HARRY PARTCH was an American composer, music theorist, and creator of musical instruments born on this date (d: 1974). He composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, and was one of the first 20th-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. He built custom-made instruments in these tunings on which to play his compositions, and described his theory and practice in his book Genesis of a Music (1947).
Partch composed with scales dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones derived from the natural harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in standard Western tuning, which uses twelve equal intervals to the octave. To play his music, Partch built a large number of unique instruments, with such names as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl. Partch described his music as corporeal, and distinguished it from abstract music, which he perceived as the dominant trend in Western music since the time of Bach. His earliest compositions were small-scale pieces to be intoned to instrumental backing; his later works were large-scale, integrated theater productions in which he expected each of the performers to sing, dance, speak, and play instruments. Ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and kabuki heavily influenced his music theatre.
Encouraged by his mother, Partch learned several instruments at a young age. By fourteen, he was composing, and in particular took to setting dramatic situations. He dropped out of the University of Southern California’s School of Music in 1922 over dissatisfaction with the quality of his teachers. He took to self-study in San Francisco’s libraries, where he discovered Hermann von Helmholtz’s Sensations of Tone, which convinced him to devote himself to music based on scales tuned in just intonation. In 1930, he burned all his previous compositions in a rejection of the European concert tradition. Partch frequently moved around the US. Early in his career, he was a transient worker, and sometimes a hobo; later he depended on grants, university appointments, and record sales to support himself. In 1970, supporters created the Harry Partch Foundation to administer Partch’s music and instruments.
Partch met Danlee Mitchell while he was at the University of Illinois; Partch made Mitchell his heir, and Mitchell serves as the Executive Director of the Harry Partch Foundation. Dean Drummond and his group Newband took charge of Partch’s instruments, and performed his repertoire. After Drummond’s death in 2013, Charles Corey assumed responsibility for the instruments.
The Sousa Archives and Center for American music in Urbana, Illinois, holds the Harry Partch Estate Archive, 1918–1991, which consists of Partch’s personal papers, musical scores, films, tapes and photographs documenting his career as a composer, writer, and producer. It also holds the Music and performing Arts Library Harry Partch Collection, 1914–2007, which consists of books, music, films, personal papers, artifacts and sound recordings collected by the staff of the Music and Performing Arts Library and the University of Illinois School of Music documenting the life and career of Harry Partch, and those associated with him, throughout his career as a composer and writer.
Some of Partch’s instiruments include: Adapted Guitars and Violas; Cloud Marimba, Bamboo Marimba, the Bass Marimba and the Marimba Eroica; the Diamond Marimba; Cloud Chamber Bowls; the Gourd Tree and the Harmonic Canons; the Quadrangularis Reversum; Kitharas; the Spoils of War and the Zymo-Xyl.
He had a romantic relationship with actor Ramon Novarro.