Indigent and homeless for many years, the American composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch, who died in 1974 at age seventy-three, made resourceful use of refuse. He patched together an odd musical style of his own from materials others had discarded. From the figurative dustbin of music history, Partch dug out arcane theories of tonality abandoned in the mid-seventeenth century—ideas outmoded when Bach established the “tempered” scale of twelve semitones—and he used them to develop idiosyncratic compositional systems based upon microtones, resulting in a range of tones much larger (and more attuned to nature) than the conventional scale allows. From literal garbage heaps, meantime, he took objects such as used laboratory bowls, beams from a dismantled bridge, empty liquor bottles, and surplus aircraft nose cones, and constructed instruments out of them that would produce notes on the scales he invented. Partch’s peculiar junkyard art has more serious aims than the popular trash aesthetic, a celebration of rubbish as kitsch. It was not that he took ironic pleasure in bad ideas and vulgar sounds; he saw merit and beauty in musical systems and in objects others had rejected, and he couldn’t bear to let them go to waste.

The experience of seeing and hearing Harry Partch’s work performed on his instruments is a singular one. More than a decade after I first saw a performance of a Partch composition, a production of the composer’s forty-minute Revelation in the Courthouse Park (conducted by Danlee Mitchell, one of the composer’s young protégés), at Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall in November 1989, I can still replay “Revelation” in my mind as if it were a primal childhood memory. A theatrical spectacle, the piece draws on two parallel stories in words and music: one, Euripides’ The Bacchae, the other an update of the same tale, this time set in postwar America, in which Dionysus is transformed into the teen idol Dion Isus. Partch’s instruments, fancifully designed concoctions built to be seen as well as heard, dominated the stage, upstaging the cast of some three dozen costumed singers, dancers, musicians, drum majorettes, and tumblers.

Several of the devices were monstrous, the size of four-cylinder cars; to play Partch’s bass marimba, a wood-scrap construction seven feet across and five feet high, a percussionist scurried back and forth, rapping its boards with his fists. Following the composer’s instructions, the musicians swayed or twirled their bodies in time and manipulated their instruments in melodramatic gestures—“I always urge my performers to either caress or rape an instrument, never to merely use it,” Partch said. Impressively, the work at the heart of all this proved worth the Herculean effort. The vocal music, which hewed closely to the inflections of spoken language, was delicate and gracefully nuanced, and the accompaniment and instrumental interludes swept around the words, buoying them up in a sea of exotic tones—the ring of glass bottles; the wavering hum of a pump organ tuned to microtones; the dry, brittle ping of tuned lengths of bamboo; Japanese bells muted inside hollowed gourds.

In the ten years since I saw that performance, interest in Partch has been growing, an interest largely owing to the efforts of a few Partch infatuates, music scholars of the postwar generation, and aging rock-and-rollers seeking new sources of cool. Virtually all of Partch’s recorded works have recently been issued on CD in The Harry Partch Collection, four volumes of material including most of his major compositions in performances originally supervised by Partch himself and released on his own private LP label (with the composer’s liner notes), as well as a pair of multi-CD sets called Enclosure 2 and Enclosure 5. Both are uneven collections of serious pieces and of lesser curiosities drawn from Partch’s recording archives,1 and compiled by Philip Blackburn, the enterprising young program director of the American Composers Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has also edited Enclosure 3, a fetishistic, glossy-cover scrapbook reproducing Partch’s notebook pages, drafts of music and prose pieces, doodles, and memorabilia.

Bitter Music, edited by the musicologist Thomas McGeary and published in 1991, is a more scholarly and representative anthology of Partch’s writings. It includes the title piece, a diary of an eight-month vagabond adventure on the Pacific Coast with snatches of overheard talk and graffiti set to musical notation, as well as the librettos of his six major vocal and theater works,2 essays, and his frequently self-aggrandizing lectures on his work, the evils of the musical establishment, and their mutual exclusion.

