Harry Partch Biography

24 June 1901, Oakland, California, USA, d. 3 September 1974, San Diego, California, USA. This composer’s work was called ‘the most original and powerful contribution to dramatic music on this continent’. He began composing when he was 14, and 15 years later burnt all that he had written, rejecting the conventional, ‘restricting’, 12-note scale, for his 43 tones to the octave scale. He was a hobo for several years during the Depression, and from 1930-47 played on just one instrument, his ‘adapted viola’, which he used to accompany himself singing Biblical passages, and the hitch-hikers inscriptions he included in his hobo epic The Wayward (1943). These comprised Barstow, The Letter, San Francisco and US Highball, made up from names of railroad towns, newsboy cries and other effects, which he recited and sung, accompanied by guitar riffs. Later, he designed and built around 30 of his own instruments, such as the Zymo-Xyl, the Gourd Tree, the Spoils of War, the Mazda Marimba, Cloud-Chamber Bowls and the Cone Gong. These were made of materials such as hubcaps, kettle tops, liquor bottles, artillery shell casings, and two nose cone casings salvaged from a Douglas bomber aircraft.

Although his admirers included jazz musicians Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, performances of Partch’s works such as The Bewitched (1957), ‘an enormous ritualistic music drama’, were limited by the need to have specially trained musicians rehearsing for at least six months. Some of his compositions were distributed privately on his Gate 5 Records series, and Madeline Tourtelot made five films that featured his music. However, it was not until the last 10 years of his life that his work was made commercially available. In 1973 a filmed portrait entitled The Dreamer That Remains was released. A year later Partch died at his home in California.

In November 1998, the music of Harry Partch was performed for the first time in the UK at London’s Barbican Centre. Playing the composer’s original instruments was the ensemble Newband, led by Dean Drummond. The concert was part of a celebratory ‘Partch Day’, which also included screenings of three films about him and a question and answer session with his biographer Bob Gilmore.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.