Harry Partch: America's first Microtonal Composer

“It was as if one had drunk the music instead of accepting it through the ears…The affinity of his music with water, with the poetry of space, with fusion appealed to me.” –Anaïs Nin referring to the music of Harry Partch.

Part 1: A Thumbnail History

The early part of this century marked the beginnings of a vast cultural upheaval.

Advances in archaeological science and scholarly research into antiquity gave us a new found respect for the wisdom of the Ancients and extended our perspective of history by thousands of years. At the same time, the influence of the natural sciences on all aspects of life was profound, especially in its reestablishment as a factor in the creative arts. Furthermore, non-western cultures would continue to have an ever-increasing influence on all aspects of the western art tradition.

The cultural impact of this complex new awareness was widespread­. Ancient and near-eastern teachings were at the core of the Spiritualists & Theosophists, which included Blavatsky, Steiner, & Gurdjieff. Movements in the visual arts with Van Gogh, Klee and Picasso; in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright; and in theatre with Antonin Artaud were all profoundly affected by non-western cultures. At the same time humanity looked to science as a means of explaining the world. Light and vibration were revealed as having the same underlying physics, and new art forms such as Film and Photography were developed.

While many arts were enjoying a rebirth, assimilating newfound resources as inspiration, Art-Music was floundering in a centuries old system that was cracking at the foundation, the essence of which was only superficially affected by such developments.

The “crisis of tonality” at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was primarily a crisis of materials. Composers such as Mahler and Wagner had exhausted the rhetorical abilities that the 12 building blocks of tonality would provide. Atonality and 12-tone technique were a means of recycling a new language out of the remnants of a diatonic system. Because of the impossibility for exotic and liberating influences to have any effect on sound (the instruments and tuning are still the same) composers used a high degree of abstraction isomorphic manipulation of these arbitrary materials to convey rhetorically a new kind of music. (The best examples of this are Cage and Xenakis.)

It would seem then that to find a new sound one would first have to abandon the use of the ubiquitous intonational system of Equal Temperament.

Equal Temperament, since its conception on the “fatal day in Halberstadt [Germany, February 23, 1361]”1 when the”7 white 5 black” keyboard layout was invented by an organ builder named Nicholas Faber, had by the early 20th century become an accepted fact of musical existence. The musical education system in Europe, and its American cousin, had degenerated into an organ for its indoctrination. It is easy now to see how a creative individual living in such times could have been exasperated with the lack of resources that this musical “system” made available. Only a handful of courageous and furiously uncompromising artists found the energy and means to transcend this system, and Harry Partch was one of the first.

Partch was born in Oakland, California on June 24th, 1901, the son of Christian missionaries who spent much time in China, and who had assimilated enough of the culture they sought to convert that they could speak fluent Mandarin. Partch grew up in isolated areas of the American Southwest, hearing local Mexican tunes, Yacqui Indian music, music from cylinder records and his mother singing Chinese lullabies.

His mother fostered the children’s music education, encouraging them to play various mail order musical instruments; Harry took up the violin, piano and mandolin. The family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1913, and Partch spent his High School days studying piano and playing in silent movie theaters, graduating in 1919. Partch’s early development surely affected his ideas about music, and it is clear that he had intuitively sensed the limitations of Equal Temperament even at a young age:

“Before I was twenty, I had tentatively rejected both the intonational system of Modern Europe and it’s concert system, although I did not realize either the ultimate scope or the consequences of that rejection.”2

It wasn’t until 1923 when Partch discovered Hermann Helmholtz’s seminal treatise on physiological acoustics “ On the Sensations of Tone”, that he began to take seriously his radical ideas.

“Helmholtz’s book… provided Partch with what was, at the time, the most cogent and persuasive answer to the question that most obsessed him:”whether there was any logical reason for 12 tones in an octave…I was always dissatisfied with the explanation of musical phenomena given in school and by music teachers.” Helmholz was “the key for which I had been searching…”3

Helmholtz provided a foundation for Partch’s radical ideas in that he effectively bridged the chasm between the natural science of physiological acoustics and music theory, which had not been affiliated since Pythagoras’ discovery that proportional string lengths in small number ratios produce intervals. This “law”, – the relationship of musical intervals to the rational proportions of a vibrating string–is the starting point for all of Partch’s innovations in music theory.” 4

Partch’s official break with the European tradition occurred in New Orleans in 1930 where he burned 14 years worth of his compositions in a pot bellied stove. Among them a string quartet, nearly 50 songs, and sketches for a piano concerto.

His first instrument to use just intonation was a viola with a cello fingerboard attached which he called the Adapted Viola. The fingerboard was marked with tiny brads at the appropriate ratios and provided a means of realizing his new theories on Just Intonation. Partch’s work at this time was mostly compositions for voice accompanied by the new invention, among them the 17 Lyrics of Li Po, settings of Biblical Verses, and Shakespeare.

In June of 1934, Partch received a grant for a research trip to England, where he visited the poet W.B. Yeats to discuss his idea of setting Yeats’ King Oedipus using his new musical system, and to commission the construction of a reed organ with forty-three notes to the octave. During Partch’s meeting with Yeats, Partch played his setting of “By the Rivers of Babylon”. The flood of comment that Yeats offered at the end epitomized the “total comprehension” for which Partch had been searching for so long. Yeats told Partch that “a play done entirely in this way, with this wonderful instrument, and with this type of music, might really be sensational.”

