Harry Partch

Born:  June 24, 1901, in Oakland, CA

Died:  September 3, 1974, in San Diego, CA

Early Studies        Just Intonation        Instrument Creation        King Oedipus

Delusion of the Fury                Sounds


Early Studies:

            Harry Partch was born on June 24, 1901, to a family of Presbyterian missionaries (Sadie, 168).  He was born in Oakland, California, but his mother’s tuberculosis, combined with a position his father received in the Immigration Service, required a move to Arizona when Partch was very young (Gilmore, 17).  His earliest musical memories came from Arizona; he learned the music of the Yaqui Indians who lived nearby, and his mother sang hymns and Chinese songs remembered from her time as a missionary in China.  Music quickly became an important part of Partch’s life, and in his early years, he studied organ, mandolin, and cornet seriously, while also learning a bit of violin and cello (Gilmore, 19).  

            Partch attended Albuquerque High School in 1915, and started composing his own music at age 14.  He studied music his first two years of high school, but was unimpressed by his school experiences.  However, his music skills were strong enough that he could support himself by playing with bands or on solo organ to accompany silent movies at the local movie theater (Gilmore, 26-27).  After graduation, he moved back to California in 1920, and enrolled briefly at University of Southern California.  Partch did not finish college, and by 1923 he was supporting himself as a proofreader.  It was at this time he found a book in Sacramento’s library called On the Sensations of Tone, by Hermann Helmholtz (Sadie, 168).  The book discussed music theory and the study of sound, particularly the arbitrariness of the accepted Western music scale.  Helmholtz discussed the use of just intonation, or tuning with respect to mathematical ratios, as a more viable alternative (Gilmore, 48-50).  It was the idea of just intonation that intrigued Partch, and he began to realize that his disinclination to study music in high school and college may have had to do with a lack of interest in Western tonal intervals.  He saw Helmholtz’s ideas as a starting point for his own studies, and began incorporating the idea of just intonation into his work. 


Just Intonation:

Thinking that string instruments would most easily adjust to new scale tones, Partch bought a viola and began experimenting, coming up with a string quartet using a 29 tone scale created by including the 7th, 9th, and 11th partials.  The fingerings needed to achieve the partials were indicated by paper coverings for the fingerboard that indicated exactly where the string needed to be stopped.  The quartet was most likely never performed in public; Partch’s work at this time was very private. 

Dissatisfied with the results of his composition, but excited by the possibilities inherent in just intonation, Partch began working on a treatise called Exposition of Monophony.  The first draft was completed on May 20, 1928, and the work went through five drafts before the final version in 1933 was published (Gilmore, 61).  Partch meant for the work to illuminate, “the universe of tone created by the overtone series” and put forth the idea of his 29 tone scale, which in later versions was extended to 39, 41, and 43 tones (Gilmore, 61-64).  Exposition of Monophony described how mathematical ratios were used to describe the relationships between adjacent overtones, and defined just intonation as, “…any style of tuning with intervals exactly the same as the intervals of the overtone series” (Gilmore, 63).  While Partch understood that the more partials used, the more notes in the scale, he stayed with the 11th partial as the limit, feeling that the change in sound would be so radical to new listeners that to do any more would be overwhelming.  The overtone series also provided a way of extending musical consonance and dissonance, since Partch believed that higher prime number relationships of the harmonic series could potentially be described as new consonances (Gilmore, 62).  Exposition of Monophony serves as the catalyst for Partch’s discovery of a way to bring his theories of intonation into actual practice:  new instruments.


Instrument Creation:

            In February of 1930, Partch moved to New Orleans, bringing with him a cello fingerboard that he was marking with the correct intervals for playing the 29 tone scale.  Wanting to try a different method than paper coverings, he enlisted violin-maker Edwin Benton to modify the fingerboard.  Benton extended the fingerboard by attaching it to a longer neck, and then put the entire board on a violin body.  This strange contraption was called the monophone, or adapted viola, and Partch soon realized that the adaptations made it much easier to create the music he wanted.  For Partch, this new instrument signaled a complete change in his composition method and the turning point of his career.  He destroyed all compositions he had made up to that point, and began working on a piece for adapted viola and voice (Gilmore, 71-73).  Partch felt that the new instrument could blend with spoken voice in a way no other instrument could, its partials gliding with the same inflections.  If the performer could master the speed and timing necessary to quickly slide on the fingerboard, the instrument and speech would almost sound as one.  His work, 17 Lyrics by Li Po, was based on Chinese poems, with which his mother’s missionary work would have made him familiar (Gilmore, 75). 

