There are few more interesting and innovative thinkers in the history of music than Harry Partch.
He serves as a kind of template for a restless, unorthodox, and distinctly American kind of genius: He invented a 43-tone musical system that many found (and still find) eccentric—but it worked. He was a hobo for a time, wrote popular songs under the pseudonym “Paul Pirate,” and set up a studio in a disused chick hatchery.
If nothing else, Harry Partch was a guy who got into the habit of thinking for himself. As The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross put it, “Of all the triumphantly weird characters who have roamed the frontiers of American art, none ever went quite as far out as the composer Harry Partch.”
Partch invented a boatload of instruments to suit his unique musical system, with whimsical and awe-inspiring names like the Quadrangularis Reversum, the Zymo-Xyl, and the Chromelodeon. Among the well-known musicians Partch influenced are Danny Elfman, Glenn Branca, and most particularly Tom Waits. Beck, himself the grandson of freethinker and Fluxus member Al Hansen, wrote a 10-minute song called “Harry Partch” in 2009—Beck claims that it is consistent with Partch’s 43-note scale. Partch virtually invented the category of microtonal music, an area in which a cousin of mine happens to be a leading expert.
Partch was intensely interested in King Oedipus, William Butler Yeats’ adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In 1934 Partch met with Yeats in England and told him of his ideas for adapting it, and Yeats was quite enthusiastic about it. It took Partch 18 years after that meeting to realize his conception for King Oedipus. Around 1951 Arch Lauterer, a professor of speech and drama at Mills College, a women’s school in Oakland, wanted to mount an adaptation of the work, and worked with Partch to make it happen. Lauterer proposed putting the instruments on the stage, an idea with which Partch agreed with alacrity.
The following video is a report on that production of King Oedipus, which was performed on March 14-16, 1952. You don’t have to be too expert a listener to hear a precursor to Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits in the tonalities.
Via Open Culture