Monday, November 2, 2009

The music of Harry Partch

Harry Parch has always been one of my musical heroes, due to his unique and uncompromising vision.

Parch was born in Oakland in 1901 to parents who had been missionaries in China. He was interested in music from an early age, but by the time he was in his late teens, he became disenchanted with traditional Western music. He developed what became a lifelong interest in non-Western music, and in primitive and ancient cultures.

Partch developed a unique system of musical tuning, based on a 43 tone scale rather then the tradition Western twelve tone scale. He also developed a series of handmade instruments to play his music on. Partch thought that this allowed music to more accurately portray the patterns of speech. He valued these instruments for their beauty as well as the music played on them.

Partch ran out of grant money, and spent the depression as a hobo, riding trains around the U.S., and keeping a journal of speech patterns. He frequently converted these into musical patterns, a practice he used throughout his career. Following the depression, help from grants and benefactors enabled him to focus on his music.

Compositions by Partch include "Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po" "Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales", 'The Bewitched" and "And on the Seventh Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma".

The Wikipedia article on Partch:

Here is a list of Partch's compositions:

Here are three of Partch's instruments:

The Adapted Viola, a viola with a cello neck.

Cloud chamber bowls - these were originally designed to be used in devices to detect ionized particles and study nuclear reactions.

The Boo (bamboo marimba) - this can play all the chromatic pitches in Partch's 43 note scale.

The two photos above show some of the instruments in the possession of Newband , a microtonal band, and artists in residence at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Dean Drummond, the co-director of Newband has legal custody of the original Partch instruments.

Here is Partch demonstrating some of his instruments

Most of Partch's music was intended to accompany dance, theater, or film. Here is Newband's staging of "Daphne of the Dunes",.

Here is "Barstow", Partch's 1941 composition. The text comes from grafitti that Partch saw on a
highway railing.

This is an excellent BBC documentary on Partch.


  1. The instrument you called a Chromelodeon is actually the Boo (bamboo marimba).

    There are many more Partch pieces—recordings, films, and book— on the Enclosures: Harry Partch series:

  2. Thank for your comment and link . I will correct the post:)

  3. Pretty cool Bob , this is all new to me !
    Daphne of the Dunes........I liked that one .