Enthusiastic about his new composition and instrument, he moved back to California in 1932 and applied for a Guggenheim grant.  The reason given for the grant was the wish to develop a keyboard instrument that could perform Partch’s scale (Gilmore, 87).  He received the grant, and left for London on September 22, 1934.  He began researching keyboards and discovered a 1926 book by Wilfrid Perett called Some Questions of Music Theory.  The book not only discussed the same theories of just intonation that Partch held, but also described a possible keyboard instrument similar to what Partch was attempting to create.  Partch met with Perett, and began work on what would first be called a Ptolemy, and eventually become the Chromelodeon.  The Chromelodeon was a reed organ designed to cover three octaves of Partch’s 43-tone scale (Gilmore, 104-05).  The instrument’s keys were rainbow colored in order to establish relationships between pitches, and the entire instrument was powered by a pedal pump (Drummond, Duncan, Ide, Rome, & Starin, 1999). 

            Throughout his career, Partch would create many more original instruments.  Some of the most famous melodic instruments included the kithara, a large 72-string instrument based on paintings of ancient Greek instruments, a Brazilian rosewood marimba with bamboo tubes called the Diamond Marimba, and the Bass Marimba, which used spruce blocks over large organ pipes.  Partch also invented non-pitched instruments, such as Cone gongs, which were made from airplane fuel tanks, and Cloud Chamber Bowls, which were glass bowls suspended from a redwood frame (Drummond, et al.).  All of these instruments served as a way for Partch to explore his fascinations with just intonation and the blending of instrument with voice.  Such grand instruments demanded grand works to showcase Partch’s innovations, and while in England, Partch pursued what would become one of his most well-known works.


King Oedipus:

            When Partch applied for his Guggenheim scholarship, he did so with the stated goal being a setting of poet W.B. Yeats’ setting of the Oedipus legend.  He wrote to Yeats requesting a meeting, which was granted.  Yeats granted Partch permission to adapt his work, saying, “You are one of those young men with ideas, the development of which it is impossible to tell, just as I was 30 years ago” (Gilmore, 106-107).  Although Partch was granted permission in 1934, other compositions and personal troubles kept him from beginning work on the piece until 1951.  He began working on the composition in San Diego, with the intention of bringing the piece to Mills College for its premiere performance (Gilmore, 198).

            Partch arrived at Mills College with the score in progress.  Over a 20-week span, he worked on the score, finishing on July 31, 1951 with 157 pages.  The piece required four “intoner-actors” playing the major roles of Oedipus, Jocasta, Tiresias, and Spokesman of the Chorus, other minor parts, chorus, and 12 instruments.  Some of the instruments would be his creations, such as adapted viola, cello, and guitars, Chromelodeons, Cloud Chamber Cowls, Gourd Trees, Cone Gongs and Diamond Marimba.  However, Partch also added traditional instruments such as clarinet, cello, and double bass to the score (Gilmore, 199).  The vocal parts expanded upon Partch’s earlier intoning-voice technique, with Yeats’ himself providing a basis for the vocal score.    Partch had transcribed Yeats’ voice from their meeting in Ireland, but later admitted, “My memory of his vibrant tones is more accurate than my marks.”   While the disappearance of the Yeats transcriptions makes it unclear how much of his vocal inflections are in the score, he was most certainly an inspiration (Gilmore, 200). 

