Harry Partch

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Partch Ensemble (California Plaza, 2007)

Harry Partch (born June 24, 1901 in Oakland , California, † September 3, 1974 in San Diego , California) was an American composer , inventor, instrument maker and avant-garde theorist. He was one of the first western composers to turn to microtonal music . Partch wrote most of the pieces of music for instruments he had invented and built himself, which were tuned in a pure (“ Just Intonation ”) 11-limit tuning (based on integer ratios, going up to the 11th natural note).


Quadrangularus Reversum, Harry Partch
Harry Partch & Gourd Tree

Both of the composer's parents were Presbyterian missionaries who worked in China shortly before he was born. As a child, Harry Partch learned instruments such as clarinet , harmonium , viola and guitar . He composed his first pieces at an early age. In his early works he used the twelve-tone temperament common in Western music . Over time, however, he saw significant deficiencies in the conventional tuning due to the impurity of the tempered intervals and the failure to observe pure intervals beyond the third. Partch dated this change to 1923, when he discovered Hermann von Helmholtz 's The Doctrine of Sound Sensations as the physiological basis for the theory of music (translated by Alexander J. Ellis). In 1930 he burned all of his earlier works, including many songs.

Partch showed particular interest in the musical elements of spoken speech. He developed his first extended scales with the intention of being able to reproduce the melody of the speaking voice. He built his own variant of the viola to demonstrate his concept. It had an extended fingerboard with metal dots for "natural" intervals and was played like a violoncello. An important early work for this "Adapted Viola" with vocals are his Seventeen Lyrics based on Li Po texts (1930–33).

In 1934 Partch received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation , which gave him the opportunity to go to London to study ancient Greek sound systems, among other things. During his stay in Europe, Partch met the poet William Butler Yeats in Dublin . Partch needed his approval in order to use Yeats' translation of " King Oedipus " by Sophocles in an opera. Partch took one of his instruments, an adapted guitar, to the meeting and used it to accompany his own singing. Yeats was enthusiastic and said, "a piece with this wonderful instrument and with such music should be really sensational". So Partch received the poet's blessing, which unfortunately was not recorded in writing.

Partch intended to build instruments for the performance himself. After his scholarship expired, Partch, returning to the USA in 1935, got caught in the "Great Depression", found no work and had to make ends meet as a casual worker. This time as a " hobo " had a lasting impact on him and led to his breaking not only with western musical life, but ultimately with western society. He was an extremely independent but also difficult character. Nevertheless, he always found friends who recognized his enormous talent and supported him, be it with scholarships or with opportunities to build instruments on ranches (Gualala, California) or at universities and to organize performances with young people.

In 1941 Partch Barstow - Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California , wrote a work for vocals and (in the first version) "Adapted Guitar". The text is inspired by graffiti the author found on a freeway junction in Barstow, California. The piece is based on the set of 43 levels of clay devised by Partch. These are based on an extension of his tonality diamond and only use integer intervals in the 11-limit, see below.

During his time as a hobo, Partch spent a lot of time on "freight trains", trans-American freight trains, which then inspired him to write a great work, US Highball - A Musical Account of Slim's Transcontinental Hobo Trip 1943. The work basically orchestrates a freight train journey from San Francisco to Chicago . Partch actually undertook this trip in September 1941. Even in his hobo days he published articles in several magazines. In 1991, long after his death, a collection of Partch's articles and musical records from this period appeared under the title Bitter Music . The articles often contained fragments of conversations with hobo friends, which were written on staff. Partch noted the speech melody used by the speaker. This technique became groundbreaking for all of the vocal parts of his pieces. Even before Partch, Leoš Janáček used similar methods. After Partch, Steve Reich made this technique fruitful, for example in Different Trains .