Partch’s own book Genesis of a Music, a quirky, prolix treatise on the history of musical intonation and his theories of pitch, acoustics, and instrumentation, initially published in 1949 and significantly expanded by the author for a revised edition in 1974, remains in print. The book is primarily written for musicians interested in playing the author’s music, and includes charts listing formulas for tuning the instruments and instructions for their proper maintenance. Much of the prose is pretentious and obtuse: “The shadows of music are bred in deceit—half enticing, half forbidding, with myriad degrees of light-dark infusion—true interpretation with misinterpretation.” But there’s never a lack of passion. Conductors and composers of mainstream music are “kidnappers” and “traitors,” and historical advocates of just intonation—that is, natural tones as opposed to those produced on a keyboard—are portrayed as fallen gods. Even the presentation of mathematical ratios in the charts feels reverential.


Finally two years ago, the first biography of Partch, a thorough survey of his life and work by Bob Gilmore, an English writer on music and lecturer at the Dartington College of Arts, appeared. (Still to come is a full-length documentary directed by Ray Davies, songwriter and singer for the 1960s rock band the Kinks, filmed while a group of avant-garde, jazz, and pop musicians, including Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello, used Partch’s instruments to perform music composed by the jazz bassist Charles Mingus.) What makes Partch’s life and work worthy of so much attention?

Partch clearly saw himself in much the same way as he saw his instruments. He projected an elegantly eccentric and exotic image, and he took pride in being self-made. He rethought and reconstructed his life and his past as often as he remade his most treasured musical construction, a microtonal pump organ he called the Chromelodeon, neither ever quite to his satisfaction. In his biography, however, Gilmore manages to extricate key facts of Partch’s life from his self-mythologizing.

Born in 1901 to former missionaries to China living in Oakland, Partch claimed for a time to have been a native of China, later amending the tale to claim that he had been conceived in a Boxer prison camp in Shantung Province (which was unlikely). He studied piano as a child and proved adept enough by adolescence to accompany silent films in Albuquerque, where he learned a youthful lesson in music’s power of salvation: though Partch was frail, the local toughs resisted their inclination to pick fights with him so as to preserve his fingers and good music at the movies.

After moving to Los Angeles on his own at age eighteen, Partch briefly attended the University of Southern California, picked up work on and off as a newspaper proofreader, and began composing conventional classical-style pieces for piano and symphony orchestra. He promptly rejected conventional composition—driven, no doubt, by his failure in classical music as well as, he insisted, by an impulse to make a different sort of music. “Call it intuitive,” he wrote in Genesis of a Music, “for it was not the result of any intellectual desire to pick up lost or obscure historical threads. For better or for worse, it was an emotional decision.”

Partch proceeded, nonetheless, to poke around for those threads, studying the history of intonation in Los Angeles libraries. He discovered the early proponents of just intonation: the Roman philosopher and mathematician Archytas, a friend of Plato; Euclid, whose formulas served as the foundation of Partch’s scales; King Fang, a Chinese thinker of the second century BC; and Ptolemy, the Alexandrine after whom Partch would name one of his most beloved instruments. (As he makes clear in Genesis of a Music, Partch was also conversant with the work of later theorists and experimenters who explored the possibilities of microtones within equal temperament—that is, tones within the twelve semitones—such as R.H.M. Bosanquet and Colin Brown, both of whom predated Partch in the early twentieth century.) In later years, he would describe this process (shifting the time frame back a bit) with the characteristic arrogance of an autodidact:

In 1919, as I recall, I had virtually given up on both music schools and private teachers, and had begun to ransack public libraries, doing suggested exercises and writing music free from the infantilisms and inanities of professors as I had experienced them…. Before I was twenty, I had tentatively rejected both the intonational system of modern Europe and its concert system.

Partch had a flair for characterization, especially his own, and an affection for the dramatic gesture. Following his “musical discovery” in the Los Angeles libraries, as he would recall in subsequent decades, he gathered every composition he had written to that point (including an unfinished piano concerto, a symphonic poem rejected by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and some attempts at writing popular songs) and conducted a ritual burning on his apartment stove.

