News Column

Classical Roots, Part 4: Harry Partch [MD: Modern Drummer]

July 1, 2013


The invention of an entirely new musical scale is but one example of his revolutionary concepts, which also include the use of speech patterns as the basis of rhythmic ideas, and the creation of a world of percussive instruments previously unimagined by even the most adventurous minds.

Composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have created increasingly complex and exotic sonic landscapes, often by using rhythmic elements and percussion instruments. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring employed rhythm as a major thematic element and triggered a riot at its 1913 premiere. Varese's Ionisation brought police sirens and anvils into Carnegie Hall. And John Cage used rubber bands, paper, and other small household items to transform a piano into a gamelan-esque percussion instrument.

But few composers went to such lengths to redefine traditional classical music as Harry Partch (1901-74). Partch rejected most elements of the concert-hall tradition, even discarding the traditional diatonic scale in favor of a forty-three-tone octave based on just intonation. He also designed and built an ensemble of more than twenty new instruments; more than half of these are some form of percussion.

Partch developed his own philosophy of "corporeal music," which he explains at length in his 1947 book. Genesis of a Music. This music is bound to another art form, such as dance; the various forms are combined to convey some kind of meaning. Corporeal music differs from traditional Western classical music, which Partch calls "abstract," where form is dominant and conveying meaning is not the primary goal. Most folk music would fit Partch's definition of corporeality, while a Baroque cello suite would be considered abstract. Rhythm is an essential part of corporeal music, whether Partch is highlighting the natural rhythms of human speech or telling a story through dance.

The composer attributed some of his interest in exploring the frontiers of music from his childhood, which began on the frontiers of the Wild West in Arizona. The son of former missionaries who had spent years living in China, Partch would later reference Christian hymns, Chinese lullabies, Yaqui Indian ritual, and Cantonese music hall among his influences.

The subject matter Partch chose for his works was distinctly different from that chosen by most other composers at the time. Partch was homeless for several years during the Great Depression and survived by riding the rails across America, taking any jobs he could. He would draw from these experiences in creating many of his pieces.

U.S. Highball is one such work. It was first written in 1943 and then was rewritten in 1955 with new instrumentation. Its three movements follow a homeless man in search of work as he travels the country by rail and by hitchhiking. In Genesis of a Music, Partch refers to the piece as a "hobo allegro form."

U.S. Highball is written for voice and nine of Partch's instruments, including diamond marimba, bamboo marimba (or 'Boo"), bass marimba, cloud-chamber bowls, and Spoils of War, a multipurpose percussion instrument that combines woodblocks, guiros, whang guns, cloud-chamber bowls, and discarded shell casings.

The rhythm of spoken language is an important part of U.S. Highball. In most traditional music, the vocal line is dictated by the overall rhythm of the piece-in other words, the vocal line is altered to fit the song's rhythm. U.S. Highball turns that around and allows the natural cadence of the spoken word to dictate the overall rhythm.

Rhythm is an extremely important element of Partch's And on the Seventh Day, Petals Fell on Petaluma. This work, which was written between 1963 and 1966, features a novel compositional method that's based on accretion. The foundation for the piece is twenty-three one-minute "verses," each featuring a duet or trio of Partch instruments. First, Verses 1 through 23 are performed in order. The next ten segments comprise all combinations of previous verses; for example. Verse 24 is Verse 1 (a duet for Zymo-Xyl and Crychord) and Verse 2 (a duo for surrogate kithara and bass marimba) played at the same time. The final section combines several verses at once.

Partch's instruments are currently housed at Montclair State University's Harry Partch Institute, where they are in regular use. Elizabeth Brown, John Zorn, Julia Wolfe, and institute director Dean Drummond are among the composers who have written for the instruments. In 2003, the Kronos Quartet released a version of Partch's US. Highball arranged for string quartet.

Tom Waits and Frank Zappa have been counted among Partch's fans, and Beck briefly brought the composer into the Indie-rock limelight in 2009 with the song "Harry Partch." But Partch's work remains relatively unknown, due not only to its use of microtonality but also to the relative unavailability of instruments on which it can be performed. For those who take the time to seek him out, however, Partch can open the door to an extraordinary musical universe.

The first three installments of this ongoing series ran in May 2011, August 2011, and January 2012.

In 2009, Beck released the ten-plus-minute track "Harry Partch," whose cover art depicts the musical iconoclast playing his remarkable cloud-chamber bowls. Other times when the twentieth-century composer's name has crossed paths with popular music include the 1992 Hal Willner-produced album Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, which finds Partch's unique handmade instruments gracing tracks by Elvis Costello, Henry Rollins, Keith Richards, Robbie Robertson, Chuck D., and Dr. John, among others.

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