Harry Partch: America's first Microtonal Composer
21 December 1998
Marc Wolf

"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.

---Part 2: Genesis of a Theory

(The history of temperaments is long and complex. Anyone interested should consult the sources listed for a more complete explanation.)

Just as Pythagoras was to provide a starting point for Partch’s theories, Pythagoras, ironically, must also be credited with generating the idea that led ultimately to Equal Temperament: the cycle of 5ths.

Dividing a string into 3 parts––a number that held critical significance for Pythagoras in its representation of the tetractys, (the pyramid of dots; an equilateral triangle with 10 equally spaced dots inside, which according to Theon of Smyrna revealed to the initiate the mystery of universal nature),––Pythagoras generated the interval of a perfect 5th. By continuing the process, generating a fifth above the 5th, he was able to construct the heptatonic scale. But this process did not yield a cycle. The generating of ascending perfect 5ths produces a never-ending spiral in that the 12th 5th is close in pitch to the 1st, but is sharp by 23.5 cents. This remainder is known as the Pythagorean Comma. Pythagoras didn’t accept this irrational spiral, and adjusted all of the 5ths flat by 23.5/12 cents so that they would fit into 1 octave, and yield his divine circle. His actions are manifest of changes that occurred to the human psyche around 600 BC, referred to by the composer Dane Rudhyar as “ The Great Mutation”: the gradual replacement of Mysticism with Rationalism.

Partch’s innovations came through the rejection of the Pythagorean idea of ascending 5ths, instead basing his scale instead on a fundamental law of acoustics, the Overtone Series.

Equal temperament (the intonation system that most western music is based on) was a later development of Pythagoreanism, and is a system of intonation which ultimately resulted from the development of fixed pitch keyboard instruments in the mid 14th century. Europe’s musicians were determined to have keyboards because of the ease in which they could produce major chords as never before, a sound that the people of Europe loved. But it was soon realized that the freedom of intonation they were so used to in the voice would be a tremendous task to apply to keyboards.

“Theorists and builders wanted to apply the Just Intonation of the Ptolemaic Sequence [the modern diatonic major scale in Just Intonation], but they were prevented from doing so by the limitations of (1) comprehension; (2) the mechanics of instrument construction (3) the hand; and (4) the familiar notation.”6

In other words the technology and education at the time would not allow for such a complex system to be realized, and it was because of this that the compromise of Equal temperament was adopted.

Brief Explanation of Temperaments

When two pitches of differing frequency are sounded together or in succession there is a relationship between them, and it is this relationship that the ear senses and is known as an interval in Western music theory. In physical terms, the two notes are related by a comparison of their wavelengths, and the resulting combination represented by their ratio.

“By plucking a string of a given tension and then while plucking it while it is stopped at the exact midpoint, we produce the interval two parts to one part, or one vibration to two vibrations, the ratio 2/1.”7

Since the ear hears two simultaneous tones in a small ratio as sounding consonant, Just Intonation uses pure intervals and refers to pitches not by note name but by ratios, all relating to an arbitrary 1/1 ratio, analogous to the open string referred to above. In Equal Temperament, the pitches become more important than the intervals as the demands of harmony and modulation necessitate that pitch identities are fixed throughout the 12 diatonic keys. If we attempt to tune the intervals Just in one key, they will not sound Just in a remote key, in other words, a Just ‘E’ in the key of ‘C’ would be different than a Just ‘E’ in the key of ‘C#’. The compromise is made so that the “E” is equally in (or out) of tune in both keys. This compromise was brought about to necessitate the advancement of musical composition, around the time of Bach, enabling composers more freedom to modulate and use all 12 keys equally, and to use more complex harmonies.

Today, Equal Temperament’s uniformity makes it the perfect tool for creating music in a commodity based culture/economy. Although we have the technology to make viable complex systems of temperament, these possibilities have only been explored on the fringe. Equal Temperament possibly represents a convenience demanded of today’s global economy. But the widespread domination of equal temperament as an unfortunate by-product of imperialism has impoverished world music culture. The following quote from a letter sent to Partch, which he published in his book Genesis of a Music, illustrates this:

“ To go back from Equal Temperament on keyed instruments is to scrap the music of two centuries. We may have entered on an evil course-it has ruined singing for instance-but we shall have to go on with it… The Indians are up against it too: they have imported the harmonium, the issue of which is inevitably European harmony, though they don’t know it. A 25-note harmonium has been invented for them but they won’t use it-too difficult-they are settling down complacently on a 12 note scale, and contenting themselves with the dozen or so ragas it will play, and scrapping the many scores of them they used to sing…it’s all very sad.” –A.H. Fox-Strangways 8

Partch’s answer to Equal Temperament

Harry Partch’s theory was a lifelong endeavor and work in progress. His book Genesis of a Music was written as an explanation of his theory and is too extensive to discuss here. What follows are Partch’s summaries of “The Four Concepts”.

