Harry Partch was born in Oakland, California. His parents had been Presbyterian missionaries in China who endured the Boxer Rebellion. Two years after his birth, they moved to Arizona to homestead, but never for long in any one place; after age fourteen, in fact, Partch never stayed more than three years in any single residence. He roamed all over: Hawaii at age twenty, the Midwest and East and back to Northern and Southern California.
At age twenty-nine, Harry Partch gathered up fourteen years of music he had written, based on what he called the “tyranny of the piano” and the twelve-tone scale, and summarily burned it in a big iron stove. American music wasn't really American but was only a facsimile of European convention and fashion. Serialism was only another step along this path, a path Partch wasn't interested in taking. He felt he was only an imitator of the tradition he found dumped on him, without ever questioning the ideas that lay beneath it or its ability to express the confluence of oceanic, non-Western minisounds he heard in the world around him.
For the next four and a half decades, most of the time working in virtual obscurity, Partch devoted his entire life to the production of those sounds. A true maverick or visionary in the eyes of contemporary students, Harry Partch was derided by musicologists for most of his life, often called “The Don Quixote of Music.” Only very late in life did he acquire a belated but significant international reputation as both a major musical composer and as an innovative genius.
When he died in 1974, he had built around thirty instruments and had devised complex theories of intonation and even of performance to accompany them. His legacy has crested problems equally complex. It has constituted, in music circles, almost a national debate.
Partch’s early compositions, dating from the 1930s, are all vocal, with small instrumental accompaniments. They are masterpieces of Americana, employing the language in a natural style uninfluenced by European traditions.
During the late 1940s, however, Partch began to compose for larger groupings of instruments and performers. There were several reasons: he was starting to design and building new instruments to support his harmonic and melodic theories, he was interested in a wider 'orchestrational' palette, and he was beginning to develop his sense of the corporeal performance, which included instruments that had both an aural and a physical presence.
It is difficult to separate the unique sounds of Partch’s music from the strange and beautiful instruments that give all his works their special qualities. The Partch instruments are not only performed upon; they, too, perform. Besides being co-conveyors of his music, along with singers and dancers, they are also striking sculptural works employed in the stage design. They are the vehicles of his creativity, around which Partch has designed his own notation system.
Composer as well as theorist, Partch gradually evolved his array of instruments as his musical concepts expanded. One of his earliest, dating from 1930 but preceded by other experiments, is the Adapted Viola, a viola with an extended fingerboard that is played between the knees.
Two lyre-like instruments, Kitharas I & II, date from 1938 and have twelve hexads per instrument; glass rods produce gliding tones on four of the chords.
Also dating from 1945 are two Chromelodeons, reed pump organs tuned to the complete 43-tone octave with total ranges of more than five acoustic octaves. His very precise and expandable multi-tone scale is painted on the keys of his Chromelodeon in a variety of colors and then numbered, as well, for identification in producing exactly desired musical combinations.
All his other instruments are keyed, of fixed pitch only, to his 43-tone scale. His own musical language has frequently only the staff itself in common with other written music.
Notation for the Diamond Marimba is arranged to resemble the shape of the instrument, with the exact position to be played shown at the exact time and place in the music. The luminous Cloud-Chamber Bowls have the numerical value of their precise resonance pained on them and are so indicate in the score.
The giant marimba Eroica sends out deep, compelling tones that are felt as well as heard, and so noted. Another stringed instrument is the Surrogate Kithara, with two banks of eight strings, and having sliding glass rods under the strings for stopping. Two Adapted Guitars also use a sliding plastic bar above the strings; one tuned to a six-string 1/1 unison, the other tuned to ten-string chord whose higher three notes are but a few vibrations apart.
Providing contrast to the strings and organs in Partch’s orchestra is his percussion. The highest is the Eucal Blossom, its dry, brittle pitches produced by solid lengths of bamboo. The oldest percussion is the Diamond Marimba, 1946, its thirty six blocks arranged diagonally in major and minor hexads. Its exact opposite, the Quadrangularis Reversurn, is arranged in reverse order to the Diamond Marimba with two rows of additional tones on each side of the diamond.
