I first heard of Harry Partch while reading about Tom Waits. With 1980′s Heartattack and Vine, Waits hung up his fedora, turning his back on the piano-based, cabaret croaking of his early years for the strange territories of his breakthrough trilogy: Swordfishtrombones (1983), my favorite Waits’ album Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank’s Wild Years (1987). Some of the influences on this new music were plain to see: Waits Armstrong-esque crooning morphed into a Howlin’ Wolf-like growl and his increasingly abstract lyrics owed a big debt to the strange poetry of Captain Beefheart. Also, there was something else: The discordant tones on the record and the insistent presence of odd percussive rhythms might’ve seemed to have been Waits’ unique contributions, but he was actually standing on the shoulders of another American giant.
Harry Partch was born at the dawn on the 20th century in 1901. By the time he was 14 he was composing his own songs, but he dropped out of college after just six months of study, frustrated at the strictures of Western music, wanting to find a way to express himself in a manner that matched his restless, rebellious creativity.
In his mid-20′s Partch was trying to create a system of music that would adhere more closely to the sound of the human voice. He became inspired when he read On the Sensations of Tone by Hermann Helmholtz. The tome relates musical phenomena to physics and explains the physiology of hearing. With this bedrock understanding of how music actually behaved in the physical world, Partch had found his answers. He realized that the 12 note octave of Western music wasn’t a natural scale, but a constructed one and maybe even a repressive one.
“This thing began with truth and the truth does exist…truth always threatens the hierarchy or they think so,” said Partch.
Partch set about devising a system of pure tuning made up of microtones: small intervals between traditional notes that we aren’t used to hearing. In Partch’s music, a scale is made up of 43 notes. In order to play his compositions, Partch also became an instrument inventor; combining instrument parts or whipping new ones up from scratch.
This great documentary captures Parch’s cantankerous creativity while simultaneously filling-in the story of an outsider who seemed most comfortable at society’s fringes.