His missionary-turned-Christian-Scientist mother may have instilled his sense of sacrifice as an ennobling force; though Gilmore never addresses this theme directly, it is key to understanding Partch. Once he began work in his own systems of intonation, which employ mathematical ratios to divide one octave into as many as forty-three almost imperceptibly distinct tones, Partch found the musical establishment slow to accept his ideas, and he wore his outsider status as a badge of honor. He collected newspaper reviews of the few performances he gave at small recitals, and retyped the critical passages to which he added meticulous citations, leaving out the praise. Although he could proofread or type whenever he needed money, he took up menial labor and lived in and out of indigence, as if to dramatize his victimization. “I lay on Imperial Beach [near the Mexican border in San Diego] without food—because I was determined to have surcease from continual begging for my music,” Gilmore quotes Partch as recalling. For nearly eight years beginning in 1935 (and occasionally later in his life), Partch was homeless. He hitchhiked and rode rails around the West and Midwest, worked in fields with other itinerants, and slept in transient shelters and work camps, all with his eye trained toward posterity.


Partch kept fastidious notes on his daily experiences, which he would presently use as source material for two major projects. The prose diary “Bitter Music” was the first of these (it includes some musical notation, hence Partch’s inclusion of the work in some of his lists of compositions), a conventionally self-righteous, though often coarsely funny, Depression-era complaint against the period’s social ills. (“Today I have bitter thoughts as I wander from one line of red tape waiting to another,” Partch wrote. And, “Considering the constitution of our society, I feel that an artist might as well give up who isn’t blessed either with a substantial dependable income or a substantial dependable ring dang doo.”)

The second project, U.S. Highball, is a pulsing, kinetic twenty-five-minute text-and-music montage sometimes referred to as Partch’s hobo opera, in which the composer set to music transcriptions of the speech of the homeless people he encountered, employing one of his microtonal scales, for performance by vocalists talk-singing (the ensemble can vary in size from one to a dozen, at the artists’ discretion) and three of his early instruments (Adapted Guitar, Kithara, and Chromelodeon). This, Partch’s “hobo period” work, invariably dominates popular press descriptions of Partch and is a potent factor in his allure as a gritty, anti-establishment artistic rebel—the Woody Guthrie of microtone theory.

Gilmore’s tone is uniformly reverent toward Partch, and occasionally defensive of his lesser works, but he rarely deepens the biographical facts of Partch’s life with critical or musicological analyses. (While narrowly focused scholarly papers on Partch by Thomas McGeary, Peter Garland, and others have been published, a comprehensive critical analysis of Partch’s work remains to be written.) Still, Gilmore’s detailed account of Partch’s epic determination to mount his work, his relentless squabbling with musicians and producers over minuscule details, and his persistence in the face of ridicule, misjudgment, and rejection argue forcefully for the composer’s clarity of purpose and his uniqueness in serious twentieth-century American music, a creative landscape in which quixotic misfit visionaries like John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, and Partch himself sometimes seem the norm.

Partch’s career falls into two periods. In the first, roughly from 1930 to 1950, he worked in the idiom of intoned speech, in which he said he sought to explore “the intrinsic music of spoken words” by setting verbal language to music and to accompaniment closely akin to the voice. In his theory of music, he gave precedence to unadorned organic sounds, basing his aesthetic on what he liked to call the “corporeal”—something fundamentally rooted in the specific and physical. “Corporeal,” for Partch, referred to “the essentially vocal and verbal music of the individual…a music that is vital to a time and place, a here and now,” such as epic chant, some folk music, even seventeenth-century Florentine opera—any music that is “physically allied with poetry or the dance.” The corporeal was the antithesis of the abstract, which he rejected as being based on the dominance of nonverbal musical forms, like the symphony, over “the vitality of words.” “Sometime between 1923 and 1928,” he wrote in Genesis of a Music,

I finally became so dissatisfied with the body of knowledge and usages as ordinarily imparted in the teaching of music that I refused to accept, or develop my own work on the basis of, any part of it. With respect to current usage this refusal was a rebellion; from the standpoint of my creative work it was the beginning of a new philosophy of music, intuitively arrived at. Just how old this “new” philosophy actually is has since been a continual revelation to me.

