Tuesday, April 6

Institutional hobo



Harry Partch's visionary view of music was surprisingly inspired by the intricacies of the human voice. His preoccupation with speech patterns inherent in the American vernacular led to his development of a microtonal system that would serve as a more accurate analogue to our listening experiences. While living as a hobo during the Depression, Partch transcribed the pitchs of overheard speech onto musical staves.

"Words are music. Spoken words. Spoken words were music to the ancient Greeks, to Gregorian chant (at its conception), to the troubadours of Provence and the Meistersingers of Nuremberg, the the hillbillies of Tennessee. Yes, even sometimes to the tunepeddlers of Tin Pan Alley. Wagner had the idea, too, but then he threw it to the mercy of a ninety-piece orchestra. Nothing could survive that. These others all used words in music in a way that retained some vestige of their spoken vitality, and they produced a vital, living art."
- from Bitter Music, collected journals of Harry Partch.

I have to admire the completeness of Partch's vision, in that he not only examined his theories through writing and practice, but fabricated a means for them to exist. His instruments, with names like Cloud Chamber Bowls and the Harmonic Canon, poetically insinuate an output based more on a common impression of a sound or object rather than referencing a more institutional music terminology. According to Partch, he bacame "a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry".

The Montclair State University in New Jersey has housed his collection since 1999. A recital by the MSU Harry Partch Ensemble this month includes Partch's And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma (1966) for diamond and bamboo marimba, as well as more traditional pieces, such as Chopin's Prelude (1839/2010) performed on five zoomoozophones.