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Musical Innovations – Harry Partch Instruments

Updated: May 4, 2021

Inventor and Composer

Niffer Calderwood - The Harry Partch Ensemble, under direction of Charles Corey, April 2019, Seattle, Washington

In previous posts, we've focused on the instruments played in the conventional Western orchestra, some instruments from around the world, and some electronic instruments as well. In this post, we will explore the unconventional Harry Partch Instrumentarium and explore creating our own instrumental inventions.

Harry Partch (24 June 1901 – 3 Sept. 1974) was an American composer, music theorist, philosopher, as well as creator and builder of musical instruments. He composed using scales out of unequal intervals in just intonation and was one of the first 20th-century Western composers to work systematically with microtonal scales. Microtonal scales are made of intervals smaller than a half-step (also called a "semitone.") While the standard Western scale is divided in 12 half-steps, Partch divided it into 43 unequal intervals based on the harmonic series. Partch's earliest pieces were small-scale pieces to be recited to instrumental backing and his later works were larger theater productions, called "total-theater," in which he expected each of the performers to sing, dance, speak, and play instruments.

Partch 1919 High School Portrait
Partch 1919 High School Portrait

Partch was born in Oakland, CA and grew up in the American Southwest. During his childhood, he was exposed various musics from around the world. The idiosyncratic list of influences that Partch cited in his book, Genesis of Music, includes "Christian hymns, Chinese lullabyes, Yaqui Indian ritual, Congo puberty ritual, Cantonese music hall, and Okies in California vineyards, among others." Other influences included Japanese Noh and Kabuki and Ancient Greek theatre. He studied music theory and piano, as well as learning mandolin, violin, reed organ, and cornet. As a teen, he accompanied silent films on piano and composed music for drama. After high school, he entered the music composition program at the University of Southern California. After two years, he left USC and moved to San Francisco where he continued to study and compose and eventually rejecting the standard twelve-tone equal temperament of Western music. He read a translation of Sensation of Tone by German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz (31 Aug. 1821 – 8 Sept. 1894) and discovered that just intonation better suited his compositional needs.