There has been no other musician like Harry Partch, and there likely never will be. Born in 1901, he grew up in the Southwestern United States hearing not only Native American and Spanish-language music but spoken Mandarin from his parents, who were missionaries in China in the late 19th century. He spent years during the Great Depression as a hobo, hitchhiking and riding the rails. Crucially, for his life and legacy, he lived during a period when individual musicians could apply directly for grants and when it was fairly easy for people without academic credentials to get hired as teachers at universities. Without that support, it’s doubtful that Partch could have survived, much less explored the musical ideas that fascinated him.
Partch was profoundly idiosyncratic. Hermann von Helmholtz’s important book Sensations of Tone (1863) sparked an interest in tunings, especially just intonation. But Partch didn’t just compose music in alternate tunings; he followed the idea of musical frequencies (pitches) all the way back to Pythagoras, combining this with his love of Greek drama and early exposure to inflected languages, like Mandarin, to reconstruct the basics of music from the ground up, building a 43-note to the octave scale to realize his music. Then, to play that music, he built a series of string and percussion instruments tuned to his scale, and even re-tuned pump organs.
Partch’s early music is mostly small-scale vocal adaptations of poetry and vernacular speech. As his resources grew, especially once he started teaching at colleges and universities, so did the scope of his music, integrating dance and music dramas that were often based on Ancient Greek and Japanese Noh dramas. He also wrote a biographical explanation of his theories and practice, Genesis of a Music, which has become a formative text for generations of experimental musicians.
Because his music is so specialized—requiring Partch’s own instruments to play it—his discography is small but complete. The bulk of it is available on Bandcamp.
Compact Disc (CD)
Partch self-released recordings during his lifetime; they have been reissued on several imprints and are now permanently collected in four volumes on New World Records. The first two are essential: Volume 1 contains notable theater works like Ulysses at the Edge and especially the Eleven Intrusions, the best demonstration of his instruments’s work and sound.
Compact Disc (CD)
The second volume in this collection has two pieces that, though they may not be his greatest works, define Partch’s musical personality, the things important to him, and his sense of expression and beauty. The four sections of The Wayward show his concept of inflected (microtonal) musical speech, and the texts are straight from his life: the cries of newsboys on the street; a letter from a friend; and “Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions From a Highway Railing at Barstow, California.” From later in his career, And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma is his most ambitious and skillful instrumental piece.
This album has some of the finest sheer playing of Partch’s music that has been recorded and is important for demonstrating how new generations of musicians adapt to his instruments, as well as a testament to the success of the decades-long restoration of the things Partch built. This is dance music, and the playing is so crisp and energetic that the ear quickly adapts to the uncanny sound of his scales. The album also has a great little lecture from Partch himself, introducing his music to an audience in 1953.
Compact Disc (CD)
This release is part of a fascinating series from the revived Composers Recordings, Inc. label, where a recording from their back catalog is paired with a response commissioned by a contemporary composer. For this release, that means The Bewitched, Partch’s first major dance work which emulsified his interest in music theater ideas from Greece, Asia, and Africa. Taylor Brook’s Block was inspired by one of Partch’s own spoken introductions. Composed for microtonal guitar and electronics, it digs into the uncanny spaces between notes.
If you can have only one Partch recording, make it this one, a kind of best-of-distillation of his New World Records catalog. Since we’re not talking hits, it’s designed as a musical portrait, giving a taste of Partch’s ideas and how he used them. There is one unique track, the first remastered reissue of The Dreamer That Remains, his last completed work. There are also a few Intrustions, an excerpt from Petaluma, and the complete U.S. Highball—A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip, the one Partch track to have if you can’t have them all.