American composer Harry Partch lived an unconventional life. A dreamer and a traveler, he devised an original system for making music and built dozens of instruments to bring that dream to reality.
“My music and my instruments are an expression of an ancient tradition in which sight and sound unite toward the achievement of a single dramatic purpose,” Partch said in the documentary “Music Studio.”
“He was kind of irascible but he was also magnetic, so all the people I’ve talked to who knew him said that he both infuriated them and fascinated them,” says Andrew Granade, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance who wrote about Partch’s transient years in “Harry Partch: Hobo Composer.”
More than 20 of Partch’s instruments are in Kansas City this week, with performances, demonstrations and lectures.
When Partch died in 1974, he never expected his music to exist much beyond his own lifetime, Granade says.
Between 1928 and 1943, he was essentially homeless.
“He would get jobs — dishwashing, proofreading — and then that would dry up he would go on the road again and he would get another job, so he just kind of bounced around for all those years,” says Granade.
Throughout his life, these on-the-road experiences defined his career and guided his approach to music. He went so far as to develop a new system of tuning to reflect all of the tonal gradations in the way people speak.
“If I’m asking a question then my voice goes up, and if I’m being stern it goes down. There are all these kinds of little slight changes … and he wanted to capture all that in music,” Granade says. “To do that he began to split the octave up into all these tiny little discreet tones.”
Partch ended up with 43 of these microtones. It was an effort to find “the most American kind of sound,” Granade says.
“He clued into the hobo because he was around them all the time because of his personal situation,” says Granade. “He would be riding on the rails and on the boxcar, people would write rough poetry and he would write it down.”
Partch was such an iconoclast that he rejected the European ideals of music by burning all of his early work. His subject matter was truly American, Granade says, as was the fact that he built a mythology for himself.
The way Partch put it: “I am a philosophic music man who, long ago, was seduced into musical carpentry.”
What he built, Granade says, is a legacy based on two aesthetic ideas. One, which he called Monophony, was the idea of a single voice being persuasive, which he wanted to capture in music; the second, which he called Corporeality, was that music was “intimately connected to the body both for the performer and with the audience,” says Granade.
“He wanted his musicians to be basically dancing, moving in and around the instruments. And he has stories, like, ‘When you approach this instrument, you have to be like a pea picker with your feet spread wide and you are moving left and right.’”
And those instruments, which Parch built himself, play a central role.
His first instruments were adapted from existing pieces, but as his sound world and influence expanded he created larger pieces using found materials — bamboo, wood, glass bottles, artillery shells, carboys, airplane nosecones — with strange, evocative names like Cloud-Chamber Bowels, Zymo-Xyl, Gourd Tree and Spoils of War.
“They are sculpturally beautiful,” Granade says of the instruments. “They really are works of art that you could put into a museum.”
Kansas City audiences have several opportunities to experience this unique musical world over the next week, with a series of free events at UMKC, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Art Institute, featuring the University of Washington’s Harry Partch Ensemble, led by Charles Corey, director of the Harry Partch Institute. The Partch residency culminates with a Feb. 22 performance of “Castor & Pollux” with new choreography performed by Conservatory dance students.
“The creatively out of this man is unbelievable — that out of whole cloth, he created this entire world where nothing like this had existed before,” Granade says. “A lot of composers today, they may not compose with Partch’s instruments or in Partch’s microtones, but they are influenced by the whole idea of ‘Well, there’s more than twelve tones to the octave, so what can I do there?’ That’s inspired a lot of people.”
And there’s only one set of his original instruments, Granade notes. So the fact that they’re in Kansas City is, he says, “literally a once-in-a lifetime experience.”
Harry Partch “Hobo Composer” Residency includes free events through Feb. 22 in various locations.