Harry Partch: Genesis of a Musical Outsider

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Composer, dishwasher, wanderer, fruit picker, sailor, microtonal theorist, instrument builder, writer, visual artist, philosopher, musicologist, iconoclast teacher Harry Partch was one of the first 20th Century composers to work with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments that he built himself, tuned in 11-limit (43-tone) just intonation.

microtonal music

The idiosyncratic list of influences Partch cites includes “Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes, Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among others.”

Genesis of a Music as Imagined and Constructed By Harry Partch

Text By Chris Morrison in allmusic.com

The child of former missionaries, composer Harry Partch (see also Bitter Music-WilderUtopia.com) grew up in a musical family, and at an early age taught himself to play the guitar, harmonium, clarinet, and other instruments. During his early school years in Arizona and New Mexico he had some rudimentary music lessons, which he found unexciting and conventional. He wrote a considerable amount of music as a youth, but set it all afire in a pot-bellied stove around 1930.


Part One of a documentary about the composer Harry Partch who invented his own compositional method using a 43-tone scale and many instruments that he built by hand.

from the documentary "Outsider"Partch’s intensive studies in music history and intonation led him to reject conventional Western tunings and musical techniques. He devised a 43-note octave, and started adapting and building instruments to perform the new kind of music he was envisioning. Employment was hard to come by in those years, and Partch spent the Depression wandering the United States as a hobo, doing occasional odd jobs. Those experiences are reflected in his early works Barstow — 8 Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941) and U.S. Highball — A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943).

From the Preface of “Genesis of a Music,” By Harry Partch: “The quality of vitality that makes any culture significant involves something else, the presence of which constantly undermines tradition; it is found in the perceptive freshness of the Tang Dynasty poets, the bold curiosity of the Renaissance Florentines. In large measure it is compounded of investigation, investigation, investigation. In poetry and in many other forms of creative expression investigation may take an entirely intellectual and metaphysical path, but in music, because of the very nature of the art, it must also take a physical path. A phalanx of good pianists, good teachers, good composers, and “good” music no more creates a spirit of investigation and a vital age in music than good grades in school create a spirit of investigation and a body of thinking citizens. To promote a youthful vitality in music we must have students who will question every idea and related physical object that they encounter. They must question the corpus of knowledge, traditions, and usages that give us a piano, for example, the very fact of a piano; they must question the tones of its keys, question the music on its rack, and, above all, they must question, constantly and eternally, what might be called the philosophies behind device, the philosophies that are really responsible for these things.”

Over the next three-plus decades, Partch created dozens of new reed, string, and percussion instruments using a variety of materials including found objects like artillery shell casings, Pyrex jars, bottles, and old fuel tanks. Many of the works he wrote for this ensemble are ambitious theater pieces that incorporate dance, mime, costumes, and ritual: Oedipus, The Bewitched (A Dance Satire, 1955), Revelation in the Courthouse Square, and Delusion of the Fury (1969), perhaps his best-known work. Partch never held a formal teaching post, although he was employed as a researcher at various times at the Universities of Wisconsin, Illinois, and California. He supported himself through foundation grants, and the publication, performing, and recording of his works, working for much of that time out of an abandoned shipyard in Sausalito, California. The Gate 5 Ensemble (named after one of the gates at the shipyard) was created to perform his works, and Gate 5 Recordings made many of them available on record.

Partch’s book Genesis of a Music (1949, revised 1974) details Partch’s theories and methods, and describes many of his works in detail. The idiosyncratic list of influences Partch cites includes “Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes, Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among others.” Hints of all these, and many more besides, can be found in Partch’s unique music.

From Harry Partch’s “Genesis of a Music”:

Musical creators have been, and are, the exponents and the victims of system, philosophy, and attitude, determined for them by textbooks and classrooms, and by the atmosphere in which they grow; in short, by their milieu. Consequently the later history of Western music is of one system, one philosophy, one attitude, and it is characterized by successive bodies of practitioners made up of multitudes of innocent believers and sprinklings of individualists who are frequently unequal to the struggle, the struggle of fundamental dissent with the musical practicalities.

The canons of music do not comprise a corpus juris, common or codified, and the prevailing attitude is a symptom, a danger signal, of possible decay that no person imbued with a spirit of investigation can perceive without misgivings. Investigators and experimenters are at least as reverent toward our European heritage as the average music lover, probably more so, because they are acolytes of the creative spirit that has produced such phenomena as the past three hundred years of Western music. But it is a dynamic reverence.

In a healthy culture differing musical philosophies would be coexistent, not mutually exclusive; and they would build from Archean granite, and not, as our one musical system of today builds, from the frame of an inherited keyboard, and from the inherited forms and instruments of Europe’s eighteenth century. And yet anyone who even toys with the idea of looking beyond these legacies for materials and insight is generally considered foolhardy if not actually a publicity-seeking mountebank. The door to further musical investigation and insight has been slammed shut by the inelastic and doctrinaire quality of our one system and its esthetic forms.

Updated 15 January 2019

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WilderUtopia.com regularly posts articles, photo essays, features, and documentaries from around the web that illuminate the challenges to coexistence between city and wild, developed and developing, human and other. To reach out, write to jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow us on Twitter @WilderUtopia