1901-06-24

HARRY PARTCH, American composer born (d. 1974); A composer and instrument inventor and 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 he built himself, tuned in 11-limit Just intonation.

It is said that Partch was sterile, probably due to childhood mumps. Most of Partch’s loving relationships were with men. 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”.

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.