In 1942 Partch traveled to New York. As early as 1933 he had met important composers and musicologists such as Charles Seeger , Walter Piston , Henry Cowell , Aaron Copland and Otto Luening there . The latter then arranged for him to give lectures at various universities in 1942, including the Eastman School of Music. In March 1943 Partch received the long-awaited Guggenheim grant for the construction of new instruments and the performance of his "Monophonic Cycle" (including Barstow and US Highball ) at New York's Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in 1944.

Mediated by the pianist and composer Gunnar Johansen, Partch began working with the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1944. He had met Partch in New York. The Music School rejected Partch, but the Sciences accepted him. In 1949, the University Press there published Partch's book Genesis of a Music , completed in 1947. In it he deals with music theory and instrument making. Today the book is considered to be one of the fundamental writings on the theory of microtonal music. It went through several editions and is still available today.

After the university's support expired in 1947, Partch stayed in northern California. Johansen finally offered him the old forge on his ranch in Gualala (north of San Francisco), which Partch expanded into a studio. New instruments were created there, often with the help of the huge Californian redwood trees. In 1950, Partch made sound recordings there with young people, including the young composer Ben Johnston with his wife Betty. In the 1950s, Johnston became one of its major sponsors.

The instruments in Gualala now include a rebuilt and specially tuned harmonium called "Chromelodeon", the "Adapted Guitar" and "Adapted Viola", the "Diamond Marimba", the "Harmonic Canon", the huge "Kithara" made by one The podium is to be played and also the mighty "Bass Marimba" (which was later surpassed in size by the "Marimba Eroica"). Partch turned back to the unfinished Oedipus project , but the executors of the late Yeats' will refused Partch permission to use the translation. Partch felt compelled to create his own translation. In 1952, however, a Yeats version was performed at Mills College in Oakland, California. A cooperation with Martha Graham in New York failed because of the copyright.

In 1953 Partch had to leave his studio at Mills College and established himself in Sausalito , north of San Francisco. At "Gate 5", an abandoned shipyard, Partch built an ensemble and, with the help of a few friends ("Harry Partch Trust Fund"), founded the famous "Gate 5" record label. This secured his livelihood through private sales of his recordings. In the 50s and 60s Partch created his most important major stage works, which are at the same time a stage presentation of his now completed instruments. His instruments become, so to speak, carriers of action.

Significant works

Notable works by Partch include The Bewitched (a kind of mixture of ballet and opera ) and Revelation in the Courthouse Park (based on Die Bakchen des Euripides ). Both were realized in the 1950s at the University of Illinois in Urbana, mediated by Ben Johnston, who teaches there. He composed the dance and theater music "Ring around the Moon", " King Oedipus " and "The Hexed". One of a series of short works entitled "And on the seventh day the petals fell in Petaluma." Partch's last major work was Delusion of the Fury (1965–66), premiered at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1969. Some critics consider it Partch's most important work.

As mentioned, at the end of the 1940s, Partch was established by friends as the " Gate 5 " label . It was here that recordings of his works were made until 1962, including earlier works such as Barstow and US Highball , which show his style to a large extent. In addition to Delusion , his chamber music masterpiece from the 1960s should be mentioned to a certain extent: And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1963–66). In the last few years of his life, some recordings were made by Columbia Records . This also includes Delusion , with which Partch caught the attention of the musical world outside the USA. In his final years a film was made with and about Harry Partch. The Dreamer That Remains - A Study in Loving emerged from his soundtrack (1972) .


Boo II , instrument based on bamboo marimbas
Variation of a zither by Harry Partch

In order to be able to obtain the sounds corresponding to his ideas on the basis of the 43 microtones subdividing the octaves, Harry Partch invented or adapted a whole range of new instruments, such as the Cloud Chamber bowls made of Pyrex and the “Chromelodeon”, a 43-part octave Harmonium. He produced enlarged kitharas for his purposes and converted marimbas .

