music history, there has never been anyone like composer
Harry Partch (1901-1976), grand master of "the
rebellious creative act." No one even comes close.
wasn't just that he rejected all of Western music
and the equal-tempered 12-note octave that it has
been dependent on, tied to and made of for the last
millennium (or more). Not just that he adapted a 43-note
octave based on the ratios of a string's harmonic
series. Not just that he forged his own difficult
and painstaking path, with eight years as a hobo riding
the rails through the southwest during the Depression
and then decades as champion and performer of his
music, recording it—luckily for us—using
backyard studios, overdubbing and a continual parade
of musicians both professional and novice, until his
death in 1976.
just his commitment to the integration of theatricality
and music, driven by the compelling personality and
communicative powers of the man himself, delivered
and explained in a large body of highly original writing
including essays, texts and scenarios, journals and
his magnum opus Genesis of a Music
(which Partch put through ten rewrites before its
this is before even mentioning the Partch instruments,
which are at the center of the creative impulse, inseparable
from both the music and the man. Partch had to
build his instruments to make his music—and
in turn his music led him to create more and more
instruments to birth it into being.
built and rebuilt, retuned, restored and improved
upon the instruments throughout 40 years. As a result,
they seem to be encoded with a testimony of his life-experiences.
The materials they're made of, the places they were
invented and the music that evolved because of them
tell his story. Most telling of all, however, was
the fact that in his work there was a movement over
many years from his original concept of a single vocal
line accompanied by a single instrument, carefully
molded from microtones to resemble human speech but
without specific notated rhythms ("17 Songs of
Li Po," 1931-33), to the completely different
style of "On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma"
(1963-66), which is non-vocal, purely instrumental
music in complex rhythmic layers, showcasing the magical
and extensive collection that the instrumentalist
had grown to be.
is inherent in the being of the creative art worker
to know and understand the materials he needs, and
to create them where they do not exist, to the best
of his ability," Partch wrote for the notes of
one of his recordings. His beautiful, sculptural instruments
had names that were metaphoric, whimsical, nature-riddled
and suggestive: Eucal Blossom, Gourd Tree, Blo-boy,
Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Harmonic Canon, Zymo-Xyl, Blue
Rainbow, Boo, Castor and Pollux and Quadrangularis
Reversum, to mention a few. He grounded his descriptions
of them in the body and in nature ("A branch
with an appropriate crotch extends from a redwood
base; one arm above the crotch is cut at the top.").
collected ensemble looks like the artifacts of some
imaginary ethnic group, a compost of allusions to
flower stems, tendons, sexual organs, claws, stamens,
dismembered limbs, petals," wrote Bob Gilmore
in his excellent biography of Partch. They were made
from "bamboo from the Philippines, Japan, San
Diego; American redwood, Brazilian rosewood, African
padouk, eucalyptus, sitka spruce; light bulbs, bottles,
guitar strings, Pyrex bowls, brass cartridge shells,
wrote, "Primitive man as I imagine him...found
magical sounds in the materials around him—in
a reed, a piece of bamboo, a particular piece of wood
held a certain way, or a skin stretched over a gourd
or a tortoise shell: some resonating body. He then
proceeded to make the object, the vehicle, the instrument,
as visually beautiful as he could. His last step was
almost automatic: the metamorphosis of the magical
sounds and visual beauty into something spiritual...These
acts...became the trinity of this work: magical sounds,
visual form and beauty, experience-ritual."
believed in a unity of music and drama, taking as
a model the ancient Greek dramas that were spoken,
acted and played. "I must decline to limit the
dimensions of my rather intense beliefs by the modernly
specialized word 'music,'" he wrote, listing
his influences as "Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes,
Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese
music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among
others." Growing up with missionary parents in
a house in which Mandarin was often spoken and Yaqui
Indians were not far off, Partch had experienced these
in the course of his early life in the Southwest.
was a lonely childhood, punctuated by the whistle
of passing trains—a sound that would become
a lifelong obsession. (Partch created an instrument
to replicate that sound.) After both parents died
within a short time, his father of illness and his
mother when struck by a San Francisco streetcar, Partch
rejected the classical music world with its conservative
programming, excessively genteel audiences and stiff
concert hall etiquette. On these, he would vent his
contempt for the rest of his life. "Ritual of
classroom double-talk and creed of safety-deposit-box
dogma have vested the high priests of the musical
academy with a calcification the envy of every other
bone of human endeavor," he wrote.
1923, Partch encountered an 1885 translation of a
book by music theorist Hermann Helmholtz, which dealt
with ratio relationships of the vibrating string.
