A complete non-conformist and gifted musician, Harry was disgusted with the restraints of conventional music. While studying music at college, he delved deeply into music theory to find out why there were rules for music.
These rules are meant to promote harmony for the satisfaction of the listener. However, in doing so, most audible tones are discarded in favor of the few that blend well together. There are certainly advantages for desiring music to harmonize. But – the world isn’t like that, is it?
In most schools of thought about music, the human voice – an extraordinarily versatile instrument in it’s own right – is seen as being in need of “tuning” or “training” in order to hit the acceptable musical tones just right. To Harry, it was the voice’s range that was the correct frame of reference, rather than the limitations imposed by tradition.
He developed a 43-tone scale (as opposed to the traditional Western 12-tone scale), and also invented numerous instruments to play his compositions.
Here’s a BBC Documentary about him from Youtube. They have it broken down into 6 segments of around ten minutes each. I’ll post part one here, and if you’re interested, you can find the others easily. Or if you can’t, let me know and I’ll send you the URLs.
I have to warn you that his music is disturbing at first. Many of the microtones he utilized create discordant harmonies. It takes a while to accept his work as music, but once you’ve adjusted, it’s not quite as noisy as it first seems. I’d describe his music as “haunting.”
He died in 1974, but there are people who remember him, and his instruments are sometimes still used. There is even a band that has utilized his music theory for their entire body of work – the Residents. When I was living in Austin, local musical stalwarts Glass Eye became infatuated with his music and would slip some of his ideas and compositions into their sets.
Here’s a set of tunes by the Residents. Again – I have to tell you, this music is weird, and the Residents ran with the discomfort this music has on people. Their compositions are intentionally disturbing, and their videos are as strange as the music. They try to shake the listener out of the complacent passivity inspired by pop music through the shock of unfamiliar, discordant harmonies.
These are four one-minute tunes. This is allegedly the result of pressure from their record label to produce more “commercial” music. They responded with an album of 45 one-minute (commercial-length) tunes. The Commercial Album is by far my favorite because of the variety. Their Third Reich and Roll album (a swipe at the music industry) is a lot of fun, as it is pretty much entirely cover tunes of ’60’s favorites, given the Harry Parch treatment.