Sound system

Partch's tone system is based on Hermann von Helmholtz 's theory of tone sensations , after reading it, he rejected the tempered tone system and the major-minor dualism. In particular, one can perhaps speak of an extended version of Max Meyer's tonality diamond . This "diamond" generates - as Partch put it - "Otonalities" and "Utonalities" on its two diagonal axes: Otonalities (o = 'over', or 'Major') and Utonalities (u = 'under' or 'Moll') . These “Otonalities” and “Utonalities” go beyond the major and minor by including the 7th, 9th and 11th natural notes.

Partch starts from the following network of integer intervals, where 1/1 denotes the fundamental G of his system, 9/8 the major second A according to the natural tuning, 5/4 the pure major third B (about a twelfth tone lower than in the tempered system), 11/8 the 11th natural tone C sharp (about a quarter tone lower), 3/2 the perfect fifth D (slightly higher), 7/4 the natural seventh (about a sixth tone lower) etc. This is his "Otonality". Their values ​​can be read from the bottom left to the top right on the diagonal and start at different values ​​that are plotted on the opposite diagonal. This opposite diagonal from the bottom right to the top left includes the inversion of the values ​​and is called “Utonality” by Partch.

Harry Partch: Tonal basis of his system: 11-limit tonality diamond

This formula can be used to convert these numerical ratios (= interval ratios to "Identity" 1/1, i.e. our tone G) as pitch values in cents : You divide the numerical values, form the logarithm (base 10, on the calculator "log") and multiplied by 3986.3137. For example, for 11/10 you get the cent value 165. The interval 11/10 is 165 cents above G. This is an interval between a small and a large second. 11/10 is like an 11th natural tone 11/8 above a fundamental tone that is a natural third 4/5 (Partch writes 8/5 in octaves) below G (see the position on the diamond!), I.e. 11/8 * 4 / 5 = 11/10. The upward octave applies to all values ​​of the left half of his diamond and is due to the formation of the scales with these same proportions that Partch undertook. So on the keys of his "Chromelodeon", which is able to play the desired pitches in its purest form, the proportions of the diamond and all other added intervals are painted as numbers in all octaves!

The intervals given in the “tonality diamond” are difficult to reproduce in our musical notation, as many tones differ greatly from the tempering. If in the following experiment we assume a perfect fifth notation (the perfect 3/2 fifth is only about 2 cents higher than the tempered one), thirds, septa and the 11th natural note must be indicated in order to indicate Partch's system with our notes. The "Otonality" on G looks like this in the 1st transcription example:

Harry Partch: 1. Transcription of the Otonality on G = lower line of the tonality diamond from bottom left to top right

The opposite diagonal from the bottom right to the top left, the "Utonality", is the exact reverse of the "Otonality" and reads as follows in the 2nd transcription example (we use the proportions from Partch's diamonds for the sake of clarity; actually, instead of 16 / 9 is better to write 8/9 than the inverse of 9/8; Partch did not do this either, since once the proportions were chosen, each signaled a pitch in all octaves for him ):

Harry Partch: 2. Transcription of the Utonality under G = bottom line of the tonality diamond bottom right to top left

As a sound example follows 1. "Otonality" on G, 2. "Utonality" under G, 3. Some changes between O and U tonalities with microtonal shades

  Audio-Datei / Hörbeispiel Partch O- und Utonality?/i

All parallel diagonals produce either otonalities or tonalities on different transposition levels. We can make this clear in a third transcription, which first transcribes Partch's “Primary Tonalities” (those are those from the “Tonality Diamond”) and then adds his “Secondary Tonalities”, as well as individual pure fifths: These Partch mainly added to get a balanced microtonal scale.

The combinations of the indices are necessary in order to indicate the pure interval ratios of the 5th, 7th and 11th natural tones, even with tones that are already derived from these natural tone ratios. Take the combination of low-7 with high-5 as an example: The subscript 7 means that this is a natural sept, i.e. an interval 7/4 (about 1/6 tone lower). And the superscript 5 that appears at the same time indicates that a 4/5 interval is the starting point of this natural sept (approx. 1 / 12ton higher). Overall, this tone will be approx. 1/12 tone lower in the combination of the indices. A superscript 11 brings about 1 / 4ton up, a subscript 11 about 1 / 4ton down.

