Meeting Topic: The Harry Partch Instrumentarium
Moderator Name: Dan Mortensen
Speaker Name: Charles Corey, Curator, University of Washington
Meeting Location: Meany Studio Theater, University of Washington, Seattle, WA USA
The PNW Section took a detour in May to experience some of the most unique musical instruments in the world - the Harry Partch Instrumentarium at the University of Washington, Seattle. The host was Charles Corey, the curator of the collection. The meeting was held in the UW Meany Studio Theater where a subset of the instruments was being prepared for a series of concerts. 30 people attended, 11 were AES members.
Who was Harry Partch and what's the deal about his instruments? To quote his bio, "Harry Partch (1901-1974) was an iconoclastic American composer and instrument inventor with a passion for integrating musicians, actors, and dancers in large-scale works of total-theater. He was "seduced into carpentry" by his interest in just intonation and his need to have an orchestra tuned to this system. The instruments are more than just producers of tone, however — each one has an evocative name and dramatic physical presence, and each one puts unique physical demands on the performer.
During his lifetime, Partch composed numerous works for his instruments. Some pieces are straightforward concert music, while others include components of film, dance, or theater. He made great use of the human voice in his music, requiring instrumentalists and singers alike to 'intone' spoken words on precise pitches. His compositions dealt with subjects ranging from ancient Greek mythology and classic drama to his own life experiences as a hobo in 20th century America.
After Partch's death, his orchestra of over 50 unique instruments was left to his dedicated assistant, Danlee Mitchell. Danlee continued performances of Partch's works from his base at San Diego State University until 1990, when Dean Drummond, a former member of Partch's ensemble, became the curator of the instrumentarium in New Jersey, until his death in 2013. Charles Corey, a member of Drummond's ensemble, was appointed curator, and has worked closely with Danlee Mitchell to continue the legacy of Harry Partch in Seattle."
AES PNW Chair Dan Mortensen opened the meeting, giving notice of the June meeting on 3D audio at Digipen, and the PNW elections. Attendees all introduced themselves, then Charles Corey began his presentation.
Two common questions he gets is, Why are these instruments in Seattle? And why are these particular instruments in the theater (a subset of the collection)?
His answer was that in 2012, the collection visited Seattle from New Jersey for a UW Meany theater concert. Then-Curator Dean Drummond died soon after, so the caretakers looked for a new home. The vibe with the UW in Seattle was good.
The instruments displayed that night were about 1/3 of the instruments held, just what could fit in the black box theater and work for a programmed concert series. The instruments tend to show the woodwork and whimsy of an earlier time. There are several marimba instruments, some reed organs, several zither or harp-like instruments, modified guitars and viola, gongs and chimes, and generally all built to unique microtonal specifications. Ordinary instruments (clarinet, cello, etc) may be scored in a Partch piece, but may have to be adapted/modified/played differently.
Charles described and demonstrated the instruments gathered this evening. They included:
•Chromelodeon - a foot-pumped modified reed organ, one of his first instruments, with a 43 note octave just tone scale based around a musical G (392Hz).
•Diamond Marimba - the physical implementation of the "tonality diamond" (the basis of just intonation). The bars are arranged in a diamond formation.
•Marimba Eroica - a deep bass set of 4 huge wood marimbas, the lowest with a 22 Hz fundamental.
•Bass Marimba - an 11 tone marimba, where many different kinds of mallets can be used for different effects, or even the hands.
•Kithara 2 - A 7-foot tall, harp-like instrument on risers with a resonator; it has 72 strings in 12 sets of 6 (corresponds to the diamond marimba). It also has open strings and sections with Pyrex glass rods for "slide guitar" variable tuning.
•Gourd Tree - A eucalyptus branch hung with many temple bells (from percussionist Emil Richards), and gourd resonators.
•Cone gongs - metal WW2 aircraft nosecones.
•Surrogate Kithara - A horizontal string instrument, smaller than the Kithara 2.
•Harmonic Canons - Two units, with 44 strings over resonators, and many bridges under sets of strings. Similarities to zithers or kotos were noted.
•Cloud Chamber Bowls - Gongs or chimes; tops and bottoms cut from glass carboys formerly used for atomic cloud chamber experiments (like the size of 5 gallon jugs). They are not perfectly tuned due to cutting difficulty.
•Adapted/modified guitars and viola.
Many audience questions revealed that one of Partch's interests was instruments that have the expressiveness of the human voice, which is not limited to normal scales. Also, each instrument has its own tablature system for notation (sheet music), each with its own notation problems. They usually tune each day to the Chromolodeon. This can take about 1.5 hours for experienced musicians for this small ensemble.
When moved, nearly every instrument has to be completely taken apart and carefully packed. And they are getting old, are delicate, and totally unique.
The Partch foundation is against having samples recorded, as they feel using samples instead of the actual instruments is not what Partch was trying to do. Players of the instruments include students, faculty, and community members.
After a cookie break, the 3 concert series later in the week was noted, and a starting point for more information is harrypartch.com.
Finally, the audience was invited to try out all of the instruments (carefully), with guidance from Charles and some assistants. Truly a one-of-a-kind experience with these rare and precious gems!
Written By: Gary Louie