Friday, June 24, 8901

Harry Partch (1901-1976) - Microtonality

Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974) was an American composer and instrument builder. He was one of the first 20th-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments that he built himself, tuned in 11-limit just intonation.

Partch was born on June 24, 1901 in Oakland, California. Both of his parents were Presbyterian missionaries; Harry was born soon after they fled the Boxer Rebellion in China. He spent his childhood in small remote towns in Arizona and New Mexico, where he heard and sang songs in Mandarin, Spanish, and American Indian languages.

Partch was sterile, probably due to childhood mumps. Most of Partch's loving relationships were with men.

Partch learned to play the clarinet, harmonium, viola, piano, and guitar as a child. He began to compose at an early age using the equal-tempered chromatic scale normal in contemporary Western music. However, he burned all of his early works after becoming frustrated with what he felt were the imperfections of the standard system of musical tuning, being unsuitable for reflecting subtle melodic contours of dramatic speech.

Since 1923, Partch had been working on a book, eventually published as Genesis of a Music in 1949. It is an account of his own music, with discussions of music theory and instrument design.

It is considered a standard text of microtonal music theory and expounds his concept of "Corporeality": the fusion of all art forms with the body as its central focus.

Partch is famous for his 43-tone scale, even though he used many different scales in his work and the number of divisions is theoretically infinite.

By the Rivers of Babylon (1931)

11 Intrusions: Study on Ancient Greek Modes (c. 1931)

17 Lyrics by Li Po (1931)

Interested in the potential musicality of speech, Partch found it necessary to build instruments that could underpin the intoning voice and develop notations that accurately and practically instructed players what to play. His first instrument was the "Monophone," later known as the "Adapted viola." He then secured a grant that allowed him to go to London to study the history of tuning systems and word-setting. While there, he met the poet

William Butler Yeats with the intention of gaining his permission to write an opera based on his translation of Sophocles's Oedipus the King. He accompanied himself on the Monophone while intoning By the Rivers of Babylon, and also transcribed the exact inflections of actors from the Abbey Theatre reciting lines from Oedipus. Yeats was enthusiastic, saying "a play done entirely in this way, with this wonderful instrument, and with this type of music, might really be sensational," and gave Partch's idea his blessing.

Partch set about building more instruments with which to realise his opera. However, his grant money ran out, and, back in the United States at the height of the Depression, he began to live as a hobo, travelling around on trains and taking casual work where he could find it. He continued in this way for ten years, writing about his experiences in a journal called Bitter Music. The entries frequently include snatches of overheard everyday vernacular speech notated on musical staves according to the pitches used by the speaker. This technique (which had been earlier used by the Florentine Camerata, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Leoš Janáček and others (and would be later used by Steve Reich) was to become a standard approach to vocal parts in Partch's work.

Barstow (1941)

In 1941, Partch wrote Barstow, a work that takes as its text eight pieces of graffiti he had seen on a highway railing in Barstow, California. The piece, originally for voice and guitar, was transcribed several times throughout his life as his collection of instruments grew.

San Francisco (1943)

The Letter (1943)

U.S. Highball (1943)

In 1943, after receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, Partch was able to dedicate more time to music. He returned to his Oedipus Project, although the executors of Yeats's estate refused permission for him to use Yeats' translation, and he had to make his own (a recording with Yeats' translation has since been released, Yeats' text having passed into the public domain). While living briefly in Ithaca, New York, he began work on US Highball, a musical evocation of riding the rails as a Depression-era hobo.

Plectra and Percussion Dances (1952)

Castor and Pollux

Ring Around the Moon

Even Wild Horses (Rimbaud) (1952)

And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1954)

Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1955)

Daphne of the Dunes (1958)

Rotate the Body (1963)

Delusion of the Fury (1969)

The Dreamer that Remains (1972)

Partch went on to write the "dance satire" The Bewitched, and Revelation in the Courthouse Park, a work based in large part on Euripides's The Bacchae. Delusion of the Fury (1969) is seen by some as his greatest work.

Partch created and maintained his own record label, Gate 5, to release recordings of his works and generate income. Towards the end of his life, Columbia Records made recordings of some of his works, including Delusion of the Fury, which helped in large part to increase public attention to his work.

He died on September 3, 1974 in San Diego, California of a heart attack.

Harry Partch's desire to use a different system of tuning inspired him to modify existing instruments and create new ones. He was, in his own words, "a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry."

His adapted instruments include the Adapted Viola (a viola fitted with a cello neck which extends the range by a fourth, and has changeable bridges to allow triple-stops to be sustained) and three Adapted Guitars: a guitar with the equal tempered frets replaced by a complex system of justly tuned frets, a guitar tuned in octaves, or 2/1's, played by moving a pyrex rod along the strings, much like a slide guitar, and a 10-string fretless guitar played in a similar manner to his other fretless guitar, but with a wildly different tuning.

He retuned the reeds of several reed organs and labeled the keys with a color code. The first one was called the Ptolemy, in tribute to the ancient music theorist Claudius Ptolemaeus, whose musical scales included ratios of the 11-limit, as Partch's did. The others were called Chromelodeons, a portmanteau of chrome (meaning "color") and melodeon.

Partch also designed and built many instruments from raw materials:

The Diamond Marimba is a marimba with keys arranged in a physical manifestation of the 11-limit tonality diamond.

The Quadrangularis Reversum inverted the key layout of the Diamond Marimba with sets of alto-range auxiliary keys on either side.

The 11-key Bass Marimba and the 4-key Marimba Eroica have more traditional linear layouts, and are very low in pitch. The Eroica's range extends well below that of the concert piano.

The Mazda Marimba is made of Mazda light bulbs and named after the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda.

The Bamboo Marimbas, nicknamed "Boo" and "Boo II", are marimbas made of bamboo, using the concept of a tongued resonator to produce the tones.

The Cloud Chamber Bowls is a set of pyrex bowls from a cloud chamber, suspended in a frame.
The Spoils of War is a collection of several instruments, including more Cloud Chamber Bowls, artillery shell casings, metal whang-guns, and several wooden tones.

The Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs are two separate instruments often played by the same player.

The gourd tree is a bough of eucalyptus supporting several singing bowls attached to gourd resonators. The cone gongs are two fuel tank nose-cones, mounted on a stand low to the ground.

The Zymo-Xyl (from the Greek words for "fermentation" and "wood") is a xylophone augmented with tuned liquor bottles and hubcaps (Partch lamented that there was no Greek word for "hubcaps").

The Kitharas (named after the Greek kithara) are large upright stringed instruments, tuned by sliding pyrex rods underneath the strings, and played with fingers or a variety of plectra. Their sound is one of the most unmistakable in Partch's music.

The Harmonic Canons (from the same root as qanún) are 44-stringed instruments with complex systems of bridges. They are tuned differently depending on the piece, and are played with fingers or picks, or in some cases, unique mallets.

In 1990, Dean Drummond's Newband became custodians of the original Harry Partch instrument collection, and frequently perform with and commission new pieces for Partch's instruments.

The instruments have been housed in the Harry Partch Instrumentarium at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey since 1999. In 2004, the instruments crossed campus into the newly constructed Alexander Kasser Theater, which provides a large studio space in the basement. Concerts by Newband and MSU's Harry Partch Ensemble may be viewed several times a year in this concert hall.

Many people have duplicated partial sets of Partch instruments including John Schneider, director of Microfest. His West Coast ensemble includes replicas of the Kithara, Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Adapted Guitars, Adapted Viola, Diamond Marimba, Bass Marimba, Chromelodeon, and two Harmonic Canons.

[8901 Hairston / 8901 Partch / 8901 Loewe]