Harry Partch —

from the video description:

Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 — September 3, 1974) was a (Gay,) American composer, music theorist, and creator of musical instruments. He was one of the first 20th-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. Hthis guy was a gay, musical visionary. a true original.e built custom-made instruments in these tunings on which to play his compositions, and described his theory and practice in his book Genesis of a Music (1947 and 1974).

Partch composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, derived from the natural Harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in the standard Western tuning, which uses twelve equal intervals to the octave. Partch divided the octave into 43 unequal tones. To play this music, he built a large number of unique instruments, with names such as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl. Partch described his own 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.

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.

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.



3 thoughts on “Harry Partch —”

  1. Hey, while any attention to Harry Partch is appreciated, I was a little bummed to see the text scraped from our site at the top of your post, and no link whatsoever. Indeed, some of us *did* know Harry, which is the reason that the Harry Partch Foundation decided to put up a site, way back in the early days (1996).

    So, anyway, while it hasn’t been refreshed in a while, we certainly welcome people interested in Partch and his work at his original home online, Corporeal Meadows.

    Thanks for reading this far,


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