Harry Partch

    The music of Harry Partch is unique among the output of any American composer, and this is not only due to the fact that it employs a just-intoned microtonal harmonic system and necessitates the use of unique instruments Harry designed and built himself; Partch’s music stands out mainly because of his holistic approach to artistic creation, his colorful background and outlook on life which permeated so much of his work, and his encyclopedic knowledge. He created a new music theory applicable only to his oeuvre and the performance necessity of his handmade instruments, and broke completely with all accepted musical norms of his time (which are largely still ours today); because of this Partch’s music was and is rarely heard, and as a result his life story is not known and his life’s work is misunderstood.

    This paper will hopefully serve as an introduction to what the author believes to be Partch’s greatest artistic impact, toward whose realization the microtonal scales, special temperaments and unique instruments were merely tools. Partch believed in the inherent interconnectivity of all art forms, a viewpoint informed both by his own convictions and reactions against the ‘classical music industry’ of his age as well as his exposure to and fascination with other, sometimes ancient art philosophies where such multifaceted artistic creation was common. What follows is a very brief introduction to Partch the man, an exploration of his musical mind (including his theories), and ultimately a view of Partch as the artistic creator. 

    Appropriately enough for a twentieth century mind and a quintessentially American composer, Harry Partch was born in 1901, at the dawn of what has been called the American century. But to identify Partch with Americanism is not to do so in the way Copland is referred to as a quintessential American composer; no, Partch typifies Americanism through his ingenuity, thirst for knowledge, maverickism, impatience, individuality and work ethic. Had he not these qualities, he never would have trekked out, alone, on the path he chose.

    Harry Partch was born in southern California to Virgil and Jennie Partch, Presbyterian missionaries to China.  His childhood saw him frequently move about the southwest and as a result young Harry was exposed to much that influenced his later work: Spanish, Native American, and Asian cultures, as well as witnessing the end of the American frontier era. Perhaps even more influential was the fact that this early period was one of almost constant transition for Harry, with the passing years bringing new schools, towns, social situations, and a growing sense of the mutability and unpredictability of life.

    The precocious youngster showed interest in music beyond the abilities of his family. In his often scathing commentaries on his family members, he offers up that although they were all amateur musicians, “I do not think that any of my family devoured as avidly as I did the idea of music.” (Gilmore 18)

    To go into the details of Harry’s formative years could fill and indeed has filled a volume, but for the purposes of this paper it should suffice to stress that Harry’s intelligence and curiosity set him apart from the start, either through real social situations or by walls he erected himself. His constantly changing surroundings coupled with a deep resentment toward his parents (in particular his mother) contributed to his lifelong sense of rootlessness and equal connectivity to all things.  The menial odd jobs he worked showed him a cross section of the real Southwest; the hardships, poverty, and personal stories of those who worked the once-prosperous land but had now become hobos. Finding an outlet for all this stimuli in music is what transformed Harry Partch the young man into Harry Partch the composer.

    Beyond the basic piano skills he learned from his mother, young Harry learned other instruments which later aided his development of the Partch instruments. He recalls learning “the old pump reed organ, a mandolin, and a cornet. I mean seriously. Whatever plucked string technique I later developed started with that mandolin.” (19) He also knew the piano well as evidenced by recordings of him playing in his later years, although he referred to it as “twelve black and white bars in front of musical freedom”. (53)

     Of the timespan of his late teens and twenties, when he truly came into his own, little is known. Fragmented records and faded memories are all that remain to track his path during these years, but it is known he was musical through high school and attended the University of Southern California, albeit briefly. His attitude toward formal music education is clear in his interviews; in one he states he saw no purpose to continue formal study after “[we spent] three long months on the resolutions of the dominant seventh chord.” (44) Partch lashed out against established teaching modes but not against education itself; his self determination simply led him “from the classroom where I had to listen to teachers who were telling me nothing, to the public library where I could discard a book that was telling me nothing. (...) When I had formal music classes...I did rebel, because my philosophy was already established, though it was certainly not articulated.” (45) During these years Partch wrote music using standard instruments and standard scales (all of which he would later burn), but struggled to reconcile this ‘abstract’ music with his inward, almost childlike philosophies of the interconnectedness of all things (and all arts), art as action, and creation of art as an everyday occurrence. (46)

