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HARRY PARTCH

“Continuing and, for all we know at this writing, concluding, our series of Composers Who Don’t Like Things as They Are and Have Thought Up Something Different, we here take up Mr. Harry Partch…who has devised a orty-three- tone scale. Chromatically speaking, it has forty-three tones to the octave instead of the twelve you find on a piano. He gave a concert at Carnegie Music Hall recently, in which, with assisting musicians, he presented four of his works. These compositions called for the use of the Chromolodeon, the Kithara, the Adapted Guitar, the Adapted Viola, and the Flexatone, instruments which can cope with the forty-three- tone scale and which were adapted, or built, mainly by Mr. Partch. Mr. Partch is a pale bachelor who in June will be, as he puts it, the same age as the number of tones in his scale. He lives in a couple of rooms on West Ninety-second Street, surrounded by his Kithara, his Chromolodeon, and the rest. Next to the number of tones in Mr. Partch’s scale, the most unusual feature of his compositions is the spoken, or intoned, text which goes with them. In Barstow, this consists of messages written on a California highway railing by hobos and copied verbatim by the composer. He believes that with his forty-three- tone scale he can duplicate the tones of human conversation. He made a pretty good stab at this, we thought. As we understand it, which is dimly, Mr. Partch’s complaint against the ordinary scale is that it is tempered, which means that it compromises. If you tuned a piano, for example, by fifths, the basic interval in harmony, instead of by octaves, by the time you got to the twelfth fifth from the starting tone – stick with us, now – your pitch would be an eighth of a tone higher than what the octave tuner gets out of the same key on the keyboard. The octave tuner knows this, but he figures he’s close enough. Mr. Partch doesn’t. He wants accuracy, and he’s willing to build instruments to get it. He feels, also, that the tempered scale is a form of regimentation, and he has long been opposed to regimentation. This is evidenced by the fact that he has drifted restlessly from one occupation to another: schoolteacher, fruit picker, apprentice seaman, writer and proofreader, as well as indigent transient and composer. ‘My father was a Presbyterian minister who turned agnostic,’ he told us. ‘Maybe that had something to do with it.’”
[From ‘Kitharist’, The New Yorker, 27/05/1944]