            Rehearsals for the work began in October, creating new challenges for the musicians, performers, and Partch himself.  As Partch explained, “I began training Mills students to play the instruments…Others, outside the college, volunteered to play their own instruments in unusual ways, and professional singers undertook to adapt their talents to a new manner of word delivery (Gilmore, 200).  A short preview of excerpts on November 28 revealed the wonderful acoustic properties of the performance space, which inspired Partch to create a new instrument specifically for King Oedipus.  He created a giant marimba, which he began calling a Hypo-bass marimba but later referred to as a Marimba Eroica.  The instrument had three large vertical redwood blocks that produced extremely low sounds towards the bottom of the piano register (Gilmore, 201).  The Marimba Eroica produced the sound Partch wanted, but created difficulties when trying to incorporate it into the stage-work.  Partch’s intention was to incorporate the instrument into the staging; merging sight, sound, and movement into one whole experience.  However, the instrument was large and awkward, and interfered with the movement on-stage to such an extent that restaging became necessary (Gilmore, 202).  Nevertheless, Partch was pleased with the work’s staging, and the work premiered on March 14-16, 1952 at Mills College.   

            King Oedipus’s first performances were given to sold-out houses, and most of the popular response was very positive.  Critical reviews of King Oedipus came from Bay-area news sources, although a few national papers covered the premiere.  Overall, these professional criticisms were mixed, with a particularly negative review coming from the Oakland Tribune.  According to that paper, “…the results were rather horrendous…every time an actor had a key speech there was either a zither effect or a tom-tom dissonance to destroy its values”  (Gilmore, 204).  In contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle read that, “his score – fragmentary, subdued, elusive – vastly enhanced the menace, torment, and bewildered, ominous tension of the tragedy,” and Theatre Arts critic Wilford Leach went even further in his praise, writing that, “…the western theatre has been given one of the most challenging and revolutionary potentials in history” (Gilmore, 204).  With the success of the premiere, Partch wanted to create a recording of the work.  However, he received a devastating blow when he applied to the Yeats estate for permission to record the work.  Despite Partch’s letter from Yeats granting permission to put Oedipus the King to music, the estate denied that permission to Partch, stating that Yeats had been against musical adaptations of his works.  This meant that Partch had to rewrite the script using public domain sources, and then rescore the music to go with the new text (Gilmore, 211).  By 1953, Partch felt he could put a recording together, but first, he had to rebuild the Marimba Eroica.  He solved the problem created by its unwieldy shape by taking out the vertical bars and adding four horizontal Sitka spruce blocks instead.  The recording took place on June 2-3, 1954, with Partch himself taking on the role of Tiresias after his original actor had to back out of the project.  The recording was completed, but did not sell well due to the high cost for its time: $12.50.  King Oedipus was broadcast July 16 on the station KPFA, and then had a full production performed on September 11-12 at the Sausolito Arts Fair (Gilmore, 223-225).  The experience left Partch feeling, “both relieved and revived,” and brought him, if not financial reward, then at least critical acclaim and recognition (Gilmore, 225).


Delusion of the Fury:

            Harry Partch’s final piece turned out to be his most well-regarded, and the one to most perfectly establish his theories of the integration of music and stage performance.  While King Oedipus merely added the visual effect of the instruments on stage, this new work would have music, movement, instruments, and voice interacting and interchanging with each other.  Delusion of the Fury combined two entirely different folk tales, one from Japan and the other from Ethiopia.  The Japanese folk tale is serious, focusing on a Japanese warrior’s journey with the ghost of the man he has killed.  The surviving warrior does penance for the killing, and the ghost discovers the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.  In contrast, the African folk-tale is a farce based on lack of understanding.  A woman and a deaf man go to court over miscommunication; she thinks he has pointed the way to her lost kid goat and wants to thank him, he believes he has shooed her away and is pestering him.  The judge, who is deaf and near-sighted, believes the two are married and that the kid goat is their child.  This part ends with the villagers mocking the whole affair, particularly the “wisdom” of the justice system (Paul, 1971).  The main characters of the first story portray the characters in the second, and the link between them is anger.  The Japanese ghost realizes that his anger towards his murderer is unworthy of his dignified life, and the comic situation caused by anger in the African story further illustrates the uselessness of fury (Gilmore, 325-326).

