June 8, 2016
Harry Partch instruments, now at UW, featured on new Paul Simon album
Paul Simon is a Harry Partch fan, it turns out.
Simon, the celebrated singer-songwriter and former half of the folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, recorded with instruments created by the unusual composer and inventor for a song on his well-received album, “Stranger to Stranger,” released June 3.
Partch (1901–1974) was an eccentric musical genius who designed and built an array of otherworldy-seeming musical instruments because he wanted to hear, and compose with, the sounds they would make. His instruments were for years housed at Montclair State University in New Jersey, but since 2014 have been in residence at the University of Washington School of Music.
The song is titled “Insomniac’s Lullaby.” Its sleepless protagonist begs, “Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night / Side by side with the moon / With its desolate eyes / Miles from the sunrise / The darkness inviting a tune.”
Simon wrote in liner notes that the album began with this dreamlike tune, “its ascending chromatic line leaving me in the easy-to-play guitar keys of C and G major.” Work on the song led him to Montclair State, where he had a recording session in February 2013 with music professor Dean Drummond, longtime curator of Parch’s instrument collection. Drummond, who worked as an assistant to Partch in the 1960s and recorded with him, died in April of 2013.
Partch’s entire collection of musical creations is now in residence at the UW under the curatorial hand of Charles Corey, affiliate assistant professor of music, and the instruments are presented in public concerts each year.
The composer’s music, Simon wrote, “evokes an aural response that goes beyond the ear’s perception of ‘out of tune’ and into a strange, often eerily beautiful, landscape of sound. Even the names of the instruments — Cloud Chamber Bowls, Sonic Canons, Marimba Eroica, Kithara and Chromelodeon to name a few, as well as Dean Drummond’s own invention, the Zoomoozophone — suggest another world of sound.” All those instruments are used in the song, as well as glockenspiel, flute, autoharp, orchestra bells and more.
Simon, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both as a solo artist and with Garfunkel, is known for innovative use of musical instruments, from the duo’s days though his highly successful solo career, including his popular mid-career albums “Graceland” (1986) and “The Rhythm of the Saints” (1990).
“It was an exciting way to begin a new album,” Simon wrote, “and gave me the opportunity to think about Partch’s argument for microtonal music as akin to the spoken voice.”
The New York Times said “Stranger to Stranger,” Simon’s 13th solo album, “is a set of songs that crack jokes and ponder questions about love, death, spirituality, baseball, economic inequality, brain chemistry and music itself. It’s the latest ambitious, tuneful installment in a career that has had far more to do with curiosity than crowd-pleasing.”
To learn more about the instruments and the Harry Partch Institute at the University of Washington, visit online or contact Corey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch a video about the Harry Partch instrument collection at the UW.