Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Harry Partch-homeless musicologist

Harry Partch (1901-1974) was a self-taught musical theorist, instrument maker, and composer. He was born in Oakland, California. His mother and father were Christian missionaries to China but his father underwent some sort of crisis of faith, before the Boxer rebellion, and the family moved to Tucson, Arizona. Harry's mother loved music and played an old-fashioned reed organ and sang a lot of Chinese songs. The family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, during Harry's early teen years and his father died there. Harry played piano at the local movie theater. Then Harry's mother died in a trolley car accident a few years later, leaving Harry on his own. He enrolled in the University of Southern California to study music but was completely unimpressed by his instructors. He dropped out after only a few courses. Was it at this school where Harry gained his life-long aversion to the Western 12-tone scale? Or perhaps an aversion to arrogant highly-trained musicians who think they know it all?

Harry traveled about and studied music and composed on his own. He seemed to have a gift for convincing old ladies in places like Pasadena and Santa Barbara to give him financial help. Sometime around the year 1930, Harry became completely disenchanted by the Western 12-tone system of equal temperment (like on a piano keyboard) and he destroyed everything he had composed up to then.

He wanted to make music with true harmonies based on the simple ratios discovered by Pythagorus in the 6th century before Christ. Also, Harry didn't like the Western style of singing, which he called 'Abstract'. He wanted to get back to a style where the words had real meaning. He felt the ancient Greeks had vocalized this way; Harry called his singing style 'Corporeal'.

Harry read a lot about the history of music and applied for a federal grant to study in Great Britain. In 1934 he was given a grant for $1500, for a year's study in Britain. The man who interviewed him for the grant suggested to Harry that he get a job as an accountant and not try to depend on grants. Harry crossed the Atlantic on a freighter. One of the first things he did in London was to hire an instrument-maker to construct a special type of pipe organ, based on Harry's ideas. The organ was to have 43 tones to the octave (instead of the normal 12 as on a piano). The keyboard looked like a typewriter keyboard. While the instrument was being built, Harry traveled to Ireland and visited the famous poet William Butler Yeats, who wanted to dramatize some of his plays in the style of the ancient Greeks. Harry demonstrated his ideas on vocalization, accompanying himself on a specially adapted viola. Yeats was interested, and gave him some helpful introductions to some British music people.

Harry decided to bum around Europe a bit. One time he was on a tramp steamer in the Mediterranean. He had a guitar with him and his Italian bunkmate asked for a song. Harry gave a weak rendition of a folk song he remembered. Sadly he didn't make a good impression, but the Italian still let Harry share his blanket, since Harry hadn't brought one along.

Harry went back to London and studied a lot about music harmonies and stuff. The collaboration with W.B. Yeats didn't materialize. When his special organ was finished it didn't work very well because of an improper internal mechanism. So Harry went back to America after his year abroad, and found no prospects. In 1935, at the height of the Depression, Harry went to California and became a hobo. At that time there were government work camps for transients, they worked picking fruit or whatever in exchange for food and housing and a few bucks a week. Harry drifted from camp to camp and met a lot of other bums and saw a lot of good California scenery. It was a apparently a fruitful time for him and he describes his experiences in a journal called Bitter Music, a good read. Harry was very revealing in this journal; he destroyed it later, but a friend had already made a copy of it.

It took Harry another fifteen years to complete his most scholarly work, Genesis of a Music. This is the work which describes his understanding of the History of Music, and explains his own system of musical intervals, and so on. This reviewer frankly can't dig it that much, and sees some errors in Harry's historical presentation. Harry seems to blame the early Christians for introducing Abstract music, citing a famous letter from Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan. Sure, why not blame the Christians for that too, Harry! Anyway, Harry's system of tonality is pretty complicated. He is known for the 43-tone octave, as opposed to the normal 12 tones per octave, as on a piano. This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds, actually. There was a flute player in the 18th Century by the name of Quantz who constructed a flute with 25 notes in the second octave. This was when, say, the note E flat was considered different than D sharp. But with the normalization of the equal temperament scale in Western music, these two notes (E-flat and D-sharp) were fudged into one. Harry seemed to blame Bach and the German Abstractionists for this, but guitar makers had used this sort of equal temperament as early as the 16th century, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Harry gained some recognition from his book and was invited to a few colleges and universities. He wrote some works for stage. He made a lot of musical instruments out of odd things like empty whiskey bottles. Harry became an expert on the tonal quality of empty whiskey bottles. I'm sorry, I'll revise this, it is pretty bitchy, no?

(to be continued)