            The stories for Delusion of the Fury were completed by January of 1965, but due to poor health Partch was not able to begin composition until the next year (Gilmore, 327).  It was by no means a wasteful year; Partch used the time to develop new instruments such as bamboo hand and belly drums, eucalyptus claves, and an instrument called a Quadrangularis Marimba, which featured pitches in the exact reverse pattern of the Diamond Marimba (Gilmore, 330).  He began the sketch score on November 1, 1965, and finished it on March 17, 1966.  The music required all of Partch’s unique instruments except for the original:  the Adapted Viola.  The actual music began as an expansion of a preceding work called PetalsPetals was a complex polyrhythmic work, and a group that was rehearsing it for an upcoming UCLA concert was finding the rhythms very difficult.  For Delusion, Partch simplified the rhythms but built upon the harmonics, writing counterpoint parts to add more instruments and having instruments from the same family play similar parts.  He made sure the music for the first act was bleak enough to fit the serious Japanese tale, while the second act took on a lighter tone.  Connecting the two contrasting moods was a Bolivian Double Flute, featured in the opening of both acts to illuminate the idea of the two stories being joined by a common theme:  anger.  The flute even played similar material in each act to further emphasize the connection (Gilmore, 333-335). 

            From the beginning, Partch wanted Delusion of the Fury to combine the talents of all involved.  He got his performers from the faculty of UCLA, who requested the opportunity to premiere Delusion after having had Petals performed at the college (Gilmore, 341).  Rehearsal began in July of 1968, with Partch intending everyone to hold multiple roles.  Musicians would also act, dancers would sing, and the actors would dance and play instruments (Gilmore, 347).  However, Partch quickly discovered that there was not enough rehearsal time to accomplish this ambitious ideal.  Partch’s error came in wanting to imitate Japanese Kabuki or Noh theater, where multiple skills are common.  In America, talents are more specialized, with a performer becoming extremely good in one artistic area, but sacrificing any other studies to accomplish this talent.  Rather than completely abandon the idea of multiple roles, Partch improvised; for example, his singers were placed in a pit orchestra and dancers lip-synced along with the chorus.  It was not what Partch had envisioned, but it would work for the performance (Gilmore, 350-351).

            Upsetting Partch even more were the areas beyond his control, such as costumes and choreography.  Due to the fact that Partch spent all of his strenuous rehearsal time teaching the musicians the score and how to play his instruments, he did not see the costumes or the choreography until a few days before the opening performance.  He was displeased, to say the least.  He referred to the choreography as, “...worse than I expected,” and, “…dreadfully over-acted, amateurish.  No subtlety whatever – so that it is not only not amusing – it is pathetic” (  Partch was also upset by the costumes, particularly in the first act.  His largest complaint concerned the costume for the Japanese warrior’s son.  The costume that was provided unfortunately emphasized the fact that a girl was playing the male role, and Partch was furious (Gilmore, 351).

            Despite Partch’s misgivings, Delusion of the Fury premiered January 9, 1969 at UCLA.  The performance was recorded for Columbia Records and was also filmed (Gilmore, 352).  The critical response was overwhelmingly positive.  Thomas Willis of the Chicago Tribune called the work, “a rambling trip thru his tropical rain forest of remarkably varied sounds” (Willis, 1971).  The Village Voice’s Kyle Gann calls it one of his masterpieces, and Fanfare Magazine referred to Delusion as, “Partch's crowning masterwork” (Gann, Music Downtown, 189).   Today, the piece stands as Partch’s crowning achievement, and the most perfect example of his desire to combine instrumentation, vocals, choreography, and staging into one cohesive and interchangeable unit, with just intonation being at the center of it all.



King Oedipus:  Antiphony

The just intonation scale in this piece produces a sliding effect that simulates the human voice.  Thus, the human voice and Partch's invented instruments are joined as one.


Delusion of the Fury:  Chorus of Shadows

In Partch's master stage work, listeners can hear his innovative sound creations in full form.  This section of the Chorus contains a display of a multitude of invented instruments, along with the sliding effect also heard in the Antiphony.