Henry Partch

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My roommate, Alyson, is an ethnomusicology PhD student here at Michigan. As a result, I get exposed to things I normally wouldn’t. Tonight, for example, she brought home a video on a 20th century American composer named Henry Partch. I looked for a good online biography of Partch or description of his music to link to, but other than a few references to his wind chimes, I didn’t find much. Perhaps it’s because his particular compositions never caught on with the mainstream public.
As most people with an elementary knowledge of musical theory know, the Western scale breaks the octave into twelfths (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B). But this was not enough for Henry Partch. He didn’t like the idea of conforming to these rigid standards and preferred to split the octave 43 ways instead of 12. Given that he started his work in the 1920s, well before synthesizers or other digital forms of music that could easily do this for him, this meant that he had to build his own instruments — mostly elaborate windchimes.
And he didn’t necessarily stop there. The video we just watched included clips of Partch in his garage, making his “music” by pinging glass bottles. His big observation was that you could get different notes out of different brands, ranging from Old Heaven Hill Sourmash on the low end to Bristol Cream Cherry on the high end. Not to knock his art, but it sounded like a bunch of out of tune banging around to me. Even my roommate commented that “he looks like a bad impression of what I imagined him to be.” But maybe we’re still too conformist and unlightened to appreciate Henry Partch… a man whose time has still not come.

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4 responses

  1. I really like Harry Partch, actually. And he did build some pretty amazing things — I’ve not seen the video but I have heard some of his music, and I enjoyed it. I may have heard a non-representative sample though.

  2. To be fair, when they played the composed music based on his 43 note scale, that didn’t sound too bad. The crazy part was Partch banging the bottles in his garage/workshop explaining how it was all different notes.