Harry Partch

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Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974) was an American composer and instrument creator. He was one of the first twentieth-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments that he built himself, tuned in 11-limit (43-tone) just intonation.

Contents

Biography

Partch was born on June 24, 1901 in Oakland, California soon after his parents, both Presbyterian missionaries, fled the Boxer Rebellion in China. He spent his childhood in small, remote towns in Arizona and New Mexico, where he heard and sang songs in Mandarin, Spanish, and American Indian languages.

Partch was sterile, probably due to childhood mumps, and most of his loving relationships were with men.[1]

As a child, he learned to play the clarinet, harmonium, viola, piano, and guitar. He began to compose at an early age, using the equal-tempered chromatic scale, the tuning system most common in Western music. However, Partch grew frustrated with what he felt were imperfections of the standard system of musical tuning, believing that this system was unsuitable for reflecting the subtle melodic contours of dramatic speech, and as a result, he burned all of his early works.

Interested in the potential musicality of speech, Partch invented and constructed instruments that could underscore the intoning voice, and he developed musical notations that accurately and practically instructed players as to how to play the instruments. His first such instrument was the "Monophone," later known as the "Adapted viola."

Partch secured a grant that allowed him to go to London to study the history of tuning systems and text-setting. While there, he met the poet William Butler Yeats with the intention of gaining Yeats' permission to write an opera based on the poet's translation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King. In his opera, Partch transcribed the inflections of actors from the Abbey Theatre reciting lines from Sophocles' play, and Partch performed this music on his Monophone while intoning "By the Rivers of Babylon." Yeats responded enthusiastically, saying, "A play done entirely in this way, with this wonderful instrument, and with this type of music, might really be sensational," and he gave Partch's idea his blessing.

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