Music history still doesn't seem to know what to make of Harry Partch. A committed outsider whose staggering accomplishments within the first 33 years of his life brought him to national attention, Partch's dedication to esoteric principles kept him at arm's length from a wide audience. His steadfast belief in the complex microtonal scale—which basically posits that an octave contains 43 notes, as opposed to the standard 12—and the otherworldly instruments he created to play it have made him a well-known outlier. And an influential one.
A small and dedicated group of musicians have seen to it that Partch's music and concepts are still taught at the University of Washington's School of Music, where his assemblage of musical creations (aka the Instrumentarium) has been housed since 2014. On May 5–7, the department is presenting one of Partch's most notorious and least-performed works, Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama at Meany Theater.
In a life full of fascinating achievements, Partch's staging of Irish poet William Butler Yeats's 1928 adaptation of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex remains one of the most dramatic. Only two performances of the piece were held during his lifetime, in 1952 and 1954.
Oedipus remains a relatively obscure entry in Partch's body of work (which is saying something), and little is known of his life in the period during which it was conceived. The composer claimed to have met with Yeats on his trip to Europe in 1934 and received the poet's blessing to use his translation of the tragedy. But he ended up writing his own text after Yeats's estate denied him the continued use of the poet's translation after the initial 1952 performance.
Even those who have committed themselves to the study and performance of the composer's works—like University of Washington's Charles Corey, the current warden of Partch's Instrumentarium—are still discovering new facets to the musical drama.
Born in Oakland, California, in 1901 and raised in Benson, Arizona, Partch knew from a young age that he was gay and found himself inclined to befriending those considered to be on the margins of society (including the future silent-film star Ramon Novarro, with whom he would later have a pre-stardom affair). The railway outpost in Benson enabled a young Partch to engage with travelers from all over the country, planting the seed for a lifelong fixation with travel.
Meanwhile, as he began to delve deeper into his studies and started developing his own theories, Partch bemoaned the instrumental abstraction championed by Western music. He blamed Bach for an overemphasis on musical instrument specialization and the canonization of an "equal temperament tuning" that isolated Western music from synthesizing other cultures' musical traditions.
A dedicated student of history, Partch saw that the 12-tone tempered scale was a relatively recent innovation in the Western musical tradition, one that came into dominance through the rise of keyboard music, and in particular the piano. Even as late as the 18th century, some keyboards were manufactured with additional black keys to allow for the distinct tuning of sharps and flats, allowing for alternate tuning systems that went beyond 12 notes.
For Partch, it seemed absurd that some- thing as nuanced as the human voice could be captured in just 12 tones. He believed that music should capture all the notes we glide through in the course of ordinary human speech, that each one was its own viable tone. Using both Pythagorean mathematical theory and non-Western systems of musical tuning, he conceived of "microtonality," a scale in which a single "octave" contained 43 notes.
Western music modified the voice to match the instruments humans created; Partch inverted the hierarchy, placing the voice at the center of his musical universe. In his 1949 book Genesis of a Music, Partch called the spoken word "the distinctive expression my constitutional makeup was best fitted for." In order to realize his new microtonal compositions, the composer, then in his 20s, began making his own instruments and giving them whimsical names like the Chromelodeon, Harmonic Canon, and Spoils of War (made out of seven artillery casings). These creations grew in scale, yielding the Diamond Marimba and the seven-foot-tall string instrument Kithara II. Today, they require around 2,000 square feet to house properly.
Text was central to Partch's compositions from early on, and his sources were varied. He set the words of the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po to music in "An Encounter in the Field." In "The Letter," the composer sought to capture the natural rhythms of the words in a letter from a hobo friend.
As his arsenal of instruments grew, Partch's compositions started to veer toward the musical abstraction he had so forcefully decried in Genesis. But he was on to another discarded concept: the ritualistic quality of music.
According to Corey, who played in a 2005 staging of Oedipus, Partch saw his creations as "instruments [that] just happened to convene and could do nothing else but tell this story." The people playing those instruments had to learn a whole new type of choreography, which Partch called "corporeality." This concept reflected the fact that to play his unwieldy instruments required the use of a musician's entire body—including the voice.
He would dress them in elaborate outfits as a means to get away from the "mundane and the pedestrian" and even shed their identities as mere musicians. "There's just something fantastical, some power behind the drama and music," Corey says.
SPEAKING OF YOUNG THUG
After his death in 1974, Partch's Instrumentarium came under the watch of Danlee Mitchell and later the composer Dean Drummond, who in 1999 moved the collection to Montclair State University in New Jersey. It was there that Ridge Theater put on the third official staging of Oedipus in 2005, following a concert performance in New York City in 1999.
The 2005 performances reset the travails of Oedipus within the office of Sigmund Freud. The UW staging of the opera, in which Corey will serve as musical director, will hew much closer to Partch's original design and text.
While Corey is uncertain about the future of the Partch program at UW, he pledges to stick around to ensure that Partch's teachings are passed to a new generation of music students inspired by his do-it-yourself mentality.
Performers like Young Thug and Lil Yachty and their detuning of Auto-Tune have created a body of contemporary rap music that seems to embrace the eerie microtones that Partch sought to capture. Having built a grand theory around its infinite nuances, Partch would likely be fascinated by the ways technology continues to allow performers to augment the human voice.
And with Corey and the University of Washington continuing to introduce Partch's work to audiences, Partch's place in music history is still being written. We have only begun to grasp this enigmatic composer's continued relevance.