it’s a win having been nominated.”
"Harry Partch: Bitter Music"
Partch (John Schneider, Garry Eister, Richard Valitutto, Paul West, Harry Partch — composer)