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The Fabulous Instruments of Harry Partch

The »Greatest Hits« festival at Kampnagel gives music lovers a chance to hear the instruments created by a visionary inventor and composer

The instruments are nothing if not out of the ordinary. They look like a wine rack, a tree full of cowbells or a Kontiki raft. They rustle and whisper, thunder and rumble. And they have mysterious names like blue rainbow, crychord, drone devils or cloud-chamber bowls. But scarcely anyone knows the name of their inventor any more.

Harry Partch, born in California in 1901, was a composer, vagabond, music theorist – and very good at making things. He built instruments for his visionary music that were one of a kind, and these can now be heard at Kampnagel.

The »Bamboo Marimba« made out of bamboo stalks of different lengths
The »Bamboo Marimba« made out of bamboo stalks of different lengths © Steven Severinghaus

Micro-Tones Instead of Mainstream

In 1930 the 29-year-old Partch was already an ambitious young composer when he decided to burn every score he had written up to then. The twelve semitones in an octave seemed much too imprecise to him: he had a vision of music working with much finer tonal intervals than can be played on a piano keyboard. So he developed an ingenious tone system featuring 43 micro-tones per octave instead of the usual 12. He modelled this system on the human voice with its nuances of intonation.

»Cone Gongs« and »Gourd Tree«
»Cone Gongs« and »Gourd Tree« © Steven Severinghaus

Partch instruments at the »Greatest Hits« festival

Go to festival calender


But he needed completely new kinds of musical instruments to convert his theories into music. He spent countless hours fiddling around and experimenting, and the product of his labours was an entire zoo of exotic instruments.

Partch’s first instrument was the »adapted viola« – a normal viola on to which he screwed the much longer fingerboard of a cello. Over the years, forty or more other instruments joined his collection. Some of these sound like genetically-manipulated relations of African or Asian instruments, of ancient instruments or of ones familiar from the modern orchestra.

For example, there is a »chromelodeon«, a harmonium with mysterious numbers on it. Or a gigantic »marimba eroica« that rumbles darkly and makes the musician himself look like a chess piece.

Cloud-Chamber Bowls
Cloud-Chamber Bowls © Steven Severinghaus


Partch’s work attracted attention. A scholarship from the Carnegie Corporation enabled him to travel to London, where he devoted himself to studying ancient Greek music theory. But his grant ran out in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, and he started to live as a vagabond, travelling illegally through the USA on freight trains and taking casual jobs to survive. Like the music he wrote, Partch himself didn’t find a place in society.

Harry Partch
Harry Partch © Klaus Rudolph

During the long train journeys he continued to work on his tone system, setting letters or the railway station graffiti of other hobos to music. In the end, the impoverished composer found somewhere to stay on a ranch in California: a friend allowed him to convert an old forge into a music workshop, where Partch was able to continue working on his instruments.

He had a reputation as an eccentric and tended to rub people up the wrong way, yet his studies and the instruments he built were a source of amazement and inspiration alike for other researchers and musicians. Partch received offers of teaching and research positions from universities, which would have given him the chance to rehearse his music and realise different projects. But as long as he lived, Partch remained a non-conformist, far removed from the establishment.

Ensemble Musikfabrik


Faithful copies of Partch’s legendary instruments can be heard on 2 November at the »Greatest Hits« festival at Kampnagel.

Ensemble Musikfabrik will be playing Partch’s work »Ring Around the Moon – A Dance Fantasm for Here and Now« as well as three new pieces written by contemporary composers for performance on Partch instruments.

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