Born on June 24, 1901, in Oakland, CA; died on September 3,1974, in San Diego, CA. Education: Attended the University of Southern California.

Harry Partch was perhaps the most radical of all American composers. He developed a theory of music vastly different from that upon which Western music of the last 500 years is based. He designed his own musical scale, which consisted of 43 tones instead of the 12 used by traditional Western music. He invented over 20 unique musical instruments capable of playing the music he composed, and he produced and distributed recordings of his music on his own record label. Partch rejected most trends in twentieth century classical music, such as serialism and chance as utilized by John Cage, and he had a difficult, uneasy relationship with academia. In fact, despite the avant-garde character of his work, Partch did consider his music as something new in a revolutionary sense. As he saw it, his work stretched back to ancient sources, in particular the music of the Greeks. He was not moving forward, but instead backward to sources of music more authentic than anything being created by modern composers.

Harry Partch was the son of ex-missionaries and grew up in the American Southwest. His first rudimentary musical training came from his mother, a church organist. By his own account, he studied piano and harmony with various private teachers in the Arizona, New Mexico, Los Angeles, and Kansas City, and entered the University of Southern California--for a few months at least--where he studied under concert pianist Olga Steeb. He began composing as a teenager, and in his early twenties worked in traditional classical forms: a piano concerto, a symphonic poem, and a string quartet, among other pieces.

The turning point in his musical life came in the spring of 1923 when he discovered On the Sensations of Tone, a book by Hermann Helmholtz which explained the foundations of music through the science of acoustics. Helmholtz related musical intervals--in their most basic form, the difference in sound produced by two adjacent keys on a piano--to the mathematics of a vibrating string. For Partch, this explanation led to the revolutionary conclusion that implied that the 12 tones used for hundreds of years in Western music--the black and white keys on a piano--were not the only way to compose. A scale could be divided into as many distinct tones, known as microtones, as one wanted. Additionally, Partch believed that the roots of music in the ancient world actually laid in such microtonal systems that were very different from the Western scale, a scale which was artificially based on the mechanics of the piano. With this in mind, he developed his own scale, comprised of 43 distinct tones, rather than 12.

Because most conventional Western instruments were incapable of playing such a scale, Partch began inventing his own. The first was built in 1930 from a viola body and a cello fretboard. Called the Adapted Viola, Partch played it upright between his knees with a bow. Partch's biographer, Bob Gilmore, called the instrument "the true point of no return in Partch's early musical development." It gave him the means to work in his new system and it was around this time that he burned all his earlier work. Partch's first compositions in his new system were settings of poems by Li Po for intoned voice and Adapted Viola. Other instruments followed over the years, including an Adapted Guitar, a keyboard instrument called the Chromelodeon that could play Partch's scale, the Kithara based on an ancient Greek stringed instrument, and various marimbas, such as the Bass Marimba, the Diamond Marimba and the Boo, a bamboo marimba.

In 1934 and 1935, with money from a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, Partch traveled to Europe. In the British Museum, he researched ancient and non-Western music for a book that laid out his theory of music, published some 15 years later as Genesis of a Music. While in Europe Partch also met poet William Butler Yeats, whose translation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex he hoped to adapt for his instruments and intoned voice. Yeats responded with enthusiasm to the private concert Partch performed for him and gave his permission to use the translation. Although it was not completed or performed for many more years, King Oedipus marked the beginning of Partch's work for theater. For the rest of his career, most of his work would have a strong narrative element, whether it was the relatively simple settings of hobo graffiti for voice and Adapted Guitar in Barstow, or a full-scale theatrical event with musical ensemble, actors and dancers of Revelation in the Courthouse Park.

The spring of 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, was the beginning of several years Partch spent hoboing, riding the rails, living in hobo jungles, and occasionally earning money picking fruit or doing other odd jobs. Partch's homelessness effectively ended his composing for the time. But the journals he kept were later used as texts for works like The Letter, Barstow,and U.S. Highball. Despite the fact that his life as a hobo ended in 1943, Partch was never financially secure. He lived from one small grant, commission or personal loan to the next and he moved to a different house practically every year of his life.

The first public performance of Partch's work took place in April of 1944 under the auspices of the League of Composers in New York City. Partch presented Barstow, U.S. Highball, San Francisco, and Y.D. Fantasy, first at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall and a few days later at Columbia University. The concerts were widely reviewed and Partch was even profiled in the New Yorker. To the composer's disappointment and frustration, however, the performances were forgotten almost as soon as the ink had dried on the reviews, and they did not lead to any further offers.

Partch spent the late 1940s finishing his book, Genesis of a Music, in Madison, Wisconsin. The university's press published the book in 1949. The stay in Madison, typical of Partch's relationship with academic music, was marked by suspicion on both sides. Partch belittled the musical establishment in both his writings and musical satires, while music departments had little use for a self-educated "crackpot" whose ideas about music went against the grain of everything they stood for and were teaching to their students. Consequently it was only through the graces of friends and admirers, such as Gunnar Johansen and Ben Johnston, that Partch was able to win short-term affiliations with a few universities.

From Wisconsin, Partch returned to California, first Gualala on the state's remote northern coast, and then to the area around the San Francisco Bay. In 1952, King Oedipus, the Yeats translation Partch had been working on since the 1930s, was finally produced at Mills College in Oakland. Scored for voices, Marimba Eroica, Chromelodeon, and cello, the performance drew mixed reviews in the press in San Francisco and New York. But the "intoned voice" Partch wrote for--a sort of heightened speech rather than singing--put great demands on the audience over the course of the 75-minute long work. Although personally satisfying to see his work finally performed, King Oedipus led to further disappointments for Partch. First, the college failed to offer the appointment he was hoping for. Then the Yeats estate refused to allow him to issue a recording of the work, despite assurances he had received in writing from Yeats himself 20 years earlier. Partch's involvement in theater would continue through the 1950s and 1960s with large scale works such as The Bewitched, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, Water! Water!, and Delusion of the Fury.