Indeed, performances emphasizing the musicality of intoned speech date to 2300 BC China and Plato’s Greece, and the debate over the primacy of music or of words (prima la musica or prima la parola) had raged for centuries before Partch developed his arguments in favor of the latter.

Perhaps owing to childhood memories of his parents conversing in Mandarin, Partch had an acute ear for the cadences and the shifting pitch of speech. He heard music in words, and he set out to notate it precisely. Since very few of us employ the musical notes of the twelve-tone scale for casual chat (though some people come close: think of Bing Crosby, who talked as he sang, in tune and in swing time), Partch devised his own scales of microtones and the instruments for playing them.

It was to echo speech initially (and later to add harmony and counterpoint to the vocal phrases) that Partch began making his own instruments in the late 1920s. His first was a viola with an expanded fingerboard attached by a violin maker, followed quickly by an adapted guitar, a reconfigured reed organ (originally called the Ptolemy, later rebuilt and renamed the Chromelodeon), and the harplike Kithara, humble ancestors of Partch’s progressively more bizarre constructions.

Amending his approach to intonation periodically over the years, Partch developed a variety of musical systems that made use of mathematical ratios to divide one octave into 29, 55, 39, 37, or the original 43 tones, as opposed to the twelve notes of the tempered scale. The difference between one note and the next in highly divided scales such as these is virtually imperceptible, and every note sounds sour to unconditioned ears. Phrases seem an erratic assault until the mind adjusts and begins to sense musical structure in the sound. Newcomers have the same trouble with other musical forms attentive to microscopic delineations of pitch, such as South Asian liturgical chant and contemporary hip-hop.

Partch’s work in intoned speech also prefigured rap’s use of raw street talk for its text. Most prominently in Barstow (1941) and Bitter Music (1943), Partch illuminated a poetic vigor in the vernacular of the fringes of mid-century American society:

“I have a job for the first time in five years!”

“You fucking beggar! Haven’t you the decency to refuse it?”

“You Dog-damned fool! Are you plumb batty?”

“Yes, I am. Do you care?”

Initially composed for voice and adapted guitar, revised several times in subsequent years for Partch’s growing array of instruments, Barstow demonstrates the deftness with which Partch used the colorative capacity of his scales and instruments for interpretative effect. He selected minutely nuanced tones to match the rage in the hoboes’ language, sometimes exaggerating its vulgarity for comic value.

Though eclectic, Partch’s tastes in his text sources were bipolar rather than catholic. Beyond the speech of the homeless, he gravitated toward literary sources: scenes from Shakespeare plays including Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, Finnegans Wake, Yeats’s “By the Rivers of Babylon,” Thomas Wolfe’s “God’s Lonely Man,” and English translations of works by the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po. Partch said he felt a special kinship with Yeats, whom he had visited in 1934 in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to discuss his plans for setting Yeats’s translation of King Oedipus to music. The composer would later recall Yeats’s comment, “No word shall have an intonation or accentuation it could not have in passionate speech”—an affirmation of the central tenet of Partch’s conception of intoned speech. No matter that Yeats was notoriously tone-deaf; Partch craved approbation, and this was, after all, Yeats. Although the poet would describe Partch in a letter to his friend Margot Ruddock as “very young, and very simple,” Partch would long cling to words he treasured as Yeats’s blessing: “You are one of those young men with ideas, the development of which it is impossible to foretell, just as I was thirty years ago.”

Partch largely exhausted the genre of intoned speech after two decades and, beginning in the early 1950s, worked mainly in his second mode, which he called “integrated theater.” This loftily redundant phrase simply means theater—already an integrated union of language, music, movement, and the visual arts, of course. (He composed very little “absolute music,” that is, music without words, a notable exception being the mid-1960s suite for an ensemble of his instruments, And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, which began with a text from various sources which was later eliminated.) “I believe in a total integration of factors,” he explained, “not as separate and sealed specialties in the artificially divorced departments of universities, but of sound and sight, the visually dynamic and dramatic, all channeled into a single, wholly fused, and purposeful direction. All.”

Partch’s move toward a meta-Wagnerian theater coincided with his affiliations (mostly as an artist in residence, occasionally giving lectures) with a few universities, where abundant supplies of undergraduates all agog over Partch’s bohemian weirdness were available to stage his extravagant theatrical conceptions on the cheap. When Mills College in Oakland produced Partch’s setting of Yeats’s King Oedipus in 1951, the composer’s emerging reputation helped attract an impressive group of critics from the national press, including Time and Theatre Arts, the latter of which raved, perceptively if effusively, “With the production of Harry Partch’s King Oedipus the Western theater has been given one of the most challenging and revolutionary potentials in its history.”

While based for a few years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Partch created his two most celebrated full-length theater works: The Bewitched (1955), an episodic “dance-satire” in eleven movements dealing with literal and metaphoric spells in a variety of contemporary settings (“Visions Fill the Eyes of the Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room,” “The Cognoscenti are Plunged into a Demonic Descent While at Cocktails”); and Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960). Partch supervised the staging, the choreography, the set design, the costumes, the lighting, and the music—a bafflingly complex, nearly sadistically demanding idiom employing a forty-three-tone scale for voice and the ballooning collection of Partch instruments.

He contended that instruments and musicians should perform dramatic roles: Partch would insist that the dozen or more instruments used in the score for a major theater piece be positioned prominently on stage, and he would lecture the musicians on their responsibility to swoon and gyrate to the mood of the music while they performed it. “When a player fails to take full advantage of his role in a visual or acting sense, he is muffing his part—in my terms—as thoroughly as if he bungled every note in the score,” he chided in a manual he wrote for his musicians. “There is surely some special hell reserved for the player of one of the more dramatic instruments who insists on deporting himself as though he were in tie-and-tails on a symphony orchestra’s platform (such as experimental hanging by the gonads on a treble Kithara string until he relents).”

Partch certainly built as much theatricality as musicality into the more than thirty instruments he made over four decades, largely out of the eye-catching objects he happened upon: he found the zigzagged eucalyptus bough for the Gourd Tree in a neighbor’s trash pile; the Bloboy was adapted from junked automotive horns. The Mazda Marimba has tiers of burned-out light bulbs, and the Zymo-Xyl makes use of empty liquor bottles. (Partch usually had materials on hand sufficient to have constructed a new Zymo-Xyl every few days.) Mostly percussion intruments, they were each intended to contribute a particular tonal color, and all were designed with an eye for their visual as well as sonic effect: driftwood hewn in Gaudi-style curves, prism-arrays of blocks, and sheets of wound-wire strings assembled in a hybrid of primitivism and otherworldliness that recalls most uncannily the 1960s Star Trek episode in which Mr. Spock has a jam session with alien-race hippies. In 1966, the San Francisco Art Museum included several of Partch’s instruments in a show of functional sculpture and gave their creator the Nealie Sullivan Award for design.

Partch’s instruments have always been praised more readily than the work for which they were ostensibly constructed. “The instruments add atmosphere, and do it admirably,” The New York Times noted in a 1944 review of three Partch works performed in a League of Composers concert at what was then called Carnegie Chamber Music Hall, “but the music—so-called—is of entirely secondary importance.” Time derided his work as “goblin music.” Partch responded to the frequent emphasis on his instruments defensively, insisting, “I am not an instrument-builder, but a music-man seduced into carpentry.” If so, he submitted wholly; by Gilmore’s account, Partch devoted far more time and attention to building, reconfiguring, repairing, and managing storage of his instruments than he did to composing, despite the fact that tethering his compositional oeuvre to instruments so difficult to maintain, demanding to play, and costly to ship made his work virtually impossible for most classical-music institutions to stage. Moreover, as Gilmore neglects to mention, Partch never really needed to invent instruments in order to compose forty-three-tone music; he could have used any non-fretted string instruments (violins, cellos, etc.) or non-calibrated brass (trombones, trumpets). But Partch clearly valued the range of exotic timbres he was able to manipulate with his own instruments, and he obviously loved to tinker.

