Witches, Myths, and Microtones: The Music of Harry Partch

by Maggie Molloy

Over the past five years Harry Partch’s orchestra of handmade instruments has become a staple in the Seattle spring concert calendar—among experimental music lovers, at least.

Partch was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his works. Those instruments have been in residence at the University of Washington since 2014, where, under the direction of Charles Corey, students and community members practice and perform on them each spring.

The Chromelodeon
The Gourd Tree
The Bamboo Marimba II
Charles Corey, Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium
The Diamond Marimba
The Surrogate Kithara
The Spoils of War
The Chromelodeon

This year, Corey and his crew of Partch enthusiasts are playing two of Partch’s most ambitious and rarely-performed works: Daphne of the Dunes and The Bewitched. Catch both in concert this week at Meany Hall:

Daphne of the Dunes
The ancient Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo is reimagined through the primal rhythms and eerie microtones of Partch’s handmade instruments. His sprawling Daphne of the Dunes (originally composed as a film score) is performed alongside microtonal art songs of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Tues, 4/9, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

The Bewitched
Music, theatre, and ritual merge in Partch’s radical dance satire The Bewitched. Written as a reaction against the rigidity of modern civilization, the piece explores how we might ultimately find a sense of rebirth through a discovering our ancient past. The Bewitched showcases Partch’s most ambitious writing for the female voice, the piece unfolding across 12 scenes with the instruments dominating the set.
Sat, 4/13, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

Interested in learning more? Click here for our photo tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium.

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VI

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cages Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

John Cage

Since its invention in the early 18th century, the piano has been the cornerstone of the Western classical music tradition. It has been the conduit for the musical masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and countless other composers. It has been the staple instrument in all studies of Western music theory, the standard instrument for accompanying soloists, and the shimmering star of recital stages around the globe.

The depth and breadth of classical piano repertoire is astounding. As an instrument, it has garnered a reputation as one of the most beautiful and most perfect modes of human expression—and John Cage threw a wrench in it. Literally.

In 1940 Cage invented the prepared piano: a grand piano that has had its sound altered by placing everyday objects such as screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber on or between the strings.

His creation shocked and intrigued audiences around the world. To place everyday objects inside a grand piano seemed almost sacrilegious—or at the very least, iconoclastic.

But what he created was a new type of beauty. What he created was an entire percussion orchestra from just a single instrument.

Prepared PIano

“There are two kinds of music that interest me now,” Cage says in Part VI of his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” “One is music I can perform alone. Other’s music that everyone (audience too) performs together.”

And while the notion of a prepared piano may seem unconventional, eccentric, or even extravagant to the Cage critics among us, he actually created this musical contraption in response to a very genuine need: while working as a composer and accompanist at Seattle’s own Cornish College of the Arts, he was commissioned to write music for a dance by Syvilla Fort. Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage with no room for a percussion group, he simply—well, improvised.

Cage wrote extensively for percussion because, as he himself admitted: “I certainly had no feeling for harmony.” And in a way, I guess he didn’t have much feeling for melody either.

“When I was in the sixth grade, I signed up for the Glee Club,” he says drearily into my left headphone. “They said they’d test my voice. After doing that, they told me I didn’t have one.” His voice meanders over into my right headphone: “Now there’re more and more of us, we find one another more’n’more interesting. We’re amazed, when there’re so many of us, that each one of us is unique, different from all the others.”

Perhaps Cage wasn’t a very good musician in the traditional sense—but that’s precisely what enabled him to explore music in new and nontraditional ways. It’s what allowed him to push the boundaries and open new doors to what music could be and how everyone, not just the classically-trained professionals, could be a part of it.

“To raise language’s temperature we not only remove syntax,” he says slowly, “We give each letter undivided attention, setting it in unique face and size; to read becomes the verb to sing.”

Cage_Diary.jpgMaybe that’s what inspired the colorful collage of different typefaces that constitute the entire diary. The language takes on a physical as well as an aural presence—conveying the music of the words through the visual variances between them.

“Ancient Chinese was free of syntax,” Cage says blandly. “Words floated in no-mind space. With the passing of centuries, fixed relations between words became increasingly established. The history of Chinese language resembles that of a human body that, aging, becomes arthritic.”

When you stop and think about it, music and syntax are really quite similar: both are about arranging sounds to create pleasant, balanced, or meaningful statements. But these guidelines and rules limit us; they hinder our creativity, make us stiff and boring. After all, it was the infinite possibilities of the unpleasant, the imbalanced, and the unintentional that most inspired Cage.

“As we were walking along, she smiled and said, ‘You’re never bored, are you,’” Cage recalls softly. “(Boredom dropped when we dropped our interest in climaxes. Traffic’s never twice the same. We stay awake and listen or we go to sleep and dream.)”