In 1952 Partch entered another fertile period of composition. With Plectra & Percussion Dances, the focus of his work moved away from human speech to the instrumental, rhythmic music that would increasingly characterize his last two decades of work. In 1954, friends found him a studio in Sausalito, and at the same time they solicited subscriptions that were used to establish a trust fund to finance recordings of Partch's music. The records, in turn, were meant to provide Partch with an income that if small, was at least regular. The plan worked. To make the recordings, Partch assembled a group of musicians from nearby San Francisco, tagged the Gate 5 Ensemble after the name of Partch's studio. He taught the group how to play his exotic collection of instruments which had grown steadily over the years until they filled whatever space Partch happened to be living in. He released more than ten recordings on his Gate 5 label in the 1950s and 1960s. "His role as producer and distributor of recordings of his own work impressed fellow artists such as Anais Nin," Bob Gilmore wrote, "and served as a model for several younger composers in the 1960s and 1970s."

In the fall of 1957, Partch began an association with Chicago filmmaker Madelaine Tourtelot that would last through the 1960s. They agreed to collaborate on a film version of U.S. Highball. In the middle of work, however, he saw some footage she shot at sand dunes on Lake Michigan and conceived a score based on the myth of Apollo and Daphne. It was used in Tourtelot's film 1958 Windsong and later revised as the 1969 ballet Daphne of the Dunes. U.S. Highball was finally completed in 1963. Partch moved from Illinois back to Petaluma, California, in September of 1962. The falling of blossoms from the trees inspired him to begin one of his rare instrumental works, And On the Seventh Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma. Eventually completed in 1966, Petals is a series of duos, trios, quartets, quintets and a septet, a showpiece for Partch's different instruments.

Partch's instruments were a blessing and a curse for him. Without them, his music would have been unperformable. But as it was his music could only be performed on them, and there was but a single set. Before he could accept invitations to perform, arrangements had to be made to transport the fragile, often unwieldy pieces. Once they were moved, musicians had to be found and trained to play them. Notating music for his 43-note scale was also a problem that plagued Partch. These issues continue to pose questions for Partch's legacy. Can a music survive that depends on delicate instruments most musicians have never seen, much less used, that depends on an arcane notation most musicians are just as unfamiliar with?

In December of 1964, Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI) released the first commercial recording of Partch's music, a sign he thought that the need for private issues had ended. CRI continued, at irregular intervals, to bring out Partch's work. In the late 1990s the label launched a plan to release a series of retrospective CDs. In the mid-1960s, Partch began another theater piece that would become Delusion of the Fury. Based on a Japanese Noh play and an Ethiopian folk tale, whose theme was the futility of anger, the work premiered at the UCLA Playhouse in January 1969.

The last years of Partch's life were made easier by his friend Betty Freeman, who arranged for him to receive a small regular annual income. Health problems were complicated by musical problems. He organized a new ensemble to play his work, but rehearsals at his new studio in Venice were frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of seriousness in many of the musicians he recruited. At the same time he was plagued by concerns for his instruments. They required constant maintenance which he was too old to provide. What is more, he might not have a home, but the instruments had to have one. He tried to find a university willing to take over their storage and care, but in vain. In the end, he willed everything to his long-time disciple and collaborator, Danlee Mitchell, who later became the head of the Harry Partch Foundation, one of the main keepers of the Partch flame.

Partch's last big project was music for The Dreamer That Remains, a film about him and his work made by Stephen Pouliot. He died on September 3, 1974, in San Diego, California.

by Gerald E. Brennan

Harry Partch's Career

Invented first instrument, the Adapted Viola, and wrote settings of Li Po poems for Adapted Viola and voice, 1930; traveled to Europe, 1934; lived as a hobo, 1935-43; built Chromelodeon, 1942; first public concert, April 1944; moved to Madison, WI, to complete his book Genesis of a Music, 1944; Genesis of a Music published, 1949; King Oedipus premiers at Mills College, Oakland, CA, 1952; Plectra & Percussion Dances composed, 1952; Gate 5 Ensemble founded and first recording, Plectra & Percussion Dances released, 1953; received commission from University of Illinois to compose The Bewitched, 1956; began work with filmmaker Madelain Tourtelot, 1957; composed music for Windsong, 1958; Music Studio, a film about Partch, released, 1958; Revelation in the Courthouse Park premiered at the University of Illinois, 1961; film version of U.S. Highball completed, 1963; And On the Seventh Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma composed, 1964; Composers Recordings Inc. released first commercial recording of Partch's work, 1964; Columbia Records released The World of Harry Partch, 1969; Harry Partch Foundation established, 1970; The Dreamer That Remains--A Study in Loving, a film about Harry Partch with music by Harry Partch completed, 1972.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

Hello- I am looking for the recording of Harry Partch's Oedipus done by the Gate 5 Ensemble in 1954 in Sausalito. I have read that it was reissued in 1957 and 1962. The Enclosure series appears to include only the recording of the 1952 performance at Mills College and Harry Partch's introduction to the 1954 version. Is a complete recording of the 1954 version available from any other source? Thank you for any information you can provide. Betsy Stroman

over 16 years ago

The 8 part Enclosure series of archival material is available from innova Recordings, here: