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

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 click here.

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.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (by design), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Whiting and Mode Records.

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.

Greek Myths and Microtonal Instruments: Harry Partch’s Oedipus

by Maggie Molloy

We all know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, the cursed king who slept with his mother—but you’ve probably never heard it told on hand-crafted, rainbow-colored microtonal instruments before.

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

That opportunity comes this weekend with a rare staging of Harry Partch’s avant-garde theatrical extravaganza Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama. The performances, which run May 5-7, are presented through the Harry Partch Instrumentarium currently in residence at the University of Washington.

A pioneer of new music, 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 musical texts and corporeal theatre works. The Instrumentarium houses over 50 of his rare instruments, each hand-crafted out of wood and strings, gongs and glass, gizmos and gadgets.

Chuck Corey, Director of the Instrumentarium.

Directed and curated by Chuck Corey, the Harry Partch Instrumentarium puts on a handful of performances each year—but this spring marks the first time Corey and his microtonal music troupe are staging one of Partch’s full-fledged, evening-length theatrical works.

“I have had the opportunity to work with Partch’s instruments for nearly half my life, and am still amazed by some of the sounds he creates in his music,” Corey said. “Partch is best known for his just-intoned tuning system and the instruments he invented, but if he were not also a great composer I don’t think his work would have gained much of a following. For me, it is rewarding to perform his music and solve the problems his instruments present, and I remain impressed by his distinctive musical language.”

Based on Sophocles’ original Greek tragedy, Partch’s Oedipus is not quite a play and not quite an opera: the story unfolds through a combination of speech and song, augmented by the exotic harmonies of Partch’s notorious 43-tone scale.

“The voice can be used in a variety of ways in Partch’s work,” Corey said. “He often calls for intoning voice (words spoken on precise pitches), and in the case of Oedipus, we will cover the full range between speaking and singing. There are many passages in Oedipus where each character is at a different point on this spectrum.”

Oedipus floats freely in and out of Partch’s microtonal musical world, shifting between spoken monologues and hypnotizing musical settings, dramatic movement and dance. Partch’s orchestra of oddities is percussive, haunting, and hypnotic—almost ritualistic in its depth and drama.

In fact, Partch designed his instruments to be corporeal; he sought to involve the whole body and the entire person in the art. The result, for audience and performer alike, is a deeply immersive experience that brings together music, sculpture, dance, and drama in a fascinating culmination of Partch’s iconoclastic ethos.

To learn more about the magical and mysterious musical inventions of Harry Partch, take our photo tour below:

Diamond Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyDiamond Marimba:
This instrument is a physical manifestation of one of Partch’s most crucial theoretical concepts: the “tonality diamond.” Built in 1946, the instrument contains all twelve of Partch’s primary tonalities, each laid out in a series of thirds. It’s used as a prominent percussion instrument in many of his works.


Gourd Tree - Photo by Maggie MolloyGourd Tree: Built in 1964, the Gourd Tree is comprised of twelve temple bells attached to gourd resonators, each of which hangs suspended from a eucalyptus branch. Yes, a eucalyptus branch. The instrument is often played in conjunction with Partch’s Cone Gongs, which are made out of nose cones from airplane fuel tanks.


Cloud-Chamber Bowls - Photo by Maggie MolloyCloud-Chamber Bowls: Partch’s most iconic instrument, the Cloud-Chamber Bowls are made up of large glass gongs of varying sizes suspended in a wooden frame and played with mallets. Partch initially created the instrument in 1950 using Pyrex carboys discarded by the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.


Chromelodeon - Photo by Maggie MolloyChromelodeon: The colorful Chromelodeon, built in 1945, is an adapted reed organ modified to conform to Partch’s tonality system. The instrument plays a 43-tone per octave scale, as opposed to a typical Western keyboard, which plays 12 tones per octave. In addition to a standard keyboard and a collection of stops, the Chromelodeon also includes an additional keyboard of Partch’s own creation called the “sub-bass,” located in the upper left corner of the instrument. Both keyboards have colored and numbered labels representing ratios of the tuning system. Oh, and also: the player has to furiously pump two foot pedals throughout the entire performance in order fill the organ’s bellows and create sound.


Kithara II - by Maggie MolloyKithara II: Towering at nearly seven feet tall, the Kithara II requires the performer to stand on a riser in order to play it. Built in 1954, the instrument has twelve sets of six strings which correspond to Partch’s primary tonalities; four of these sets employ Pyrex rods as movable bridges. The Kithara II is also Chuck’s personal favorite instrument in the collection.


Surrogate Kithara - Photo by Maggie MolloySurrogate Kithara: As the name suggests, the Surrogate Kithara was originally invented as a substitute for Partch’s original Kithara, and was created when he began writing music for the instrument that was too difficult for one person to play. The Surrogate Kithara features two sets of eight strings, each with a Pyrex rod that serves as a movable bridge.


Bamboo Marimba II - Photo by Maggie MolloyBamboo Marimba II (Boo II): Affectionately dubbed “Boo II,” the Bamboo Marimba II (built in 1971) consists of 64 tubes of mottled Japanese bamboo organized into six ranks. Each tube is open on both ends, and tongues are cut into the bamboo at approximately 1/6 of the length of the tube in order to produce a harmonic at 6/5 of the fundamental pitch.


Bass Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyBass Marimba: Built in 1950, the Bass Marimba features 11 bars made of Sitka spruce. Just to give you an idea of the massive size of this instrument, the top of the bars are five feet above the floor, and the player must stand on a riser six feet wide and over two feet tall in order to play it.  Each bar is situated over an organ pipe which serves as a resonator, and the lowest bar corresponds to a C2 on piano which, for those of you who don’t play piano, is pretty darn low. The instrument can be played with mallets or by slapping the bars with the pads of your fingers.


The Spoils of War - Photo by Maggie MolloyThe Spoils of War: Created in 1950, this instrument takes its name from the seven artillery casings that hang from the top of the instrument. The instrument also includes four Cloud-Chamber Bowls, two pieces of tongued bamboo, one woodblock, three steel “whang guns,” and a guiro. Just think of it as a Harry Partch drum-set of sorts.


New Harmonic Canon I - Photo by Maggie MolloyNew Harmonic Canon I: Built in 1945, the New Harmonic Canon I is a 44-stringed instrument with a complex systems of bridges. It was built specifically to accommodate a second tuning, allowing the performer to play in either one or both of the different tunings simultaneously. The strings are tuned differently depending on the piece, and are played with fingers, picks, or in some cases, mallets.


Harmonic Canon II - Photo by Maggie MolloyHarmonic Canon II: Nicknamed the “Castor and Pollux,” the Harmonic Canon II (built in 1953) features two resonating boxes with 44 strings across the top. Bridges are placed beneath the strings specifically for the tuning of each composition. Like all of Patch’s Harmonic Canons, the instrument may be played with fingers, picks, or mallets.


Adapted Guitar II - Photo by Maggie MolloyAdapted Guitar II: The ten-string Adapted Guitar II is a steel-string guitar which is played with a slide. Partch first began experimenting with adapted guitars in the 1930s, and by 1945 he began using amplification for them. The ten strings of the Adapted Guitar II are typically tuned either to Partch’s “otonality” or “utonality” (terms Partch used to describe chords whose pitch classes are the harmonics or subharmonics of a given fixed tone). Thankfully, the headstock is specially designed to allow the player to change the tuning within seconds.


Performances of Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama are Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 7 at 2pm at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.