When he returned, America was in the Great Depression. The years from 1935 to 1943 were subsequently referred to as Partch’s “Hobo Period.” During this time he wandered the American Midwest and his Journal “Bitter Music” is an account of the first 8 months of this period. Despite his transience and lack of means, he was able to continue composing and building instruments, among which was his first Kithara, an instrument inspired by a painting on a Greek Vase in the British Museum. The Kithara would become a staple instrument in the works ahead, and a symbol of Partch’s philosophical ties to the ancient world.

Partch moved to New York in the fall of 1942 and in 1944 had several works played at the League of Composers concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall. Among these were Barstow, U.S. Highball, San Francisco, and Y.D. Fantasy, which was performed by Henry Brant. The concert was widely reviewed and the response positive.

From 1944 until 1947 Partch worked out of the University of Wisconsin, presenting lectures and concerts, and finishing the manuscript of Genesis of Music.Partch was forced to leave Madison in 1947 because of lack of support from the school’s music department, and their refusal to accept him on its staff. “This would be the familiar pattern of Partch’s relations with academic institutions throughout his life: despite the enthusiastic applause from audiences and strong support from faculty and students throughout the university, music departments generally remained hostile and unsupportive, and there was always a shortage of space for his growing ensemble of instruments.”5 Partch, like other composers of his generation, suffered prejudices against contemporary and experimental music. Most American universities were steeped in the traditions and repertoire of Europe, a fact that led to his prolific output of writings, consisting of polemics against such orthodoxy, as well as writings on his own music.

In the spring of 1951, Partch moved to Oakland, California to prepare for the Mills College production of King Oedipus. The work was widely acclaimed in national reviews and press coverage. But even such critical acclaim didn’t make life any easier for Partch.

He was forced to leave Mills, and after relocating to Sausalito, set up Gate 5 records. Having his own label would allow him the freedom to record and market his work without being at the mercy of record industry bureaucracy, or of academic institutions for his income. The income he received, along with grants and help from friends and colleagues, allowed him to pursue creative work.

By 1955, Partch had completed another major stage work, The Bewitched, which was performed in March of 1957 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was to receive national reviews, but Partch was dissatisfied with the choreography of Alwin Nikolais, and vowed never to relinquish control of any creative aspect of his work again.

In 1957, Partch began working with the filmmaker Madeline Tourtelot, collaborating on the film Windsong, for which Partch wrote one of his best compositions, later renamed Daphne on the Dunes. Their collaboration was to yield several more art films: Music Studio (1958), U.S. Highball (1958) and Rotate the Body in all its Planes (1961). (These films are now available on video).

Returning to the University of Illinois in 1959, Partch staged another version of The Bewitched, this time with choreography by Joyce Trisler. He was to remain at the school for nearly 3 years, though his affiliation was with departments other than music; The Department of Speech and Theater, and the Activities Board of the Student Union. Thanks to this support, he was able to stage two more major theater works: Revelation in the Courthouse Park and Water! Water!.

Moving next to Petaluma, California, Partch set up another studio where he began work on And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma. But this was also short-lived. He was forced again to move, and this time he chose southern California, where he would spend the last 10 years of his life, living in or setting up studios in Van Nuys, Venice, San Diego, Solana Beach, Los Angeles, and Encintas. His last theater work, Delusion of the Fury, was performed at UCLA in January of 1969.

By the mid 60’s, Partch was beginning to get the recognition he deserved. He belatedly received grants and awards from the Pasadena Art Museum (1965), the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1966) and the San Francisco Art Institute (1966) along with the first commercially released recordings of his music.

Partch’s final composition was The Dreamer that Remains, written for the film produced by Betty Freeman, a patron and promoter of Partch’s work from 1964, and who had established the Harry Partch Foundation.

Harry Partch died in San Diego on September 3, 1974 of a heart attack. In accordance with his wishes, Danlee Mitchell had Partch’s body cremated and his ashes scattered over the Pacific. Mitchell was to be the inheritor of all of Partch’s belongings, including the scores, instruments, and writings

In 1989, Mitchell loaned the instruments to Dean Drummond and his ensemble Newband. After Newband’s excellent performance of The Wayward at the Bang on a Can Festival in New York in 1991, Mitchell made the loan permanent. Because of this there has been an increase in performances of Partch’s work, notably the 1997 production of Oedipus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, Newband has encouraged and commissioned composers young and old to write for the instruments, creating a whole new repertoire in Partch’s microtonal system. These developments mark a new chapter in the history of America’s first microtonal composer, one that will surely extend well into the next millennium.

Next: Part 2: Genesis of a Theory »

  1. Harry Partch: America's first Microtonal Composer
  2. Part 2: Genesis of a Theory
  3. Part 3: The Instruments
  4. Endnotes, Discography & Bibliography

Table of Contents:

  1. Harry Partch: America's first Microtonal Composer
  2. Part 2: Genesis of a Theory
  3. Part 3: The Instruments
  4. Endnotes, Discography & Bibliography

Article Date: 21 December 1998 Last Updated: 16 March 2015 Print Version Flattr this

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