The Dreamer that Remains
The music of Harry Partch
By Kate Light

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001


In 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.

It 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.

Not 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 first publication).

And 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.

Partch 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.

"It 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.").

"The 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, hubcaps."

Partch 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."

Partch 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.

It 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.

In 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."

Partch 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."

Partch 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.

The 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 his work.

In 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.

In 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.

"I 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."

* * * * *

The 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 ( A fourth CD is in progress.

Four 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 Kalm.