As American Mavericks draws to a close tonight with a concert in Zankel Hall, our series of posts about composers featured in a new exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall also concludes. Today, we focus on the "hobo composer" Harry Partch.
"I am not an instrument-maker, but a philosophical music-man seduced into carpentry."
Harry Partch (1901-1974) was born in Oakland, California. His parents were missionaries in China who fled the Boxer Rebellion; they settled in remote areas of Arizona and New Mexico, where Partch's first encounters with music consisted of Chinese and Native American folksongs. He learned to play the clarinet, organ, piano, and guitar and began composing music.
When he was 28, Partch burned all his compositions and began a hitchhiking trip to Chicago, which became a 10-year trek around the country as a hobo. He documented his journey, compiling his observations in Bitter Music, a published collection of his journals, essays, and other writings.
Partch was the first musician to focus almost exclusively on the microtones within an individual note and devised a 43-note scale to replace the conventional 12-note chromatic scale. This led to complications with having his music performed; in most cases, his works could only be performed on instruments he created. For this reason, he spent most of his adult life designing, redesigning, and building dozens of instruments, including the chromelodeon (a reed organ retuned using colors to designate keys and scales), cloud chamber bowls (suspended glass bottles), and the quadrangularis reversum (a large marimba with auxiliary keys on either side).
Partch supported himself through grants; in 1949, he published Genesis of a Music, in which he discusses his theory of music, compositions, and instruments. Today, it is the standard text of microtonal music.
Holograph of US Highball, A Musical Account of a Transcendental Hobo Trip by Harry Partch, 1943. In Bitter Music Partch writes, "Generally speaking, American hobos number five: Blackie, Whitey, Red, Heavy, and Slim. Slim is the protagonist of US Highball. It is no saga. It is common experience, the account of Slim's hobo trip from Carmel, California, to Chicago." In 2004, the Library of Congress selected a recording of US Highball to be included in its National Recording Registry of music that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."Courtesy Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, Harry Partch Estate Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Partch's cloud chamber bowls.
Harry Partch in performance.
Related:American MavericksRose Museum at Carnegie Hall