    At age 21, working one of his menial jobs, Partch was exposed to Hermann Helmholtz’ On the Sensations of Tone, an acoustico-theoretical volume which explained sound by its physical properties (ratios of frequencies) rather than its employment in any theoretical system of organized music. Helmholtz stated that equal temperament was one, but not the only, solution to systemic harmonic problems, and this revelation coupled with his exploration of Greek modes and Greek methods of harmonic derivation opened up new possibilities for Partch who, although disenchanted with the current state of music, was still largely a product of his age. In his mid to late twenties Partch experimented with writing in just intonation, and by 1928 he was putting his developing theory down on paper. In was in this year that he also began his self-imposed work-exile as a hobo; with both parents dead, older siblings gone and a growing sense of disconnectedness with the socio-musical world around him, Partch set out to find truth and honesty, as well as artistic inspiration, in the lifeblood of the American Southwest.

    Partch did not live as a ‘homeless person’ as we may think of them today; he found an entire ‘hobo culture’ filled with comic and tragic life stories, and adventures borne out of the stark reality in which he lived. All these experiences permeated his music. His microtonal theory, which began with Exposition of Monophony in 1928, was put into practice in his journals in which we see him transcribe speech into tones, first with the best 12 tone approximations and later with the more accurate microtones. Partch had gained, in this hobo culture, the second part of his artistic foundation: the importance of the spoken word, which influenced how he thought of sound and music in general, years before the innovations of John Cage and others.1   He writes in his journal Bitter Music: “Music is not a desire--it is an omnipresent condition. Tones, like the colors of the sky, mountains, trees, and the body, are inescapable, and not all music is man-made. Some respond--some don’t. Much of what is man-made we ignore, such as the music of speech. Well, I’m not ignoring it.” (Partch 13)

    From Helmholtz Partch gained an expanded and (he thought) universal definition of sound and tone; his exposure to different cultures in his youth sparked his interest in the artistic practices of East Asia, the Pacific, and Native Americans. Now his ‘research’ among the hobos of the southwest solidified his conviction on the importance of intoned speech as the vehicle of his new music. In the early 1930’s Partch put all this experience into practice and composed Ten Lyrics of Li Po, for intoning voice and adapted viola (held like a viol, it had a cello’s fingerboard to extend the range and better facilitate finding the microtones). Partch traveled around, accompanying himself and intoning (in english) the texts of the ancient Chinese poet. It caused a sensation to those who heard it. Headlines from New Orleans to Los Angeles read: “Student Evolves New Melodic System”, “Speech New Route to Music”, “Spoken Word Basis for New Musical Notation” (Blackburn, 9-14)

    The Lyrics of Li Po were the beginning of Partch’s true life as a microtonal musician, innovative theorist, and iconoclastic musical mind. They were to be followed by many other pieces, to be performed on an ever growing ensemble of hand made instruments of Harry’s own devising: from his hobo journals came the intoned travel-dramas Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions (‘41),  and U.S. Highball (‘43); rare forays into purely instrumental music can be heard in Eleven Intrusions (‘49), and Castor & Pollux (‘52); then there are also his large works: his opera King Oedipus (‘52), and the multidisciplinary art forms Revelation in the Courthouse Park (‘60), Delusion of the Fury (‘65) and his final work The Dreamer that Remains (‘72).

