UW News

April 24, 2015

Harmonic Canon? Quadrangularis Reversum? Wild musical world of Harry Partch comes to UW

UW News

Charles Corey, research associate with the UW School of Music, plays the Bass Marimba, one of about 50 instruments invented by musical genius and eccentric Harry Partch (1901-1974) that now reside at the School of Music.

Charles Corey, research associate with the UW School of Music, plays the Bass Marimba, one of about 50 instruments invented by musical genius and eccentric Harry Partch (1901-1974) that now reside at the School of Music.Peter Kelley


The bass marimba, big as a desk and twice as tall, uses an organ pipe as a resonator and answers the mallet with a musically wooden plonk. The Chromelodeon II, a retuned reed organ, wheezes a trio of soft tones with the press of a key. And the elaborate Cloud-Chamber Bowls deliver tones ranging from a bell-like gong to a glassy clank.

These are the creations of Harry Partch (1901-1974), an eccentric musical genius who built them because he wanted to hear — and compose with — the sounds such contraptions would make.

There’s also the Kithara, the Harmonic Canon, the Zymo-Xyl, the Mazda Marimba, the Blue Rainbow, the Crychord and the Eucal Blossom. Even the Quadrangularis Reversum, which sounds like a Hogwarts incantation. And many more — about 50 in all.

The instruments came to the UW this winter from Montclair State University in New Jersey. And along with them came Charles Corey, a research associate tasked with taking care of the inventions, helping students play them and learn from them, and conducting fundraising and public outreach to support the collection and its maintenance.

Three public events in May:

  • May 11, 7:30 p.m., Harry Partch Instrument Presentation, Meany Hall.
  • May 26, 7:30 p.m., The Music of Harry Partch, Meany Studio Theater
  • May 27, 7:30 p.m., Percussion Ensemble “World Percussion Bash” will feature music from the UW Harry Partch Ensemble, Meany Studio Theater.

An unusual career: Composer, author, inventor, hobo

A biography of Harry Partch and his inventions at a website maintained by UW Research Assistant Charles Corey tells of the composer and inventor’s interesting life with several academic jobs and even time spent “on the road.”

More a creative loner than a true academic, Partch studied music and had minor grants until the Great Depression turned him into a rail-riding indigent, gathering material all the while.

He published “The Wayward,” a collection of musical compositions in the early1940s and the book “Genesis of a Music” in 1947. The 1950s brought a productive residency at the University of Illinois, where he continued to invent and built instruments to meet his growing compositional needs. He moved to California in 1962 and continued composing music and theater pieces and carried on with creative work until his death.

Though of course Corey never met Partch, who died decades ago, he knows a great deal about the man and his music.

“He was a singer and a multi-instrumentalist — a percussionist, keyboardist, strings player — he did it all,” Corey said. “When he grew up he was playing accompaniment for silent movies. He was a very informed musician.”

In composition and performance, Partch employed “just intonation,” also called pure intonation, which is a tuning where the frequencies of notes are governed by ratios of whole numbers and make what are termed “just intervals.”

In just intonation, Corey said, “You can pick any pitch you want and that can be the key, and you can expand out in any direction from there.”

Corey said Partch’s main aim was to follow the human voice, “which of course does not speak in 12 rigidly chosen tones per octave, but has an infinite range of inflection,” and to build instruments that better harmonize and accompany the voice. He even created musical pieces for dance and theater productions during his long and varied career.

Partch played the instruments he created, but in time got tired of being their only performer. So he started adapting instruments for others to play, starting with a viola and expanding in time to the diverse set of instruments — some looking rather like Dr. Seuss creations — now in residence at the UW School of Music.

Even playing Partch’s musical inventions requires musicians to be more physically engaged than the usual concert player. For the outsized Bass Marimba, for instance: “Playing it on a riser, you have to move from one end to the other. There is a dance element — you need to have graceful footwork and be aware of your presence on stage.”

Corey is well cast as the keeper of this odd musical world. As a student at Montclair State he performed in several of Partch’s theatrical pieces, and he even visited the UW in 2012 as part of a touring production. After finishing his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, he returned to Montclair State and joined an ensemble dedicated to Partch music. The ensemble director died soon thereafter and Corey was placed in charge of the collection. Interest soon waned at the school, however, and the UW became the collection’s — and Corey’s — new home.

Student composers at the UW may be challenged by Partch’s eccentric notation and tuning methods, Corey said, “but it’s a world that isn’t open to many people, so I think they should take advantage.”

“There’s this idea that if you are doing something creative, just go for it, whatever inspires you — whether it’s to build your own instruments or explore one thing in music that really appeals to you. To really do your own thing, because no one else is going to.”

Just now, these wild musical inventions sit in storage rooms in the School of Music building, but their UW debut is approaching. Corey will host a discussion and demonstration May 11, followed by a concert by students and others on May 26.

In the meantime, he’s showing students the unique qualities of the instruments, answering questions, “talking theory” and trying to stir interest in joining an ensemble.

“Just trying to build a program,” he said, “more or less from the ground up.”

  • To learn more about Harry Partch, his music and its residency at the UW School of Music, contact Corey at crcorey@uw.edu.