Now from two and a half to six decades old, and in most cases jerry-rigged with fragile materials that the habitually impoverished Partch could afford to buy or could find somewhere, his instruments remain the perishable heart of the composer’s work. Since these creations are costly to house and keep in playable condition, Dean Drummond, a student of Partch and caretaker of his instruments, in an inversion of Partch’s method of making instruments in order to play his music, is now staging concerts of new works composed for Partch’s instruments to help keep them in use—and to explore their potential beyond Partch’s own compositional ideas. Drummond’s performance of his own eighty-six-minute film score The Last Laugh, at the Winter Garden theater at the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan in November 1998, featured ten of Partch’s instruments, including the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, the Diamond Marimba, and the Bloboy. It was an earnest presentation of lucid, if somewhat derivative, Partch-inspired music, fairly well attended by an animated and predominantly young audience. “I love Partch,” one man sitting to my right said. “His stuff is wild…futuristic sci-fi jazz.” But such reactions betray a skewed perception of Partch’s music (and much of Drummond’s work with Partch’s instruments), which is grounded in tradition, antitechnological, and meticulously notated with little room for jazzlike improvisation.

What is such a listener loving, then, when he says he loves Partch? In 1971, Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar virtuoso, performed at New York’s Madison Square Garden as the opening act for George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and a roster of other rockers whom Harrison had gathered to raise money for Bangladesh relief. After hearing a few minutes of Shankar’s ensemble, the audience of some 20,000 roared in approval. “Thank you,” Shankar replied. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” However ill-informed, the members of Shankar’s audience may have been responding at least partly with natural enthusiasm for something startlingly new to their ears. Maybe they really did like the tuning, for the jumbled beauty of the timbres and the instruments’ jolting, erratic tempi. Perhaps Partch’s instruments are exhilarating in the same way that Shankar’s Indian instruments are, by producing sounds of an unexpected, almost unfathomable beauty—wild perhaps, but primeval rather than futuristic, and rigorously organized rather than improvisational in form.

Decades after its composition, Partch’s music remains potent, still utterly unique in its uncompromising evocation of the darker hues of the emotional spectrum—and the lighter. In Partch’s numerous works dealing with hobo life, the music exquisitely complements the yearning, the rage, and the resignation (as well as the self-pity) of the text. (Paul Bowles, while he was a music critic for The New York Herald Tribune, commented in 1944 on Partch’s skill at “expressing a kind of all-embracing unhappiness.”) In time, Partch became equally adept in the realm of the ludicrous. Often mistakenly presumed to be gravely serious, the laughably outrageous work he created for the theater is supposed to be funny. Many of his works, such as Revelation in the Courthouse Park, The Bewitched, and Water! Water!, were designed as parody or satire; when they make one want to laugh—and they frequently do—they are succeeding.

Although he is typically linked with figures of the twentieth-century avant-garde such as Cage, Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, Partch didn’t think of himself as a modernist. And for all his inventiveness, Partch distrusted technology; he abhorred electronic music and saw his work not just as an alternative to its increasing prevalence during his lifetime but as a corrective to it. “The…individual’s diminishing significance in the face of an industrial machine is not to be disputed, but nothing could be more futile (or downright idiotic) than to express this age,” wrote Partch in a 1959 essay. “The prime obligation of the artist is to transcend his age, therefore to show it in terms of the eternal mysteries. What this age needs more than anything else is an effective antidote.”

In a tangible sense, Harry Partch has transcended his age: twenty-five years after his death, his work is more available than before. The details of his life have been published. Tower Records carries the recordings he made; rock stars play his instruments. Can a biopic be far behind? I would like to think that the Partch revival, such as it is, speaks of more than his cult appeal as a kook. Indeed, his work seems more timely than it was during his lifetime, as a statement in protest of technology that was conceived years before our lives were computerized, and as a link to primitive and non-Western musical traditions explored long before the popularity of “world music.” Time has proven Time wrong: there is something haunting in the music of Harry Partch, but it has nothing to do with goblins; it is the spirit of the primal, the sound of someone banging on a gourd. If it surprises, it can also fascinate for its echoes of the earliest attempts to make music, for the unnerving beauty of such strange, raw sounds, and for its reminder that one man’s garbage can be another man’s art.

This Issue

July 20, 2000