“1. The scale of musical intervals begins with absolute consonance (1 to 1), and gradually progresses into an infinitude of dissonance, the consonance of the intervals decreasing as the odd numbers of their ratios increase.” [This is a property of the natural overtone series.]

POSTULATE: Every ratio of a monophonic system is at least a dual identity.

2. Over-number tonality, or Otonality (“major”) is an immutable faculty of the human ear.

3.Under number Tonality, or Utonality (“minor”), is the immutable faculty of ratios, which in turn represent an immutable faculty of the human ear.

4. In terms of consonance man’s use of musical materials has followed the scale of musical intervals expressed as Concept One; from the earliest times it has progressed from the unison in the direction of the great infinitude of dissonance.” 9

With these 4 concepts, Partch established that major and minor tonalities could be explained as natural products of the overtone series, and consequently developed the 43 tone scale in which all of his works are written. Partch’s new system of tonality required him to abandon almost all currently used musical instruments, and to create an array of instruments that are no less magnificent than the works written for them.

---Part 3: The Instruments

(The following are descriptions of some of Harry Partch’s instruments. For a more detailed and complete survey, see Partch’s book Genesis of a Music. All quotes that follow are from chapter 12 & 13 of Genesis of a Music).

Chromelodeon I

The Chromelodeon is used in most of Partch’s works. It is an old Harmonium that has had all of its reeds removed and retuned to Partch’s original 43-degree monophonic system. The keyboard is only changed in the fact that the keys are painted and the ratios representing their pitch is indicated on the key.

“A very valuable adjunct of nearly all harmoniums are the knee swells. In U.S. Highball, the pulsing, rhythmic use of the right swell helps materially in pushing that freight train to Chicago.”


Partch’s Kitharas are some of his most beautiful instruments. It is played either with the flesh of the hand or a special ring pick that Partch devised for the purpose. At the sides are sets of strings with movable glass Pyrex rods that act as movable bridges for glissandi or to access any higher tonality desired. These are used prominently in the majority of Partch’s works.

Surrogate Kithara

was created to ease the burden of the Kithara part in the work Castor and Pollux, the part being broken up between the two instruments. It is smaller and can be played sitting down. This position allows for more complex use of the rod and for bending techniques similar to a Koto to be incorporated. It was used in the Dances, The Bewitched, Daphne on the Dunes among others.

The Harmonic Canon

is relatively simple in its conception, a rectangular box with 44 strings attached at one end to pegs, and the other to guitar tuners. The strings rest on various movable bridges, allow for great variety in the tuning. It can be played with mallets, picks either plucking individual strings, or strumming glissandos, or with fingers. The original Harmonic canon had 2 sets of 44 strings and a 14” Pyrex rod under the bottom set for further controlling intonation. “The harmonic canon idea (harmonic law) is that of a glorified multiple monochord, and once the design and placement of bridges and the tuning of strings is decided, at least half of the creative concept is established. And this half may be just as imaginative as the writing of actual notes.”

The Quadrangularis Reversum

is a later development of Partch’s Diamond Marimba, an instrument that illustrated his theory in its design. “This instrument is the theoretical Tonality Diamond brought to practical tonal life.” The diamond has at its lower point the 1/1 ratio, and extends to the right with Otonalities, and to the left with Utonalities. (the overtone series, Otonality, and its inverse Utonality).

The Bass Marimba

consists of 11 vertical-grain , Sitka-spruce blocks, the longest 53” and the shortest 27”. The resonators are the lower ends of organ pipes with plungers at the closed ends to allow adjustments in the volume of air. Four kinds of mallets are used, as well as the tips of fingers. Occasionally large sheepskin-covered mallets are played directly over the resonators for maximum resonance. Because of the height of the resonators required for good low-end response, the player must stand on a riser to play.