The Bamboo Marimba (Boo) is constructed of ascending rows of hollow bamboo closed at one end; a tongue is cut in the opposite end and struck with a stick. The Bass Marimba, made famous to film audiences in Henry Mancini’s score to “Hatari” has important lower range tones, while the subbass Marimba Eroica enables one to feel musical tone; it consists of four bars, the lowest eight feet long and vibrating at 22 cycles per second.
The Mazda Marimba is made up of tuned light bulbs severed at the socket, while the bright, piercing timbre of the Zymo-Xyl is reproduced by suspended liquor bottles, auto hub caps, and oar bars. The Spoils of War consists of artillery shell casings, Pyrex chemical solution jars, a high wood block and Iow marimba bar, spring steel flexitones (Whang Guns), and a gourd guiro. Japanese Buddha bells attached to gourd resonators and mounted on a cucalyptus branch are collectively called the Gourd Tree; to the player's right are two Cone Gongs, airplane fuel tank sections Partch salvaged from Douglas Aircraft surplus in Santa Monica.
The most fragile of all the instruments are the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Pyrex chemical solution jars cut in half, suspended on a rack, and hit on sides and tops with soft mallets. Each bowl has at least one or more inharmonic overtones, and if broken are almost impossible to duplicate, due to the nature of inharmonic overtones. A Japanese Koto, with its characteristic bending tones, is also employed, tuned to the Partch system.
Every sound produced by the instruments is a tone in Partch’s tuning and consciously used as such in acoustic relationships. Notation for each instrument is different; nothing is left to chance.
Throughout, the timbre of all the instruments that Partch has built for his orchestra is mellifluous rather than harsh, consonant rather than unrelated. As a result, the intricate rhythms and harmonies the composer employs to evoke dramatic response, to be emotionally stirring an exciting and deeply moving, never become violent.
In 1964 he came to San Diego, first to Del Mar, then to Encinitas, and finally to a small, wood-frame, two-bedroom house on Felton Street near Adams in Normal Heights.
As each new instrument appeared, transporting them became increasingly difficult. Partch once complained about this manger of materialism in a letter. After he was asked to make a long-distance trek with the instruments for a performance, he complained that “this is exceedingly difficult.” He then poked a sharp, satirical barb at another musical innovator, know for his experiments with found instruments.
“Hell, I am not like John Cage. All Cage needs is a gong, a carrot juicer, and a toothbrush.”
Harry Partch was a hell-raiser, and iconoclast, a hobo, a visionary, a Bacchic monk, some say a schizophrenic, a mass of complexities, a dove and a great white shark. In one area he was totally consistent: he detested any single ruling attitude or tradition, about which he said, "The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality."
Though no two people can agree completely about the character of Harry Partch, there are several areas of intersection, which are best summed up on the words of Danlee Mitchell. “Harry was a very responsible person. He could scream at people toward the end of his life for doing dumb, immature things. He would fly off the handle -- but not for long or too deeply – when people wouldn't carry out a job in the most efficient amount of time. He was a completely unrepressed individual, never holding back any reaction to his environment, never suppressing anything. And yet you always knew where you stood with Harry.”
“His tantrums would end, and later he would apologize to you with an equal amount of concern and care. Harry would never use something like guilt as a weapon of power. In fact, he hated all games of that sort. He was probably the most sane person you'd ever run across, and his fierce dedication never worked to the detriment of someone else. Harry labored his whole life on his own vision, knowing it would never be embraced as a musical fashion. He continued anyway, always faithful to his principles and to his method of disciplined belief.”
The message of Harry Partch, for musicians and non-musicians alike, is that there are still choices to be made and independent paths to pursue. On several occasions near the end of his life, Partch contended that he did not want people to consider his work the only worthy destination but rather one viable direction deserving serious scrutiny among many.
Partch left his legacy -- instruments, scores, recordings, videos and writings -- in the care of Danlee Mitchell at SDSU, one of his most trusted friends.
(This biography was created from liner notes and excerpts from an article in the San Diego Reader - Volume 9, No. 38, September 25, 1980, written by Jeff Smith)
The 23-song album Partch: Bitter Music was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award as Best Classical Compendium.