Actually a return to ancient Greek concepts, this
opened the door to the work that occupied the rest
of his life. Partch rejected the 12-note octave scale
and experimented with microtonal systems from 1928 to
1935. He used first a 29-note scale, then 55-, 39-
and 37-note scales, before settling on his 43-note
system. Instead of calling notes by seven letter names
(A through G, with sharps and flats), he used a ratio-based
numbering system and invented the further notations
he needed, instrument by instrument. This included
color-coding, directional arrows and staffs that followed
the instruments' shapes and numbered strings. About
his microtonal keyboard, the Chromelodeon, he wrote,
"The keyboard is not changed in any way, but
the [normal 12-note octave] occupies...some three
and a half keyboard octaves.... The playing of a 1-5-3
triad is only possible with two hands."
used this analogy: "In his mind [the artist]
approaches the reds. For his brush's immediate use
he sees a carmine, a vermilion, a scarlet, a cerise,
a garnet, a ruby, and verging off into other color
values are an orchid and a magenta, a nasturtium and
an orange, and a sienna, a rust, and an ochre....
Consider the writer of music. Before him is also a
scale. It holds seven white keys and five black ones.
In his mind he approaches C sharp, one of the five
blacks. He approaches it, and he lands on it.... There
are no shades of C sharp, no shades of red, for him."
sought to bring out the inherent musicality of speech
contours, the "intrinsic music of spoken words."
In his journals, he notated speech patterns into musical
lines. Over the years, his texts ranged from work
of many poets, including Li Po and Rimbaud, to scenes
from Shakespeare, hitchhikers' inscriptions, newsboys'
cries, wartime broadcasts, excerpts from Lewis Carroll,
Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce and Yeats and his original
material. The journal he kept during the Depression,
when he rode the rails and lived in the transient
communities for vagrants set up by the WPA, became
the source for his hybrid text for "The Wayward," an
important early work.
always-broke Partch gave private and public demonstrations
and concerts of his work wherever he could. He lived,
among other places, in San Francisco, New Orleans,
Los Angeles, Pasadena, Big Sur, Urbana (Illinois),
Wisconsin, Sausalito, Petaluma and Venice Beach, Louisiana,
moving fifteen times in sixteen years. "In the
last ten years I've had my things 'right with me'
only about two and a half," he said in 1947.
His maintenance, storage and transportation difficulties
and costs increased as his instrument collection grew
to weigh two tons. It seemed he had no sooner made
a suitable studio than it was time to move, due to
a building's demolition or sale or his own restlessness
and dissatisfaction. Excruciatingly lonely at times
and often plagued by depression, Partch still continued
1953, he moved into an abandoned shipyard in Sausalito,
California, named it "Gate 5" after a sign
on the door and formed the Gate 5 Ensemble. By producing
and selling his own Gate 5 recordings, he supported
himself. Though dealing with bouts of illness and
alcoholism, he had extraordinary friends and dedicated
musicians—amateur, student and professional—to
work with. And he was known to make personal visits
to strangers who had ordered his recordings, when
he found himself in their towns.
the '70s, he composed his last work, text and
music for the film The Dreamer That Remains.
In failing health, Partch did not have long to live,
but this film and four others, as well as the many
recordings of him playing and singing in his distinct
bass voice, document his spirit and satiric wit.
believe in many things," he wrote, "in an
intonation as 'just' as I am capable of making it,
in musical instruments 'on stage,' dynamic in form,
visually exciting. I believe in dramatic lighting,
replete with gels, to enhance them. I believe in musicians
who are 'total' constituents of the moment, irreplaceable,
who may sing, shout, whistle, stamp their feet. I
believe in players in costume, or perhaps half-naked,
and I do not care which half.... I believe in a total
integration of factors, not as separate and sealed
specialties in the artificially divorced departments
of universities, but of sound and sight, the visually
dynamic and dramatic, all channeled into a single,
wholly fused, and purposeful direction."
Partch instrument collection, intact and carefully
maintained, is in the dedicated hands of composer
Dean Drummond's nine-member ensemble, Newband. A group
that would have been the realization of a dream to
Harry Partch, Newband is made up of the finest percussion
and other instrumentalists imaginable. Newband performs
Partch's music and new works live on three CDs, two
on Mode and the other on Music and Arts (www.spyral.net/newband). A fourth CD
is in progress.
CDs, 751-4, from Composers Recordings, Inc., span
three decades of Partch's original recordings, from
U.S. Highball (1943) to The Dreamer that Remains (1972). CDs 7000 and 7001 are available at bargain
prices from CRI's backlist.
American Composers Forum has a 4-CD set of recordings
from the Partch archives, Enclosure Two
(innova 401). Delusion of the Fury
is available on innova/Sony Classical. Available on
video: Enclosure One, four films by Madeline Tourtelot (innova 400)
and the documentary The Dreamer that Remains.
His earliest work, 17 Lyrics of Li Po, is recorded on Tzadic (TZ7012) by cellist Ted Mook and singer Stephen