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Film and Music: Music


Harry Partch

A look back at the maverick composer

Who is he?

In 1930, Harry Partch made a decision that changed his life forever. Raised in a one-horse frontier town in Arizona - and having heard a cacophony of strange sounds from passing outlaws, including Chinese lullabies, Christian hymns and Catonese music hall numbers - the young composer grew frustrated by Western music's 12-note structure, instead obsessing on the notes between the notes. In an attempt to break free of the 'tyranny of the piano scale', 29-year-old Partch took all the quartets, concertos and symphonic poems he'd written over the past 14 years and burnt them, torching his musical past and starting all over again. But to play the microtonal sounds he needed, Partch had to build his own instruments from scratch - including the Eucal Blossom, Mazda Marimba, Quadrangularis Reversum and Cloud Chamber Bowls - fashioning acoustic oddities from car bumpers, driftwood and junk scavenged from the California desert to perfect his own 43-note scale. Not surprisingly, the music Partch produced sounds like nothing else on earth, and while much of his work boasts a dark, sensual beauty, many pieces are undermined by absurd boings, twangs and wibble-wobbles, the sort of effects normally used to punctuate the slapstick action of a Harold Lloyd movie.

Why should we care?

Although many artists and musicians tried to expose Partch to a mainstream audience, the notoriously cantankerous composer - who spent most of his life living as a hobo, hitchhiking through the American northwest - refused all offers of help and decided to do things his own way. In turn, this maverick attitude won him a handful of celebrity fans, including Tom Waits, whose Swordfishbones is heavily influenced by Partch's techniques, and Frank Zappa, who spent many hours with the composer, mesmerised by his live performances.

Where is he now?

Harry Partch died in 1974, but his musical legacy lives on - not least in the tons of acoustic hardware his devotees have to shift from city to city when performing his most celebrated works. And while his arcane tuning and scrapheap instruments are certain to turn off most people who hear it, musicians such as the Kronos Quartet and DJ Spooky are determined to keep Partch's capricious work alive.

Currently available: The Harry Partch Collection: Volume 1 (CRi)


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