INSTRUERE by David Doty
In preparing my column for the September issue of EAR, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the influence of Harry Partch, whose death in September of 1974 ended a lifetime of musical innovation, on the current generation of instrument-building composers. harry Partch considered California, particularly the Bay Area, his home. Born in Oakland in 1901, he made his home at various times in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Carmel, Gualala, Oakland, Sausalito and Petaluma. Many of his unique percussion and stringed instruments took shape here, and several of his large music theater works had their first performances locally. Since his death, Partch's works have been heard fairly frequently in northern California, considering the difficulty of transporting his ensemble of large and fragile instruments, currently housed in San Diego.
In view of these facts, it is of interest (to me, at least) to note the the Bay Area is currently the home of many composers engaged in the design of new acoustic instruments. (If there is a similar concentration elsewhere, I am not aware of it; if the reader knows of such, I would appreciate hearing about it). Whether this is a direct result of Partch's presence, or is merely due to the fact that certain aspects of the physical and cultural environment favor such activities, I cannot say. (The continuing supportive presence of Lou Harrison should not be overlooked in this regard.)
Perhaps the most important aspect of Partch's influence on contemporary music lies in his demonstrating that a composer need not rely on the resources and institutions that society provides. Finding the available material unsuited to his needs, he created, in the period between 1923 and 1974, a unique, justly tuned scale, many of monumental proportions. In the same period, he composed six major dramatic works, and numerous smaller pieces; recruited and trained several ensembles to perform his work, and issued many records of his music on his own independent label, "Gate Five". In short, he was the prototype of the "vertically integrated" musician.
Today, it is not uncommon for a composer to be involved in the design and construction of instruments, whether acoustic or electronic. Fifty years ago, such a notion must have been virtually unheard of. It is still not the sort of activity that is encouraged in most conservatories and university music departments. (In a recent interview, Philip Glass states that, as a composition major at Julliard, he was discouraged from even playing an instrument.) In two areas Partch's influence is clear. The first is in the preference of current instrument builders for various forms of just intonation. Partch was without doubt the first composer in the present century to work exclusively in just intonation. His book Genesis of a Music, (Da Capo Press, 1974) revised and reissued just before his death, remains, despite its sometimes confusing terminology, the most detailed work on just intonation available. The other area in which Partch's influence is apparent is in the current interest in tuned percussion. Of Partch's large instruments, thirteen are percussion, featuring such varied materials as wood, bamboo, glass, and metal.
Without the work of Harry Partch to build upon, those of us engaged in the design of new scales and instruments on which to play them would find our task much more difficult.
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Among the recent evidences of the creativity of local instrument builders, mention should be made of "Forms for Sound", a recent exhibition and performance series at the San Francisco Art Institute organized by Robin Kirck. The Exhibition, in the Institute's gallery included acoustic, electro-acoustic, and electronic instruments and sound sculpture by ten Bay Area artists. p.4