_______________ d. in the garden PDF Print E-mail
Written by D. Bond   
Saturday, 31 October 2009 10:59

d. in the garden

“Contrary to general belief, an artist is never ahead of his time but most people are far behind theirs”

                        Edgar Varese


In our search for the exotic let’s turn at last, to the work of Harry Partch. Partch’s heroic efforts in this field cannot be underestimated especially when one realizes that in addition to developing his intonational theory, he built by hand a plethora of instruments tuned to his variety of scales and composed and performed music for his ensembles.


Now, while I agree somewhat with John Cage’s criticism of Partch, that it seemed strange that one would create a new harmonic vocabulary and then apply traditional compositional techniques to these materials[1], Partch himself, believed he was reviving a music that had been lost since antiquity and wished to create theatrical experiences along the lines of Greek drama[2]. I withhold comment at this moment. These aesthetic debates and the compositional challenges presented by these systems, we put aside until after we have finished cataloguing our resources and mapping the terrain.


In viewing Partch’s scale, specifically his 43 tone scale, one can see that he also restricts himself to a subset of relationships that are reproduced throughout the scale. To his credit, where there are options, Partch attempts to include them, such as all 3 options of 7ths we looked at earlier. 


I have already pointed out that this scale is not exhaustive of all the relationships implied by Partch’s method, nor could it ever be. 


What is perhaps more impressive than this scale, is the wide range of instruments Partch created for this intonational system, including plucked lyres, marimba, and adapting a keyboard by tuning the reeds of his Chromelodian [Partch’s name for his air driven 88-key reed organ] to the desired tones. He then employed a tablature notation to guide the performer.


Partch denied the need for modulations in his music. This is what he defined as ‘monophony’. His music exposes relationships within the context of a fixed center. A moving tonal center is not required, nor are modulations around a cycle of fifths [which after all is not a closed cycle, but an open spiral]. Partch’s chosen relationships move towards and away from the center via extensions of their rational relationships, giving his music its harmonic impetus.


One can only guess, as Partch never explicitly states this, that in limiting himself to a 43 tone scale, he could allow himself 2 complete octaves of pitches plus two bonus keys for good luck [the top and bottom octaves, I would bet] for his 88 note Chromelodian. Personally, I cannot help but be impressed by the patience and persistence this would have entailed. These explorations are easier today in the electronic realm, and certainly, this field would not be where it is today without Partch’s work.


In my estimation, however, it seems a shame that Partch stopped at 11. The beauty of the 7th and 11th seemed sufficient to Partch and certainly I agree that these elements provide enough material to spend a lifetime (or, if you will, a series of lifetimes) working on. 


Yet, I can’t help feel that if one was compelled to go as high as 11, then one should out of courtesy admit 13, 11’s cousin, as the two form a prime pair. Partch may then have realized that he had (almost) completed the series up to 2^4, [15 being mostly redundant, vis 3*5] and upon looking towards the tantalizing horizon of 17-31, and the inevitable exasperation of dealing with this complexity, may have, as it did for me, force him to consider an alternate method of analyzing the underlying connections and plot an escape from this incredibly sticky net of just intonational complexity. [3]


It is to this we now turn our attention.

next - 7. The Harmonic Matrix

[1] Silence? Interview?

[2] Genesis of a Music

[3] I add only a terse footnote about ‘Lucy tuning’, a mean tone based system moving round the cycle of fourths and fifths [wikipedia]. Apparently, it is patented [!] and thus information about it is hard to come by. Patented? If this can possibly be true, then we have found another obvious crack in the universe!

Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 22:02