Harry Partch

Harry Partch and his Orchestra.

A Lecture By And The Music Of Harry Partch – 1957 – Past Daily Weekend Gallimaufry

Harry Partch
Harry Partch and his Orchestra.

– Harry Partch Lecture and performance – Illinois University Music Department – March 24, 1957 –

Harry Partch is a name most likely unknown to the vast majority of musicians throughout the world. Needless to say, the Music Of Harry Partch is, with the exception of a few recordings issued by labels devoted to the eclectic and the obscure, almost totally unknown.

Harry Partch was born in 1901 and died in 1974. During his lifetime he was considered very much the outsider and a musical rebel of the revolutionary kind. Shunned by everyone but the most adventurous and almost completely forgotten today, Harry Partch has been regarded as an innovator, visionary and cornerstone in experimental and electronic music. Although nothing Harry Partch composed had anything remotely to do with Electronic music, he’s been relegated to being in somewhat the same family – grouped together by dissonance and the experimental.

Harry Partch was a creator of unique musical instruments. He composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, and was one of the first 20th-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales, alongside Lou Harrison. He built custom-made instruments in these tunings on which to play his compositions, and described the method behind his theory and practice in his book Genesis of a Music (1947).

Partch composed with scales dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones derived from the natural harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in standard Western tuning, which uses twelve equal intervals to the octave. To play his music, Partch built many unique instruments, with such names as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl. Partch described his music as corporeal, and distinguished it from abstract music, which he perceived as the dominant trend in Western music since the time of Bach. His earliest compositions were small-scale pieces to be intoned to instrumental backing; his later works were large-scale, integrated theater productions in which he expected each of the performers to sing, dance, speak, and play instruments. Ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and kabuki heavily influenced his music theatre.

It would be safe to say, even in 2023, that much of the work of Harry Partch would be considered unapproachable and too dissonant for Western tastes. This is the part where keeping an open mind comes in.

Not asking you to love it, or even like it. But give it a listen, realizing this lecture was from 1957 and must have been shocking to those in the audience 66 years ago. A reminder, the applause was warm and enthusiastic at the end.

Buckle up.

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