Live Music: The Music and Instruments of Harry Partch at REDCAT

David Johnson plays the Cloud Chamber Bowls. Inset: Harry Partch

By Tony Gieske

A truly stubborn bunch of musical history haters played their way tenderly and enjoyably through several antique compositions at REDCAT the other night, honoring one of the great all-American despisers of precedent, Harry Partch.

Partch, in the ground since 1974 but not out of the evening’s minds, felt that the centuries-old chromatic scale with a mere 12 notes was not enough for what he wanted to say, nor were the instruments since devised.

“What about the cracks?” he exclaimed from his imaginary barricades. That would give you more than 31 extra notes! The fact that none of these can be found on the piano we know and love did not give Partch pause.

He took to his woodworking shop and created a keyboard instrument all his own called the Chromelodeon, which has six keyboard octaves, employing reeds to supply 43 tones to each microtonal octave, each measuring three and a half piano octaves.

Erin Barnes plays Harry Partch's HypoBass

The other 18 Partch-made axes in use on the Redcat stage to play such Partch classics as “Dance Music for an Absent Drama” were tuned to the Chromelodeon by the brave and skillful players of the group, called Partch for some reason.

Paul West plays Harry Partch's Kithara

They were Erin Barnes (Diamond marimba, Eroica and cymbal); T.J.Troy (bass marimba); Shirley Hunt (adapted viola); David Johnson (Cloud Chamber Bowls and Chromelodeon); Mike Kudirka (Canons); John Schneider (guitars and Canons); Derek Stein (cello); Nick Terry (Bowls, Bass Marimba, Eroica); Janice Tipton (flute and ocarina); Paul West (Kithara); Matt Cook (HypoBass, Woodblock, Marimbas).  From the array of Cloud Chamber Bowls, an array of 12-gallon Pyrex carboy sections suspended from a redwood frame on ropes, came belled phrases that agreeably seduced the ear. So did the sounds of most of the other peculiar instruments.

This particular – and willing — ear did not register anything as microtonal, although the product was a long way from Milt Jackson.  Phrases were truncated or elongated, except that bar lengths were only implied. But they were there! Yes. You can’t escape form. Never. Not even if you’re a dead American who stole your titles from Arthur Rimbaud. Not even if you call them melodicles and rhythmicals.

T.J. Troy plays Harry Partch's Bass Marimba

And these random-length phrases were tossed from the carboys to the bass marimba, a 7 foot long Redwood and Sitka spruce Partch construction played with mallets, gloves or bare hands; thence to the six-foot high Kithara I, with its 72 pluckable strings tightened on a Redwood frame; or the six-foot wide Harmonic Canon II, also known as Castor and Pollux; and maybe the Zymo-Xyl, though I couldn’t swear to it.

I welcomed the sight of a cello and a guitar up there during “Rhythm of the Womb, Melody of the Grave,” but these, too, had been “adapted.” They actually sounded pretty much like the real thing.

I could go on, but now I must tear off these few hideous pages from my notebook of a damned soul, to borrow a little more Rimbaud.

Harry Partch instrument photos by Tony Gieske. Read and see more of Tony Gieske’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site tonyspage.com.

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