Harry Partch: 3. Transcription of all 43 tones of the Partch system

The composer liked to use the entire 43-note stock of Partch in linear form, on his kitharas or canons in arpeggio form. The transcription as a scale follows in the 4th example:

Harry Partch: 4. Transcription of all 43 tones of the Partch system as a scale

The “11-Limit” diamond with its “Primary Tonalities” is vividly embodied on the “Diamond Marimba” Partchs, a percussion instrument where the lamellae are arranged according to the tonality diamond, but in a different order: in thirds.


Partch as a composer remains a figure unknown to the wider public to the present day. Regardless, he has a great reputation in experimental and microtonal circles. Many believe that Harry Partch is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. In the USA, many composers and musicians are extremely influenced by him, from the older generation especially Ben Johnston and Ezra Sims , from the younger about Larry Polansky , John Schneider or the bassoonist Johnny Reinhard , who hosts the American Festival of Microtonal Music in New York AFMM organizes regularly. The well-known contemporary composer György Ligeti visited Partch in 1972, where Partch sang to him, accompanying himself on the adapted viola. Ligeti brought records of Partch's music to his Hamburg composition class and made microtonality an important topic. He himself was inspired by Partch to write several microtonal works, particularly his viola sonata and the horn concerto. Ligeti's students Benedict Mason , Wolfgang von Schweinitz and Manfred Stahnke are heavily influenced by Partch.

In 1974, Partch died of an aneurysm in San Diego . From 1990 until his death in 2013 , Dean Drummond and his group Newband were the custodians of the original instruments from Harry Partch's collection. In 2004 the instruments got their own room within Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Partch's music was played regularly in the university's new Alexander Kasser Theater. Since November 2014, the instruments have been in the University of Washington under the care of Charles Corey.

John Schneider , composer and guitarist, often gives microtonal concerts in California, including Partch's music. He is the head of Microfest . His ensemble PARTCH uses Partch's original Kithara 1.

The Boston Microtonal Society around the composer Julia Werntz and Joe Maneri in Boston, Massachusetts, is dedicated to all aspects of microtonal music, with Partch's "Just Intonation" being an important branch.

The music producer Hal Willner had parts of the original Partch instrumentation used on the album Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus , on which compositions by Charles Mingus are interpreted by pop and jazz musicians. Paul Simon also used Partch 's instruments to record his song Insomniac's Lullaby .

Since 2013 there has been a set of Partch instruments in Europe, recreated by drummer Thomas Meixner on behalf of Ensemble MusikFabrik , with which the ensemble premiered Partch's stage work Delusion of the Fury under the direction of Heiner Goebbels on 23 August 2013 . Also On the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma was performed by the ensemble.


  • Partch, Harry (1974). Genesis of a Music, New York: Da Capo Press 1979. ISBN 0-306-80106-X
  • Partch, Harry (1991). Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions and Librettos, Champaign: University of Illinois Press 1991. ISBN 0-252-01660-2


  • Blackburn, Philip (1998) Harry Partch: Enclosure III, Saint Paul: Innova. ISBN 0-9656569-0-X [8]
  • Gilmore, Bob (1998). Harry Partch, A Biography, New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-3000652-13 .
  • Stahnke, Manfred (1998). Finding the tone - writings for music. Hamburg p. 10 ff

Web links

Commons : Harry Partch  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Harry Partch Instrumentarium takes up residency at UW
  2. Simon talks art and society, plays “The Sound of Silence” at lecture
  3. ^ Performance of "Delusion of the Fury" as part of the Ruhrtriennale ( Memento from March 1, 2014 in the Internet Archive )