At times, it’s difficult to tell when Cage is awake and when he’s dreaming. Throughout his diary he’ll shift quite abruptly from a serious discussion of technoanarchism to a whimsical analysis of racial politics, then drop off the edge of reality altogether with a humorous story or a surrealist musing.

“When can we get together?” Cage asks plainly. “‘It’s hard to say: I’m going out of town tomorrow and I’ll be back sometime today.’”

The notion of time as a social construct is yet another interesting notion throughout Cage’s music and philosophical meanderings.

Last summer I studied music composition at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, and on my first day our guide took us on a tour of the entire institute. The most fascinating room was the anechoic chamber: a room designed to absorb all reflections of sound, allowing for complete and total silence. They’d only let us stay inside a few minutes at a time, since the silence gets to people.

“John Cage used to spend hours in here,” the guide told me in a charming French accent. “But that’s not really legal.”

I left Paris enlightened.

“The outside walls of buildings in Paris are used for transmitting ideas,” Cage says. “Rue de Vaugirard, I read: La culture est l’inversion de l’humanité.”

Anechoic Chamber

Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VII

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part IV

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cages Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III.


JC Part IV Photo 2
To say that the avant-garde composer and iconoclast John Cage was a musical revolutionary would be a bit of an understatement. He was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, a precursor to contemporary electroacoustic music, an innovator of musical instruments, and, perhaps most controversially, a philosopher of sound and silence.

He was much more than just a composer—he was a music theorist, a writer, an artist, and a thinker. He was a learned musician, and not just in the traditional Western sense. His interests extended far past the sphere of Western classical music and into music and art from around the world—particularly East and South Asian cultures.

Siglio Press Diary“Revolution,” he says in Part IV of his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” Then he pauses for a moment. “Two people making same kind of music is one music too many.”

As the title of the piece might suggest, revolution is a key theme throughout his diary—and Cage is not just talking about a musical revolution. The diary addresses social and political issues from across the spectrum, ranging from technology and environmentalism to poverty and violence. And in today’s day and age, those issues ring truer than ever.

“Civilization is Hamletized,” he says gravely, “(People are dying right and left): To be or not to be. That is the question.”

All whimsical Shakespeare references aside, the truth is saddening, sobering, and impossible to ignore. The all-too-frequent mass shootings, the constant wars, the terrorism—at times it feels as if hostility and violence have taken over our world, transforming our lives into a devastating drama. But when will the curtain finally close on this tragedy?

While Cage speaks of revolution almost exclusively in metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes, his optimism is still palpable—buried though it may be beneath his philosophical musings and fragmented memories. He must ultimately have faith in the future—why else would he write a five-hour diary on how to improve the world?

“If the situation is hopeless, we have nothing to worry about,” he says softly.

In other words, we worry because there is still hope; we worry because we haven’t given up yet. We know that we can still create a healthier, happier, and more peaceful world We can do it through art: through connecting with one another and inspiring one another—through understanding our world as it is, and through working together to make it better.

JC Part IV Photo 1

Image courtesy of the Vogue Archives

“Hands aren’t possessive,” Cage says calmly. “They belong to the same body. They taught us art was self-expression. You had to have ‘something to say.’ They were wrong: you don’t have to say anything. Think of the others as artists. Art’s self-alteration.”

Art is not solely in expressing oneself but in changing oneself—in growing, learning, collaborating with others, and gaining new perspectives. Art exists in creating community.

My former oil painting instructor used to tell me: “Once you finish your painting and you release it out into the world, it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to those who look at it.”

Art is not restricted to the hands that create it but rather, art changes and evolves as it continues to inspire new ideas and interpretations from its audiences. Each viewer will gain something different from a single work of art—and in that regard, the artwork itself opens a wealth of possibilities for the community that views, listens to, and engages with it.

“Spent several hours searching through a book trying to find the idea I’d gotten out of it,” Cage says blandly into my left ear. “I couldn’t find it. I still have the idea.”

When we engage with a piece of art, music, or literature, it sparks new ideas within us—and often even revisiting the same artwork multiple times will create an entirely new constellation of thoughts and emotions. And with advancements in technology, we now have infinite sources of art, knowledge, and inspiration at our fingertips at any given moment. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to share our creations, collaborate with others, and make music and art accessible for all.

“Computers’re bringing about a situation that’s like the invention of harmony,” Cage says. “Sub-routines are like chords. No one would think of keeping a chord to himself. You’d give’t to anybody who wanted it. You’d welcome alterations of it. Sub-routines are altered by a single punch. We’re getting music made by man himself: not just one man.”

All of this technology, all of this music, and all of this art is in our grasp—and we can use it to start a revolution. We can use it as a catalyst for action, and we can use it as a catalyst for positive change.

“The mind, like a computer, produces a print-out,” Cage says. “It’s on the palms of our hands.”

Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part V