This post first appeared on Something For The Weekend, Sir? Since then I have (mal)adjusted that site for the purpose of featuring spoken word poetry. I thought the original post worked well. It was brief and as an introduction into the life of a great man I thought encouraged my readers to find out more from other, more expansive and possibly better sites than mine. A gentleman poet of infinite wisdom if finite pockets suggested the article was too brief, too sketchy and needed more detail. Here then is that article freshly plumped up like a turkey before thanksgiving day and with additional stuffing....
Harry Partch, is a name known to few but totally unheard of by many more. Harry Partch was a composer; an American born in nineteen one in Oakland, California. The sound of his music, perhaps unfairly, would cast him as being, if not different, a little too far to the edge, too experimental, in fact a trifle weird. Born to Presbyterian missionaries who had fled China during the Boxer Uprising his childhood was as different to other children as his music was to other composers. Raised in Arizona and New Mexico where he would sing in Native American, Mandarin, Spanish and of course English. The later could be said to be his native tongue but that would not give a true profile of the man: he was multi-lingual.
Harry was born in Oakland, California. His parents, Virgil Franklin Partch and Jennie were Presbyterian missionaries who went forth to spread the gospel to the poor unfortunates of China taking young Harry with them. When the Boxer uprising began the family fled the orient making their way back to American and to Tuscon, Arizona before moving to Albuquerque. His mother used to play an old fashioned reed organ singing as she did in Chinese. This whimsical sharing of music played a huge part in shaping the young lads taste in music. After his father's death in 1919 he and his mother resettled in Los Angeles where his mother was killed in a tragic trolley car accident leaving Harry on his own.
Harry learned to play a variety of musical instruments including the harmonium, viola, guitar, clarinet and piano. No mean feat by anyone’s standards but for a child this was nothing short of prodigal.
As he grew he developed a dislike for the normal, accepted equal tempered chromatic scale finding it too limiting to allow him to compose and play music that matched the subtleties and nuances afforded to human speech. He believed that western music had lost its way around the time of J.S.Bach. he found western singing to be abstract preferring the vocal sounds as produced by the Ancient Greeks. Unable to play the sounds he heard in his head as he wanted to produce them he started to make his own instruments. The first instrument he made was the Monophone which would later be called he Adapted Viola. In the length of his lifetime, more as an instrument maker than only composer, he made a great many instruments that suited the sounds he wanted to create but for now he needed first to study.
Securing a grant to study the history of tuning instruments, Partch arrived in London His break came after visiting Dublin where he met poet W.B. Yeats. As a lover of the poets work, Partch became so enthused by the Irishman’s work that he set out to create an opera based around the poem Oedipus the King. Transcribing the actors vocal inflections as they read the piece, Partch played the music on his Monophone. Yeats was so pleased with what he heard he gave his full permission and support to go ahead and create the opera as the young composer saw fit. Partch needed to make additional instruments to enable him to fulfill his idea of how the music should sound. Unfortunately, his grant was too small and having returned to America the Great Depression hit.
Partch was forced to live as a tramp. Getting casual work where he could as he traveled around on the railroad. He lived the rough life of a vagrant for ten long years recording his sojourn in a book entitled, “Bitter Music.” Bitter maybe but his vision remained as crystal as the day he conceived it. He used his experience to flavour his style taking notes of a variety of different accents from those he met on his journeys. Such is the way of creatives. Observation being the basis for understanding human kind.
His life is as remarkable as the music he eventually recorded. The music was as individual as the books he published, as diversely unique as the man himself. The book, “The Genesis of a Music” is now widely regarded as standard text for microtonal music theory. Partch died in 1974 but remains a singularly remarkable man.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.