Born right here in Oakland, CA, Harry Partch was a true original. After beginning his studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Music, he felt it to be inadequate, dropped out and began to teach himself music in the libraries of San Francisco. This was the start of him developing a wholly different relationship with music especially in regards to scales. After learning more about just intonation Partch began to explore how the octave could be broken up into a much greater number of pitches than the usual twelve-tone equal tempered scale we are so adjusted to in US and Europe. As he furthered his knowledge in this direction, he was fed up with and fully revoked his prior music education by burning all of his earlier scores.
At this point, Partch enlisted a New Orleans violin maker to customize a viola with a cello fingerboard so that it could account for 29 tones to the octave. This newly conceived viola adaptation brought more attention to his work and enabled him further funding to continue in this direction. He went on to create a keyboard instrument with 43 tones to the octave and this scale became the backbone from which he would generate numerous instruments over the next several years. After spending a year in Europe, Partch returned to the US and found himself living on the streets for the next nine years. During this time he continued to explore timbre and musical inventions that would realize his 43 tone scale as well as his own theories of music. Over his lifetime, he adapted previous instrument designs and devised his own instruments, at least 30 in total.
Performances of Partch’s work were rather limited as they were specific to these unique instruments. Even though, he made sure to record a large number of his pieces while in residence at the University of Wisconsin and at the studio he founded in Sausaltio, CA, Gate 5. Due to the incredible range of his instruments, Partch’s musical cannon is vast and unlike anything you will hear by any other composer. While some pieces are challenging, others present beautiful harmonic consonances that you will only hear in his work. He is still underappreciated as his style has never gained popularity to any great extent. Regardless, Partch was one of the most imaginative composers out of the US and of all time as no other composer has taken it upon themselves to reinvent how music is interacted with in such extreme form.
Something so profound about the nature of his 43 tone scale is that the emotional content is possibly at its most broad. The nuances of neurophysiology are met with a seemingly endless range of intervals and musical interplay – no feeling is left unfelt. As you take the plunge with Harry Partch’s music, it might remind you of when everything was new – when all sounds were fresh and the environment was but a mystery waiting to sonically greet you and widen your eyes to the sounds of the world. Approach it with innocence and it will do the same.
More info about Harry Partch:
Interactive website where his instruments can be “played”:
Harry Partch: The Outsider