    In these pieces, Partch used any number of different microtonal scales he developed, the most famous and largest being the 43-tone scale. As mentioned in the introduction, Partch’s development and use of the 43-note scale was simply the creation of a tool to build the music he heard. Partch thoroughly explains and defends his theory in a 400 page treatise Genesis of a Music, and it is both impossible and unnecessary to go into as much detail here as he does in that volume. What is important is that Partch learned from Helmholtz that pitch can be expressed as a ratio of frequencies (or string lengths, hammer masses, etc. as shown by Pythagoras). It was a postulate which led him to think that one could have a very precise harmonic system if one relied on these immutable mathematical properties of tone and not abstract systems like A-B-C, triadic functional tonality, or any tempered scale. He quickly set up his own parameters: 1) he would refer to pitch only using ratios (1/1 being a unison, 3/2 being a fifth, etc.);  2) due to the importance Harry placed on the human voice in his music, he subjectively chose G as his 1/1, as it lies well in the male baritone range; 3) since the ratio 2/1 (octave) was sonically equivalent to the 1/1 (unison), and to keep the ratios from involving very long numbers, he made all ratios to be expressed between a 1/1 and a 2/1 (for example, 7/8 would be expressed as 7/4, which raises the octave but maintains the pitch identity).

    The numbers used are the ratios of frequencies in the natural harmonic series: G is 1/1, the next G is 2/1 (or also 1/1), D is 3/1 (to the fundamental, 3/2 to the 2nd partial G. Thus D is always expressed 3/2), the next G is 4/1, (or 2/1, or therefore 1/1); the B is 5/1, expressed as 5/4 (relating it to the 4th partial G rather than the fundamental to keep the ratio between 1/1 and 2/1), the next D again 3/2 (an octave from the 3rd partial D) and the low F is 7/6, the actual, untempered 7th partial. Harry continued this way to the 11th partial, the half-sharped fourth.

    This ratio notation system works not only to relate a partial to a fundamental (the 7th partial vibrates 7x for every 6x the fundamental vibrates, thus 7/6) but also to find intervals between two pitches (the 5th partial (B) is 5/4, a major third from G, and the 6th partial (D) is 3/2, a perfect fifth from G. This is because both partials are related back to the fundamental, or 1st partial. Relate the 6th to the 5th and one gets 6/5 for B-D, which is the ratio of frequency relationships for a just intoned minor third). For the system to become clear one must remember that to add ratios one multiplies them, to subtract one divides. This differs from the additive nature of the western system (a minor 3rd plus a major 3rd gives a perfect fifth. In Partch’s system a 5/4 times a 6/5 gives a 30/20, or a 3/2, a fifth).

    In Genesis of a Music, Partch shows just how inaccurate the equal tempered system is, when he places the true just intervals side by side. He discovers some intervals are so far from their just equivalents that to show where they actually lie he must give a higher note minus a few cents, or a lower note plus a few cents. His table:

               12-TONE EqualTemp:         JUST INTUNED RATIO

G to G (0 cents)                
1/1 exact

                  G to Ab (0-100 cents)         16/15  minus 12cents

                 G to A (0-200)                    9/8  minus 4 cents or
                                                     10/9 plus 18 cents

                  G to Bb (0-300)                  6/5  minus 16cents or
                                                      7/6  plus 33 cents

                        G to B (0-400)                    5/4  plus 14 cents         

            G to C (0-500)                    4/3  plus 2 cents

                    G to C# (0-600)                  7/5  plus 17.5 cents or
                                                             10/7  minus 17.5 cents

                G to D (0-700)                    3/2  minus 2 cents

                  G to Eb (0-800)                  8/5  minus 14 cents

                   G to E (0-900)                    5/3  plus 16 cents or
                                                           12/7  minus 33 cents

                  G to F (0-1000)                  16/9  plus 4 cents or
                                                          9/5  minus 18 cents