The Marimba Eroica

This is one of Partch’s most interesting instruments, a 4 note marimba which produces very low tones. Each note is roughly the size of an upright piano, the resonators being large empty plywood boxes and the block a long redwood timber suspended on foam. The mallets are very large and weigh about 4 pounds each.

The Boos (Bamboo Marimba)

are constructed usually of bamboo with tuned tongues, though the one currently used is made from PVC tubing, and is less prone to tuning fluctuations from the material. The cylinders are laid out in 6 rows, in descending order of size from the bottom to top and mallets are usually used. Boos give “dry sounds, sharp in character and short in duration.”

The Cloud Chamber Bowls

are fourteen sections of 12 gallon Pyrex carboys, suspended from a redwood frame in seven vertical lines by rope and s hooks. The original carboys used were found at the Radiation Laboratory glass shop at the University of California, Berkeley in 1950. “I discovered that a very beautiful but complex sound could be produced if the center of a section was suspended by one hand, so that the edge was free, while the other hand struck with fingertips on the edge. As long as my experiments went on, I undoubtedly deprived various faculty wives of many punch and fish bowls.”

The Mazda Marimba

is a delicate and soft instrument that is composed of various sized lightbulbs mounted in a frame and resting on foam. “The delightful sounds of the instrument resemble, more than anything else, the bubbling of a coffee percolator.”

Throughout his life, Harry Partch was faced with resistance to his revolutionary and controversial ideas. His theories, writings, instruments, music and life can be seen as one unified act of transcendence, subversion and defiance. His struggle was nothing less than the millennia old fight against the expropriation of man through the development of autonomous technology and the destruction of nature. Partch ruled the technology required to complete his creative vision, a vital art, which never compromised its core of primitive sexual impulse, subversive to all systems of indoctrination and those that seek to regiment or commodify the creative spirit.

---Endnotes, Discography & Bibliography


  1. Genesis p. 373
  2. Biography p. 41
  3. Ibid p. 48
  4. Ibid p. 49
  5. Bitter Music p.xx
  6. Genesis p. 375
  7. Ibid p.398
  8. Ibid p. 392
  9. Ibid p. 87-94


The Harry Partch Collection

Volume 1 (CRI CD 751)

Eleven Intrusions; Plectra and Percussion Dances (Castor & Pollux; Ring Around the Moon; Even Wild Horses); Ulysses at the Edge

Volume 2 (CRI CD 752)

San Francisco; U.S. Highball; The Letter; Barstow; And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma

Volume 3 (CRI CD 753)

Water! Water!; Windsong; The Dreamer that Remains; Rotate the Body in all its Planes

Volume 4 CRI CD 754

The Bewitched, A Dance Satire

Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960) (TOMATO 2696552 (2 CD) [DDD])

for 16 solo voices, 4 speakers & large instrumental ensemble

[text after Euphrides' BACCHAE]

Yankee Doodle Fantasy for Soprano, Flexotone, Synthesizer, Tin Flute & Oboe (1941) Newport Classic NPD 85526 [DDD]

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury, A Ritual of Dream and Delusion Columbia Masterworks M2 30576

ENCLOSURE TWO: HARRY PARTCH 4-CD collection of archival recordings, including works from the 30's and 40's, a lecture on just intonation, a performance of excerpts from his 1935 hobo journal Bitter Music, and a sound documentary featuring Partch and reminiscences by his friends. innova 401 (4 CD) [AAD]

ENCLOSURE ONE: Four Historic Art Films by Madeline Tourtelot with music by Harry Partch. Innova 400 (VHS Video)
Newband play Partch, Cage, La Barbara, and Drummond. Mode Records ; Mode18
Newband play Partch, Monk, Rosenblum... Mode; Mode 33
Just West Coast. Microtonal Music for Guitar and Harp. Bridge; BCD9041
Harry Partch: 17 Lyrics of Li-Po, Tzadik TZ 7012


DANIÉLOU, ALAIN (1943;1995) Music and The Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness. Vermont:Inner Traditions
GILMORE, BOB (1998) Harry Partch; a biography New Haven & London: Yale University Press
HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN (1885/1954) On the senations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music. New York : Dover
PARTCH, HARRY (1991) Bitter Music : Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions and Librettos. Chicago: University of Illinois Press
PARTCH, HARRY (1974) Genesis of A Music; 2nd Edition. New York: Da Capo Press

Article originally appeared on Marc J Wolf (http://marcjwolf.com)
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