The Instruments of Harry Partch in Seattle: Whimsy, Community, and Mictrotones

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by Peter Tracy

Percussionists Rebekah Ko and Paul Hansen performing Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.
Photo by Brandon Parigo, UMKC Strategic Marketing and Communications.

In the spring of 2017, I found myself sitting in Meany Hall, watching characters wander back and forth singing odd melodies accompanied by enormous, sculpture-like instruments arrayed across the stage. The instruments buzzed, rattled, and rang in ways I’d never heard before, but which immediately drew me in: I wasn’t sure just what I was watching, let alone what I was listening to—but I liked it.

This was the Seattle production of Harry Partch’s monumental music drama Oedipus, and it was an eye-opening experience. Later, I learned from a friend who played in the Partch ensemble that it was open to just about anybody: all you had to do was ask. Soon after, I did, and that decision has shaped my life as a musician ever since.

Harry Partch’s Oedipus performed at UW in 2017. Photo by Luke Sieczek.

That Harry Partch’s one-of-a-kind instruments have been living in Seattle for the past five years is incredible, and it is one of the many things that currently make our city artistically unique. The instruments and the ensemble members who love them dearly are intimately connected to the local music community, and a new community of its own has even grown around the instruments during their stay here. For all of us in Seattle who have had the chance to interact with, listen to, and enjoy the instruments, however, there is a catch: the instruments may not be here for much longer.

The music of Harry Partch is difficult to describe, and in a sense it’s impossible to separate from the instruments it was written for and the man who wrote it. Partch was a mid-20th century American composer who wanted to get away from Western classical music’s standard tuning system, which divides the octave into the twelve equally spaced pitches we see repeated on the keys of the piano. He felt this system, which is referred to as equal temperament, limited harmony unnecessarily, and that music would be better served if it allowed for notes that fell somewhere in between the black and white keys. Music that uses these kind of “in between” notes and tiny intervals is often referred to as microtonal, and it can be jarring for those of us who are used to the Western classical tuning system. But for Partch, getting rid of equal temperament opened up a whole new world of harmony and sound that he thought was well worth pursuing.

To make this possible, Partch built an entirely new set of instruments, from enormous marimbas to microtonal lap guitars and percussion instruments made from airplane nose cones, cut Pyrex containers, and even artillery shell casings. All of these instruments utilize and fit into his own tuning system (a form of just intonation), and he composed pieces more or less exclusively for these instruments throughout his life.

Instrumentarium Director Chuck Corey and UW School of Music faculty member Melia Watras performing “The Wind” from Partch’s Eleven Intrusions.

But to reduce Partch’s work to an experiment in just intonation is really to miss the point: his instruments are works of visual art in their own right which allow for a combination of music, dance, and theatre that is whimsical, energetic, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the imagination and passion which resulted in the creation of these instruments that is really at the heart of Partch’s world.

“If you consider it in parts you sort of lose some element of what’s important,” said Chuck Corey, director of the ensemble and keeper of the instruments, “But if you look at it as the whole thing, here was a guy who at a certain point had this vision of working in just intonation, and the direction he decided to go was to build 50 instruments over the course of his life. That’s really interesting.”

Director Chuck Corey seated at one of Partch’s Chromelodeons. Photo by Brandon Parigo.

I first met Chuck about three years ago after a concert, where he was surrounded, as usual, by the instruments under his care. Dressed in the everyday attire that also serves as the Partch ensemble’s concert dress, he fielded a stream of questions from audience members and performers alike, who wandered freely around the stage: Why is this instrument called the Kithara? Where should we move the Chromelodeon? Can I try out the Cloud Chamber Bowls? At the time I was just an enthusiastic audience member like the rest; there was no way I could have known what kind of impact the instruments would come to have on my musical life.

In a certain sense, Chuck’s story with the instruments began similarly. On his first day of college at Montclair State University, he was introduced to Dean Drummond, the late director of the ensemble who curated the instruments during their stay in New Jersey. After a brief tour of the instruments, one thing lead to another and Chuck quickly found himself playing on concerts, picking up vocal parts, and helping out with instrument maintenance.