                G to F# (0-1100)                15/8  plus 12 cents

    One can understand Partch’s sense of inadequacy with equal temperament when one thinks that a musically trained person can usually discern a difference of 2 cents, and most definitely hear a difference of 4 or more. In the more dissonant intervals: the M7, m7, m2, etc. one sees discrepancies between just tuning and tempered tuning going as high as 18 cents, in the m3 and M6 this rift expands to 33 cents, nearly a quarter tone! The A4 (tritone) is so far tempered as to actually lie precisely between to two just intoned equivalents (but this compromise still cheats either true pitch out of nearly 18 cents). This realization made Harry think that musicians trained in the western tradition literally don’t know what they are hearing, having been fed lies by pianos and harmony classes for decades. The ratios in just intonation are usually small-number proportions (4/3, 5/4, 6/5), whereas those in equal temperament are much more complex (those same pitches are 587/433, 63/50, and 44/37).  Partch maintained the ear ‘wants to hear’ the pure, small number ratios, and  the mind ‘bridges the gap’ when the ear hears the false intervals, e.g. from the piano. (Partch 109)

    Partch’s original microtonal scale contained (only!) 29 pitches, but he eventually developed a scale comprising 43 pitches. His arrival at 43 tones was a 2-step process; the first was establishing all ratios within an octave which exist within the 11-limit (that is, not going past the 11th harmonic above a fundamental). Partch chose the 11-limit arbitrarily, but the 11th harmonic is the first which has never been satisfactorily approximated in western tuning systems. This ‘11/8’ is equivalent almost perfectly to a half-sharped fourth (551 cents). Partch then applied this system up and down from the 1/1, so the scale exhibits symmetry about the octave, and he derived 29 ‘primary tonalities’. This 29 note scale had large gaps near the ends, so the second step was to fill the gaps, which Partch did by creating ‘secondary tonalities’ derived from multiplying the original ratios.2

    Partch is most famous (if that word can be used) for innovation of his microtonal theory and the novelty of his original instruments, but in reality there was nothing ‘new’ about his harmonic system and nothing novel about his creations. The pitches Partch used were all derived from the natural harmonic series and included intervals more consonant than those equal temperament could ever attain; he simply used many of them in the same scale. The creation of his instruments was an inevitability, for he needed a medium with which to present his music. Partch’s most unique, interesting, and vital contribution to art is rather his philosophy of corporeality, the creation of corporeal, as opposed to abstract, music.

    Unfortunately, Partch’s defined abstraction only slightly more clearly than the Soviets did formalism. But while an absolute definition of corporeal or abstract is difficult to articulate, their realities are easy to spot, and thus the distinctions between the two musics are not simply imagined. Abstract music comes in many forms; everything from a Bach fugue to a Donizetti aria would be considered abstract, along with all serial music of any stripe, ‘absolute’ classical forms, and music which serves more as an exercise for the composer than an experience for the audience or performer. Abstract music is logical, self-justifying, and often about nothing beyond the notes themselves (although opera is always about something, Partch’s rejection of bel canto was due to the music taking prevalence over, and obscuring, the words).

    Corporeal (‘of the body’) music encompasses many things: the philosophical intent of the composer, the musical content, even the method of performance. Corporeal music is always about something, but need not be program music. It must take its starting point from something real, something human; vulnerable, irrational, perhaps a little orgiastic or even obscene. Most often corporeal music contains text, and this text is presented in a clear manner as the central focus of the work. In a Partch performance, players take on the personalities of the instruments they play, instruments become sets and symbols, actors sing and dance, dancers intone speech, performers move in silent ballet, and the whole experience converges to create more a piece of performance art than something definable only as ‘music.’ These ideas were not new or unique to Partch; he simply looked further back than the romantic composers, further than the classicists and baroque masters into practically anything from Monteverdi and before. Here (from 15th century madrigals to ancient Greek theatre and even Japanese Noh plays) he found the elements of direct communication with an audience, a penchant for intense theatricality, a blending of art forms (which later would became estranged), and the reality that the modern concert hall decorum is unnatural and doesn’t necessarily benefit audience, performer, or piece.

