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In Praise of Partch

How cult-figure composer Harry Partch made his mark in New Orleans

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Harry Partch was a hobo, an instrument builder and a musical theorist -- and a visionary composer who found his muse in New Orleans.

Partch's stay in New Orleans was brief, from February 1930 through the spring of 1931, but he had a musical epiphany while living at 828 Camp St. at Sunshine Modern Apts. & Rooms, whose faded sign is still visible a block away from the Contemporary Arts Center. There Partch gathered up 14 years of music he had written, based on what he called the "tyranny of the piano" and the 12-tone scale (our Western music scale), and burned it in a potbelly stove. He then began his quest of "corporeal" music and began building his own unique instruments to realize his music.

"I had begun to call my music 'corporeal music' while I was playing the viola, and I'm sometimes pressed to really explain this. The best I can say is that 'corporeal' to me involves the whole body, the whole person, the whole mind," Partch said in an interview that appeared posthumously in a 1981 Percussive Arts Society journal.

Partch died in 1974, but his legacy of fierce individualism and contempt for established musical norms have made him a celebrated figure in the contemporary DIY music movement. In New Orleans, the Gas Tank Orchestra is a strong example of Partch philosophy, creating music and playing instruments made out of gas tanks. "Harry Partch was an inspiration as one who followed his own musical path, and somehow it's not at all surprising he passed through New Orleans on his way," says Greg Wildes of the Gas Tank Orchestra.

After Partch was discharged from the military as an apprentice seaman, he drifted down to New Orleans in 1930 and found steady work as a proofreader for The Times-Picayune. Partch had no illusions about his music being accepted or being able to make a living playing his music. "He wanted to keep it apart from his daily work, as he believes his own theories would color too deeply a musical profession," wrote the Picayune in a November 1930 article about its employee.

The occasion for the story was Partch's development of a radical 29-degree octave theory. In his writing titled "Exposition of Monophony," Partch states, "As is well known in physics, every tone produces a number of overtones, leaping away from it in infinite series. This is the only true scale." He further explained this belief in the book A Genesis of Music, claiming that the limitations of the standard piano scale "effectively close(s) all doors to any further adventures in consonance, and also amazingly, we close all doors to any meaningful adventures in dissonance."

Partch had strong feelings about the music establishment and wasn't afraid to share his feelings. "It has been on the wrong track from the beginning ... and should return to the musical method of the ancient world," Partch told The Times-Picayune.

In April 1931, he had Edwin Benton, a local violin maker, attach an elongated neck to a viola body. Partch called this new hybrid instrument a Monophone, and later renamed it the Adapted Viola. The fingerboard had 29 indications for ratios within the octave, conforming to his 1928 theory of "the more essential tones." With the Adapted Viola, Partch started experimenting with intoning speech, using verse by the Chinese poet Li Po. This, combined with his new tuning theory, led to Partch's burning of all his previous compositions.

Besides creating his own musical language, Partch began actively designing and building his own instruments, otherworldly creations with exotic names such as the Boo, Chromolodeon, the Zymo-Xyl, the Quadrangularis Reversum and Marimba Eroica, to name a few. Partch was an excellent carpenter and handcrafted the instruments from scratch, using redwood, Sitka spruce, and found objects including artillery shell casings, bamboo and driftwood.

Partch spent the next five decades in total obscurity, building his instruments, composing, and training fellow musicians. He was shunned by the mainstream -- though his work was performed at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University -- and spent the latter part of his life in California, often depending on the financial assistance of others. But after his death, Partch's unique musical vision and contributions have earned a measure of posthumous recognition. UCLA staged a Harry Partch Centennial celebration earlier this year, which included the presentation "What We Saw, Heard, and Experienced ... Corporeality and Ritual-Theater in the Works of Harry Partch."

Partch was the 20th century's quintessential musical outsider, and he discovered his gift in New Orleans, in a small apartment in the Warehouse District. If Partch were still alive and living on Camp Street, he could probably be found standing in front of the Contemporary Arts Center, ranting and raving at the faculty and touting the virtues of "just intonation" and "corporeal music."

Harry Partch with 'cloud chamber bowls' and his 'adapted guitar II' in Sausalito, Calif., circa 1953. - FRED LYON
  • Fred Lyon
  • Harry Partch with 'cloud chamber bowls' and his 'adapted guitar II' in Sausalito, Calif., circa 1953.

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