“It was exactly what I needed at that point as a composer and student of music: to be introduced to new sounds, new tuning systems, new tone colors,” Chuck said. “Any preconceptions I might have had going into an undergraduate music program were just thrown out on day one.”

After becoming an integral part of both the student and professional ensemble, Chuck moved on to graduate school, but returned after finishing his doctorate. Unfortunately, Drummond passed away soon afterwards, and Chuck found himself as the only person with an intimate knowledge not only of Partch’s often difficult-to-decipher notation systems, but of how to care for the instruments and move them safely from place to place.

Chuck Corey conducting Partch’s Ring Around the Moon in 2018. Photo by Maggie Molloy.

“No one else was really fluent in sight-reading the notation, nobody else had gone through the process of what happens when something breaks or how to take the instruments apart and put them back together again,” Chuck said. “So it sort of struck me that either I was going to take this over, or no one was going to do it.”

Somewhere along the way, the Montclair School of Music decided it didn’t have the resources to keep the instruments at the university, and they essentially became homeless. Previous concerts in Seattle had been met with enthusiasm, and faculty at the University of Washington School of Music expressed interest. So after a lot of hard work and a lot of good fortune, Chuck and the instruments made their way to Seattle in 2014, and have been here ever since.

For local percussionist Paul Hansen, good fortune and fate certainly seem to have conspired to bring the instruments here. Amazingly, Paul first heard Partch’s music at the age of 11, thanks to a gift from his father.

“When that first The World of Harry Partch album came out in ’69, [my father] brought it home and said ‘Hey, I think you’d like this.’ Castor and Pollux just put the hook in me, and I said ‘Oh my gosh, I want to play these things someday.’”

Soon, Paul was reading Partch’s explanations of his method in his book Genesis of a Music and listening to any recordings he could get his hands on. Paul’s father had set into motion what would become a lifelong passion for his son, and throughout the years Paul listened to each new recording Partch made while dreaming of someday playing these instruments.

Nowadays, Paul is a fixture of the ensemble by anyone’s standard. With his long gray hair, healthy sense of whimsy, and penchant for the Diamond Marimba, he’s become an indispensable member of the group who seems to embody the quirky spirit of the instruments which we’ve all come to love. During our conversation at a recent instrument move, Paul told me that when the instruments came to Seattle, he was first in line to get on board.

“When they got here I just sort of showed up on the doorstep like a stray dog,” Paul said. “Chuck was just standing there wondering, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

Luke Fitzpatrick and Chuck Corey performing Partch’s The Bewitched in 2019.
Photo by Niffer Calderwood.

One of the beautiful things about the ensemble is that it allows for these sorts of encounters, and that it’s open to anyone in town with a passion like Paul’s. But this hasn’t always been the case: it was only upon moving to Seattle that Chuck decided to open the ensemble up to the community. At Montclair, only current and former students and faculty members could join, effectively keeping the ensemble to a semi-select few.

“You never know what you’re missing by limiting things to just people at the university,” Chuck said. Keeping the ensemble open helps immensely in filling parts for the wide variety of instruments involved in any given piece, and the extra hands are certainly helpful when the instruments need to be packed up and moved to and from the stage. But beyond practical matters, this openness really embodies the spirit of the instruments and the music.

“These instruments really exist to be touched,” Chuck said. “Anytime I do a lecture or a demonstration for a visiting group I try to set aside time at the end for people to get their hands on the instruments, and when people around town ask to get a tour of the instruments I always make sure they get a chance to do that. Sometimes just playing a few strings on the Kithara is enough for someone to say ‘Hey, is the ensemble open to anybody?’”

Luke Fitzpatrick playing Partch’s Adapted Viola in Daphne of the Dunes.
Photo by Brandon Parigo.

Other integral members have come to the Partch instruments through the University of Washington, like Luke Fitzpatrick, a local violinist, composer, and the artistic director of the Seattle-based new music collective Inverted Space. Although it was a concert of Partch’s music here in 2012 by Drummond’s New Band Ensemble that really piqued his interest, it wasn’t until the instruments came to UW, where Luke was working toward his doctorate, that he became intimately involved in the ensemble. Luke was immediately interested in exploring Partch’s works for Adapted Viola and voice, and has since started composing his own works for the instrument.

“I have a really close connection to the Adapted Viola since I’ve been playing it so much,” Luke said. “But I think you still connect with all the instruments in certain ways just by playing in the ensemble. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Partch Ensemble’s resident soprano, Sarah Kolat, also entered the fold through UW. As a scholar of American music, Sarah is passionate about Partch, the unique significance of his work in music history, and especially his writing for voice, which incorporates aspects of speech and plenty of microtones. In fact, Partch’s initial goal in creating the instruments was to be able to harmonize spoken words, which don’t often match the pitches of our usual tuning system. This fixation on the human voice led to what he calls “intoned voice,” a method of singing that Partch felt was more expressive of both the text and the essence of the individual singer.

“If you are an avant-garde or 20th century vocalist,” Sarah said, “and you have the Partch instruments in the basement of the music building, it’s criminal for you to not participate. That was my thinking going into [the ensemble]: in theory, this is something that every 20th century vocalist would want to do, but not many have the opportunity to do it.”

Sarah Kolat performing in Partch’s The Bewitched in 2019. Photo by Niffer Calderwood.

Each of these ensemble members find something different to love in Partch’s music—something which they all say has transformed their musical lives in some way. Luke, for instance, feels a connection to the physicality and movement of Partch’s aesthetic, the way just playing the instruments can turn into a sort of dance.

“It has this philosophy of the performer being connected to the actual performance: your whole body is connected to the playing and the emotion,” Luke said. “Everything is a resonant body, I think that’s the thing that’s so amazing about his music. Obviously you have the instruments, which are resonant bodies, but you also have the actual performers who are also resonant bodies. That’s really changed my outlook on writing and performing.”

Paul, on the other hand, loves the organic nature of the instruments and the music—how amazing it is that these instruments of scavenged materials can make such incredibly expressive sounds. Sarah says this organic sense of personality is something that the audience in Seattle, no matter how much experience they have with classical music, can connect with.

“I think that [Partch’s music] has a much broader appeal than most modern and contemporary music in this town,” she said. “There’s a real warmth and heart in both the ensemble and the music itself. The instruments too: these are a man’s life work. So I think there’s something here that people are really viscerally responding to.”

What all these core members of the ensemble—as well as the dozens of students, faculty, and community members who perform on the instruments—have in common is a deep affection for the instruments and the music. Luke, for instance, referred to each instrument whose box we opened while moving as “a friend of ours.”

The Harry Partch Ensemble performing Chuck Corey’s Visions from an Unceasing Somnolence. Photo by Brandon Parigo.

While on stage it may look like a large and random assembly of people, the Partch Ensemble in Seattle has really become a community: a group of people who come together to do something rather difficult, rather odd, and rather fun that they all feel passionately about. As Chuck put it, “We’re the ones who care about it, that’s the connection. That’s all you need.”

And that’s why it’s so sad to see them go. Like Montclair University before it, UW has decided not to renew the Partch instruments’ residency here in Seattle, and the collection will likely be moving on to a new home in the coming year. Perhaps it was just a matter of time: like Partch himself, the instruments seem to be inherently nomadic, never quite settling down in one place for long.

For Chuck, the ideal home for the instruments would be somewhere they can be out in a performing hall at all times to be interacted with and played upon. Unfortunately, at least for the moment, it looks like that kind of space is not forthcoming in Seattle. Chuck was clear, though, that departing from Seattle would mean the end of an important chapter in the Partch instruments’ history.

“We have a lot of momentum right now with the ensemble, with the local audience, and with national and international awareness of what we’re doing,” Chuck said. “It would be a shame if we couldn’t continue that.”

Chuck Corey and Melia Watras performing “The Street” from Partch’s Eleven Intrusions.

It is also worth remembering what we as a musical community in this city will miss with their possible departure. This is something more than another new music ensemble leaving town: it is a loss of the soul, energy, and humor of the Partch instruments, as well as the community they have brought together.

There will at least be a few more chances to see the instruments played in Seattle on Nov. 19, 21, and 22 at UW. The concerts on Nov. 19 and 22 feature works by Partch—including Two Settings from Lewis Carroll and two scenes from The Bewitched—alongside the boundary-bursting music of composers like Henry Cowell and John Cage. The Nov. 21 concert is entirely dedicated to Partch’s music, featuring classics like Barstow, Castor and Pollux, and And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (one of Partch’s only pieces without voice in which he calls for almost the full range of instruments).