    Jonathan Szanto, who played in the ensemble in the 60’s, recalls the experience:
    “From the first rehearsal with Partch, it was clear that the difference I sensed was correct: Harry began communicating to the ensemble members the 'extra-musical' attitudes and actions that he felt lead to a experiential performance. He would show how to approach an instrument with the proper physical inclination, not unlike the motivation of an actor in his part. The physical approach would reflect both the nature of the notes and phrases themselves (especially the notoriously wicked "licks" Harry could come up with), as well as the dramatic or musical intent of the passage.

     In doing so, as former 'instrumentalists', we slowly began to see our relationships to the printed page and the vehicle to transmit the notes changing, from one of passive translators to active, engaged participants. What followed directly from that was a natural inclination to move, to sing, to dance, to act. As the years went on, we broadened our performances and productions to include as much of Partch's 'corporeal' aesthetic as we could. This meant putting aside fears of embarrassment and inadequacy at being those singers, dancers and actors, to better serve the piece at hand. To this day, I can't play a typical orchestra concert without feeling claustrophobic and constrained; if not corporeal, to at least strive for exuberant.”3

    Partch is an invaluable figure in music; not only music history, but music of today, and tomorrow. On the one hand is the inspiring story of a man so dedicated to the art he had to make that he managed to create it completely alone, literally rebuilding his reality from the ground up until he could realize the sounds in his mind. Also, there is Partch the theorist; even if one does not care for or even believe in his theories on tuning and physics, one must respect how passionately he fought to show the standard way need not be the only way. But then there is Partch the creator of art; the man who thought art was the property, right, and creation of all, and who established a legacy of compositions and philosophies to empower performers and listeners to give to art without reservation, and expect art to give back in kind.

End notes:

1  It should be mentioned that Partch was not completely unaware of the work of other composers, namely Cowell in California and Ives, Varese, the ICG et al in the Northeast. But, partially due to a lack of definite records kept at the time and partially due to an evident lack of influence on Partch’s work, it is doubtful that anything came out of personal or professional relationships with them (Cowell encouraged Partch in California, but in a strictly paternal way, with no impact on either one of their careers.) Pv

2  See the attached list of Partch’s scale

3 Jonathan Szanto, quoted from http://www.corporeal.com/how.html
It may very well be this corporeal aesthetic, which encourages one to tap into the emotional, irrationally Dyonisean stream within, which allows Harry’s music to be so quickly learned by performers. Partch performers must play instruments they have never seen before, tuned to pitches they have never heard, creating an effect they have never experienced, and yet undergraduate music students somehow offer a well-prepared concert of his music each semester at Montclair University where the instruments reside. Perhaps corporeality is invaluable as a psychological-artistic method to empower the performer to tap into that X- factor which creates a great art.

    Works Cited


Blackburn, Philip. Enclosure 3: Harry Partch. Saint Paul, MN: American Composer’s Forum, 2005.

Gilmore, Bob. Harry Partch. Yale University Press, 1998.

Partch, Harry. Bitter Music. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Partch, Harry. Daphne of the Dunes. Score copy dated Jan, 1968.

Partch, Harry. Genesis of a Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979.

Audio Media:

Partch, Harry. Daphne of the Dunes. Newband: microtonal works 2: mode records, 1994.

Partch, Harry. Windsong. The Harry Partch Collection vol 3.  Composers Recordings, Inc., 1997.


Newband. “Harry Partch: Music and Musical Theatre Works.” 16 April 2007  <http://www.harrypartch.com/partchworks.htm>

Partch, Harry. “American Mavericks: Harry Partch’s Instruments.” 16 April 2007 <http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/feature_partch.html>

Szanto, Jonathan. “Harry Partch: How it Happened.” Harry Partch Foundation. 18 April 2007  <http://www.corporeal.com/how.html>

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