Born: June 24, 1901 | Died: September 3, 1974 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
Harry Partch (1901-1974), one of the greatest and most individualistic composers of all time, was not only a great composer, but an innovative theorist who broke through the shackles of many centuries of one tuning system for all of Western music, a music instrument inventor who created dozens of incredible instruments for the performance of his music, and a musical dramatist who created his own texts and dance/theatre extravaganzas based on everything from Greek mythology to his own experiences as a hobo. Between 1930 and 1972, he created one of the most amazing bodies of sensually alluring and emotionally powerful music of the 20th century: music dramas, dance theater, multi-media extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music---mostly all performed on the instruments he built himself.
With parents who were former missionaries to China, living in isolated areas of the American southwest, Partch, as a child, was exposed to a variety of influences from Asian to Native American. After dropping out of the University of Southern California, he began to study on his own and to question the tuning and philosophical foundations of Western music. During and after the Great Depression, he was a hobo and itinerant worker and rode the trains, keeping a musical notebook of his experiences, which he later set to music.
In 1930 Partch broke with Western European tradition and forged a new music based on a more primal, corporeal integration of the elements of speech with music, using principles of natural acoustic resonance (just intobnation) and expanded melodic and harmonic possibilities. He began to first adapt guitars and violas to play his music, and then began to build new instruments in a new microtonal tuning system. He built over 25 instruments, plus numerous small hand instruments, and became a brilliant spokesman for his ideas. Largely ignored by the standard musical institutions during his lifetime, he criticized concert traditions, the roles of the performer and composer, the role of music in society, the 12-tone equal-temperament scale and the concept of pure or abstract music. To explain his philosophical and intonational ideas, he wrote a treatise, Genesis of a Music, which has served as a primary source of information and inspiration to many musicians for the last half century.
The 12-tone equal tempered tuning system has been around for about 300 years in the Western world but is scientifically an impure system of pitch relationships. In other words, notes have been ‘adjusted’ or put out of tune from the pure intervals of the harmonic series. This is borne out by the fact of much non-western music having different pitch relationships to the 12-tone system and, of course, much so-called ethnic music has been around since the dawn of time. One of the most ancient scales exists in Javanese gamelan. In the Paris fair of 1898 composers such as Debussy were strongly influenced by these strange oriental scales and tuning systems. However, this wasn’t the first encounter by a westerner of such tuning systems. In 1580, for instance, Sir Francis Drake logged in his diary that the music of this land ‘was of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful.’
Partch is perhaps best known for his innovative so-called 43-tone-to-the-octave scale structure. Partch realised that Western music since Gregorian chant was completely out of tune and set about devising a scale system based on the overtones of a vibrating string or column of air. He calls this system Monophony, as all the musical principles relate to ONE tone (i.e. the first eleven partials of the harmonic series). Partch spent 12 years researching the science and musical theories which led him to this system beginning with Pythagoras (6th century BC) through Ptolemy (2nd cent. BC), Rameau (17th cent.) up to Riemann (19th/20th cent.) and concludes that Monophony reveals the falsification of the present 12-tone tempered scale and is not necessarily requisite to a practical music system, and that the basis of all musical materials lies in the understanding of the intervals that have true relationships i.e. those whose vibrations are expressed by small numbers.
The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.
The major contribution of Monophony an intonational system is its realisation of a subtle and acoustically precise interrelationship of tonalities, all stemming or expanding from unity, 1/1. This interrelation is not capable of manifold modulations to “dominants” or to any other common scale degrees; it is not capable of parallel transpositions of intricate musical structures; it does not present any tone as any specific tonal identity.
Conversely, it is capable of both ordinary and hitherto unheard modulations to the natural limits imposed by Just Intonation and the arbitrary limit of 11; it is capable of an expanded sense of tonality, from Identities 1-3-5 to identities 1-3-5-7-9-11; it is capable of great variety in that expanded sense; it does offer twenty-eight possible tonalities, more than are inherent in Equal Temperament, and therefore a greater total of tonality identities; or assumable senses, than does Equal Temperament.