The instruments’ future afterwards, however, is far from certain. Whether you’re a fan of art songs, dance, experimental music, or poetry, the instruments have something for you—something you can’t find anywhere else. And that’s why these last concerts are so special. As we prepare to open a new chapter in the lives of the instruments, my hope is that this November, alongside Partch fans new and old, we can celebrate the instruments’ time here, the friends they’ve made along the way, and the ways in which they’ve changed our city for the better.


The final concerts featuring the Harry Partch Ensemble at UW are Tuesday, Nov. 19, Thursday, Nov. 21, and Friday, Nov. 22, as part of UW’s Festival of Historical Experimental Music for Percussion.

For more information about the Harry Partch Ensemble, please visit https://www.harrypartch.com/.

A Fallen Piano is Resurrected at Jack Straw

by Maggie Molloy

Fifty years ago, an upright piano flew from the sky and crashed loudly upon the ground near Duvall, Washington, smashing into pieces in front of an audience of avant-garde enthusiasts. It was dropped from a helicopter by the Jack Straw Foundation (then in the form of KRAB radio) as a fundraising event for the experimental radio station and their friends at Helix, the hippie newspaper.

Seattle Times clipping, 1968.

This month, that historic piano is being resurrected.

Piano Drop is a historical music installation now on display at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery. The exhibit showcases the remains of the fallen piano for the first time since the helicopter drop, along with archival film footage, historical documents, and new recordings of music composed and performed on the instrument.

And, you can even see the piano performed live. On Febraury 23, Jack Straw presents a special one-night-only live performance of new works composed for the instrument and performed by local musicians, including new works from Amy Denio, James Borchers, Jeffrey Bowen, and Luke Fitzpatrick, among many others.

Though all of the music was written in response to a clamorous piano drop, the concert pays equal tribute to the aleatoric sounds of near-silence; in the spirit of John Cage, each of the featured works is 4’33” or shorter.


Piano Drop is on display at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery through Friday, March 15. The live performance is Saturday, Feb. 23 at 7pm. Click here to learn more.

Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015), Judith Weir in A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm with a hint of mambo groove. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Playing the Piano One Note at a Time

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Gradus at NUMUS Northwest. Photo by James Holt.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer plays the piano one note at a time. Or at least, that’s the idea behind his ongoing performance series Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. He devotes an extended improvisation (20 minutes or longer) to each individual note on the piano, and to as many combinations of notes as possible.

This Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space he will perform one installment of the series: 40 minutes on one note (C sharp to be specific), 20 minutes on five notes in multiple octaves, and 60 minutes on two notes. Extended periods of silence are incorporated into all three sections. Kosaly-Meyer flips a coin to determine the number of notes per movement, how long the movements will be, and how much silence will be interspersed in each movement.

The idea for Gradus presented itself to Kosaly-Meyer over 30 years ago while he was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Washington. He had been thinking a lot about John Cage and how composers could follow in his footsteps by challenging preconceived notions of what music could be.

“It’s hard to find the frontier after a composer like Cage, who went right out to the edge of so many frontiers,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “This thought, learn to play the piano one note at a time, was kind of a thread to be able to push to do music that felt like it was on an edge, that felt like there was a risk being taken.”

Still, it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego with his wife and was able to play on a grand piano at a church he attended that he began to really explore the idea. Kosaly-Meyer believes performing on a grand piano is pivotal to Gradus.

“It’s not something you could do on an electronic keyboard or even an upright piano,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “I think to do something where you actually have enough sound, enough reverberation for a project like this to be interesting requires a grand piano.”

He began with 40 minutes improvising on the lowest A on the piano, and then began using combinations of As. Implicit in the idea of learning to play the piano one note at a time was the idea of learning to play differently by finding artistry in each sound. With attack, duration, dynamics, and intricate pedaling techniques, Kosaly-Meyer developed the ability to make a wide assortment of sounds using just one A.

His work temporarily came to a halt when he moved again and no longer had access to a grand piano. But years later, in 2001, his friend Keith Eisenbrey helped solve that problem.

Kosaly-Meyer met Eisenbrey while taking composition courses at the UW. They had done a lot of improvisation work together, and Kosaly-Meyer was able to develop the Gradus project and other works by bouncing ideas off of Eisenbrey. They became family when Eisenbrey married Kosaly-Meyer’s sister Karen, and in 2001 Kosaly-Meyer was able to continue with Gradus by rehearsing on Eisenbrey’s grand piano.

When he began sharing Gradus, it was positive feedback from Eisenbrey and other composers that emboldened Kosaly-Meyer to move forward with this musical venture. He began his annual performance series in 2002 in Seattle.

Kosaly-Meyer determined that Gradus works best with a two-hour, three-part structure that allows him to separate what he sees as three distinct ways of making music.

“I had come to a conclusion after working on this a little bit that playing with one note is a particular kind of making music, playing with two notes is another kind of making music that’s very different than just playing with one, and that playing with 3 or more notes is very different than playing with two,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from Cage, Kosaly-Meyer chose to incorporate silencewhich really means all unintended ambient soundsas an equal partner in the performance. If weather permits, Kosaly-Meyer leaves the windows open at the Chapel, allowing highway noise, barking dogs, and audiences’ creaking benches and coughs to form a chorus that supports his playing.

“I always found in improvising that music happened much more organically with an ensemble. Even if it was just an ensemble of two, it was so much easier for something musical to happen,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “Gradus is really the first kind of solo improvisation project I find that can stay musical and I think the trick is that it’s not really a solo project.”

This particular performance is dedicated to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who displayed incredible control over each and every note he played, no matter how intricate the performance. Kosaly-Meyer was also interested in exploring the interplay between the ideas of Taylor and Cage, who were at odds during their lifetimes because of Cage’s aversion to jazz and improvisation. Gradus combines Taylor’s spontaneity with Cage’s interest in silence as an equal partner.

“One thing that’s going on in Gradus is an attempt to harmonize a Cage way of thinking with a Cecil Taylor way of thinking,” Kosaly-Meyer said.


Neal Kosaly-Meyer presents Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler this Saturday, July 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. For more information, click here.

Dieter Schnebel (1930–2018): Radical Reverential Music

by Michael Schell

Photo by Peter Andersen.

With the passing of Dieter Schnebel on May 20, Germany lost one of its last links to the post-WW2 generation of composers who built a new paradigm of music after the old ideas had been pulverized beneath the wreckage of war, fascism, and genocide. As a student of the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, Schnebel eagerly soaked up the influence of his fellow students Nono, Kagel, and Stockhausen, as well as their spiritual predecessors Ives, Webern, and Varèse. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also deeply influenced by John Cage, and went on to experiment with indeterminate and graphic notation, distribution of sound sources in space, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, and theatrics of the sort that North Americans often associate with happenings and performance art.

But Schnebel didn’t always follow the script of the stereotypical European avant-gardist. For one thing, he earned degrees in both music and theology, eventually teaching both subjects and becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. And in contrast with the reputation of some composers as vain and temperamental, Schnebel exuded a gentle, collaborative personality that displayed little trace of Stockhausen-sized ego or Partch-sized shoulder chips.

These traits seem to define Schnebel’s oeuvre from its very beginnings. The short piece dt 316 (completed in 1958) is a humble attempt to articulate a modern religious sensibility using the methods of modern music. Written for 15 voices dispersed throughout the performance space, its title refers to Deuteronomy 31:6 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because the Lord goes with you, and will never leave nor forsake you.”). Fragments of that verse are sung, spoken, and whispered both in ancient Hebrew and in various translations. Don’t worry if you can’t make out the words though—Schnebel treats the text almost as a found object, preferring to highlight the transcendent, mystical side of scripture. As he puts it “in the course of the piece, language becomes music and music becomes language.”

dt 316 is the first piece in a trilogy of a cappella sacred works. The second piece is entitled amn (the vowelless Hebrew rendering of “amen”). This work is longer, about 15 minutes in the linked performance (it starts at 33:24 in the video). This time the text comes from the Lord’s Prayer, once again rendered in multiple languages and sometimes paraphrased. Apart from a few coordinated outbursts (like the one in this score excerpt that corresponds to 42:43 in the video), the 16 solo voices proceed independently in a way that suggests the private nature of personal prayer. Indeed the variety of idioms and vocal techniques heard in the piece suggests an assembly of people from diverse cultures and nations, consistent with the universalist ideals of the Lutheran faith.

Such devotion to exploring the full range of human vocal expression can easily lead a composer toward theater, and Schnebel indeed went on to pioneer a hybrid of new music and theatrics that is still influential today. The video linked above is a good sampling. In its use of nonsense syllables, moving sound sources, and strange hand gestures and choreography, it shows the influence of Schnebel’s friend Mauricio Kagel, but also connects with the work of like-minded American contemporaries such as Kenneth Gaburo. Efforts like this helped pave the way for such postmodern classics as Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, the new music theater of Meredith Monk and pieces like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia.

Schnebel’s theatrics also had an occasional whimsical side. Do you participate in a sport where the players wear special headgear? So do these singers. Do you wish that a cello could play sustained chords? Try a special curved bow. Do you prefer riding your Harley-Davidson to attending prim and proper concerts? So do these people:

In the 1970s Schnebel developed an interest in collage-quotation music, one of the quintessential styles of musical postmodernism. His collection Re-Visionen takes a fresh look at several Central European warhorses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the Re-Visionen (such as his setting of Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Musical Offering) are straightforward arrangements of the original. Others might remind you of the Swingle Singers in their heyday. The most admired movement is the Schubert-Phantasie, which sounds like an orchestral acid trip with Schubert’s late and poignant G major Piano Sonata playing on a nearby stereo. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death in 1978:

These days a piece like Schubert-Phantasie might be called a “remix.” Either way, it’s a clear precedent for two much newer Schubert homages that have been featured at Second Inversion: Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen am Spinnrade and Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished).

Schnebel’s music took a more contemplative turn in his old age, as evidenced by a pair of string quartets that were recorded by Quatuor Diotima. The beautiful String Quartet “Im Raum” (“in space”) from 2006 sounds like the satisfied musings of a man nearing the end of a fulfilled life. The texture is slow and sparse, punctuated by several musical quotes, most notably the plaintive beginning of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and the similar-sounding opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In a live performance there are elaborate instructions for how the performers should move on stage, which explains both the title and the footsteps you hear in the last movement.

In the Second String Quartet (2000–07) two actors join the ensemble, reciting numbers and occasional snippets of text in German and English. It reminds me of Crumb’s Black Angels (without the amplification) and Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (without the helicopters), but it also belies the notion that intellectual Germans can’t write sensual and playful music. Unusually for Schnebel, the music is often beat-driven, with melodic fragments and little repeating riffs emerging from the instruments. But more characteristically, it explores the full range of associations from abstraction to meaning, and even incorporates musical quotations too, including the familiar Tristan chord, which rears its head in the second movement.

Even as he entered his 80s, Schnebel stayed active, still exploring, still fascinated by the voice and the sacramental connotations of theatricalized performance. One of his last works is a ritualistic setting of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems fitting that the coda of Schnebel’s career should come from the coda of the 20th century’s most exemplary literary work.

Schnebel with John Cage ca. 1979 (via Croatian Society of Composers).

Though Schnebel’s aesthetic and philosophical interests remained fairly consistent throughout his career, any survey of his work reveals that the music itself varies greatly from one composition to another. This is partly the result of his penchant for graphic and text-based scores, but he also seemed eager to avoid repeating himself. “You ask whether I have a style? I hope I don’t. I would like my pieces to have been born each in its own manner—for each to have a style of its own.”

Can one reconcile this eclecticism with the constancy expected of a Christian clergyman? According to his colleague Godfried-Willem Raes, Schnebel “was not very church minded, and I think his idea of god was rather abstract, certainly not prescriptive. However, he believed in the meaning of rituals.” Perhaps the variety that Schnebel sought in his own music expresses a concept of God as embodying the multiplicity of the world and the cosmos. And perhaps Schnebel’s lifelong interest in ritualized performance expresses a human awe and reverence for that same multiplicity.