Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick

by Michael Schell

No composer better fits the “American maverick” moniker than Harry Partch (1901–1974). A genuine U.S. hobo during the Depression era, he invented his own tuning system, built his own instruments, and during the second half of his life managed to scrounge up enough support to leave behind a body of music whose uniqueness and individuality is virtually unprecedented.

Partch riding the rails atop a boxcar. Photo by Levy-Jossman.

Since his music requires specialized instruments and specially-trained musicians, live performances are very special occasions. So we’re particularly fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest to have his original instruments in residence at the University of Washington (see Second Inversion’s virtual tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium). And fresh on the heels of Partch’s Oedipus comes another great opportunity to see and hear the instruments: the Harry Partch Celebration at Meany Studio Theater May 31 through June 2, which will feature three concerts of music by the crusty master himself, along with several works by other composers written or arranged for the Partch instruments.

With dozens of pieces and arrangements on the docket (including several premieres), there’s too much music to do justice to in just one article, so what follows is a closer look at a couple works on the program that summarize the vast range of Partch’s music:

Li Po Lyrics and the Adapted Viola

On May 31, Luke Fitzpatrick starts off the Celebration the way Partch started off his career, with a program of music for intoning voice and Adapted Viola. Partch always hated the highly-affected “classical” style of singing, finding it unnatural, and feeling that its emphasis on volume and vibrato came at the expense of diction and nuance.

Searching for a vocal style that was expressive while preserving the comprehensibility of the text, Partch hit on the idea of using microtones (intervals narrower than the half-steps between adjacent piano keys) to simulate the subtle contours of natural speech. He applied his discovery to some texts by Li Po (nowadays spelled Li Bai), an 8th century Chinese lyric poet—one of the greatest ever—who, like Partch, was a wanderer with a noted penchant for alcohol. These ancient texts, so innocent in their emotional directness, and little-known in North America back then, must have struck Partch as an ideal vehicle for his new style.

The grass of Yen is growing green and long
While in Chin the leafy mulberry branches hang low.
Even now while my longing heart is breaking,
Are you thinking, my dear, of coming back to me?
—O wind of spring, you are a stranger.
Why do you enter through the silken curtains of my bower?

The Intruder by Li Po

Listen to Partch performing his setting of this poem in 1949 (above). Notice the ease, the fluency with which the imagery comes through, and the diction is absolutely clear despite the crude acetate recording technology. It doesn’t have all the colors of his later percussion-centric music, but the seeds are clearly there, like comparing an early Beethoven piano sonata to one of his great symphonies.

Partch playing the Adapted Viola, 1933.

The instrument that Partch is playing in the video is his Adapted Viola, built in 1930 to give him a suitable accompanying instrument that was also portable (this being during Partch’s itinerant homeless years). It’s Partch’s earliest surviving original instrument, basically a standard viola with an elongated neck and a flattened bridge. It’s held between the knees to facilitate microtonal slides, and the modified bridge facilitates sustained double and even triple stops. In the recording, when the voice sings “O wind of spring”, the Adapted Viola indeed seems to wail like a mournful wind, perhaps representing the disembodied voice of an unrequited soul.

Adapted Viola fingerboard. Drawing by Irvin Wilson.

To help the player find all those strange microtonal pitches, Partch hammered brads into the fingerboard, giving the instrument a pretty intimidating appearance. The fractions you see in the fingerboard diagram are actually frequency ratios, which Partch used to denote his intervals with a precision not available in conventional notation.

In this score excerpt you can see that he dispenses with the normal five-line staff and just writes the ratios. Those last six ratios in the viola part, for example, are incredibly fine gradations of pitch between concert F♮ and G♮. It takes a lot of practice to read this notation and play those pitches in tune—remember what I said about needing “specially-trained musicians”? Curiously, despite being so precise about pitch, Partch doesn’t bother with rhythmic notation at all, but simply directs performers to follow the natural rhythms of the poem.

Satisfied with his new approach, Partch famously destroyed his earlier, more conventional compositions with a ritual immolation in a pot-bellied stove. He went on to write 17 Li Po Lyrics, all of which will be performed on May 31 using Partch’s original Adapted Viola, recently restored by Charles Corey (Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium) and Luke Fitzpatrick after sitting unused in its case for many years. How inspiring it must be to glide ones fingers along the same surface where Partch’s fingers slid 80 years ago!

Over the next four decades, Partch built up his Instrumentarium with the percussion and plucked string instruments that he’s most famous for, but he kept using his Adapted Viola, even including it in his final composition, The Dreamer that Remains (from 1972). This unpretentious instrument, newly reclaimed from the dark, bears witness to a lifetime of discovery and gives eloquent voice to its legacy.

Partch Gets Popular, plus Castor and Pollux

Although Partch wrote most of his music between 1930 and 1966, it wasn’t until later that he really became a cult hero, beloved by listeners that weren’t themselves musicians. The turning point was the 1969 Columbia LP The World of Harry Partch, which was the first modern recording of Partch’s music and its first release on a major record label. The cover photo showing Partch as an old man—that cantankerous-looking bearded iconoclast—with his instruments in the background resonated with the rebellious spirit of the times.

And the Columbia brand got Partch’s music into mainstream record stores and FM airwaves. The LP featured definitive performances of three great percussion-centric Partch compositions, including Daphne of the Dunes and the notorious Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, whose irreverent and downright naughty texts by a few frustrated Depression-era drifters attracted the attention of novelty DJs like Dr. Demento, thus exposing Partch’s music to millions of young listeners outside the usual classical music crowd.

But it’s the last track on this LP, Castor and Pollux, that eventually became my favorite Partch piece. Conceived for dance, it’s slated for the June 2 concert and will be performed with choreography by Stephanie Liapis—a very rare opportunity to see the piece staged as Partch intended!

As befits its subject (the celestial twins of Greek mythology), the work is in two halves. Each half consists of three instrumental duets, followed by a sextet where all three duets are played simultaneously. In contrast to the speech-driven rhythms of the 17 Li Po Lyrics and their simple voice and viola texture, Castor and Pollux is a lively, beat-driven piece showcasing a battery of Partch’s most characteristic percussion and plucked string instruments.

Excerpt from Partch’s Castor.

Each of the duets last 234 beats. In the first half (Castor) the music alternates between 4 and 5 beats to a bar, and there’s usually a rest on the eighth of the nine beats. In the second half (Pollux) the rhythm’s a bit more complicated, with six bars of 7 beats alternating with six bars of 9 beats until 234 beats are reached. Of course, Partch had to compose the duets so that they’d sound good both separately and together.

Like many of Partch’s works, Castor and Pollux was conceived as a complete aesthetic experience: musical and visual—what Partch called “corporeality.” And seeing the piece performed live helps to follow its unique structure.

Partch’s was an art with no phoniness to it—among the most authentic ever conceived by one person. It belongs alongside that of Ives, Varèse, Cage and Sun Ra in the pantheon of great American composers who created a unique musical identity from a deeply personal world view. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you owe it to yourself to experience the sight and sound of the Partch instruments up close and live while you can!

The Harry Partch Celebration is May 31 through June 2 at Meany Studio Theater at the University of Washington. For tickets and additional information, click here.

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