Harry Partch: Music Studio

Harry Partch has been dubbed the “hobo composer” on account of his youthful wanderings during the Great Depression, when he rode the railroads with other jobless Americans and found precarious work harvesting fruit. In this short 1958 documentary, though, Partch doesn’t resemble a tramp at all but looks debonair and distinguished with his pipe, Howard Hughes-style moustache, and lime-green socks, as he guides us through his Chicago home full of self-built musical inventions. Perhaps nodding to his itinerant past, a Japanese calligraphic inscription on the studio wall declares “though homeless, you make a shrine wherever you are”. Partch says that his version of shrines are his instruments, “unusual in size, shape and philosophic purpose,” adding “I am a philosophic music man, long ago seduced into musical carpentry.”

Along with esoteric spiritual impulses, it was a quest for different scales and micro-tonal intervals that led Partch to create such outlandish machines as the Diamond Marimba and The Gourd Tree. Sonically these metal and glass contraptions recall the tuned percussion and metallophonic instruments of Indonesian gamelan. But Partch’s actual inspiration came from the Ancient Greeks. His Chromolodeon works with the Greek enharmonic scale, while the 72-stringed Kithara is a drastic expansion upon a lyre used in Antiquity for dances and recitations of epic verse.

For the actual material out of which he fashioned his creations, though, Partch ransacked the modern world. He turned cloud-chamber bowls from the scientific laboratory into bells and repurposed brass artillery casings for an instrument he named The Spoils of Wars. Building these striking-looking and sui generis sound-machines was just the start of the artistic process for Partch, though. His compositions typically were one element in performances involving dance, costume, and mime-like theatre (see Delusion of the Fury, a 72 minute film which can be found on YouTube). Like so many modernists, Partch’s true goal was to go back: to reinvent the holistic audio-visual art forms of the Ancient world, in which “sight and sound unite for a single dramatic purpose”.

  • Simon Reynolds