Writing Music for Someone Else’s Instruments: Creating New Music for the Partch Ensemble

I had the opportunity to work with Harry Partch when I sang one of the principal roles in his opera Delusion of the Fury. During the course of rehearsals for the performances in Los Angeles and the subsequent Columbia Masterworks recording sessions, I had time to see and hear many of his instruments and fell in love with them. They were unusual and idiosyncratic and Partch’s microtonal music created a memorable sound world.

But when I was asked to compose an original work for a set of replicas of Partch’s instruments, I was faced with the challenge of learning their complex technique and notation. Partch uses a tuning system different from the 12-tone equal-tempered scale, and therefore pitches are not equivalent to those of conventional instruments. John Schneider, director of Partch, a unique ensemble that performs on replicas of Partch’s instruments and for whom I wrote my new work, explains:

The instruments are tuned to the system called Just Intonation which is a method of tuning the musical scale according to the laws of Nature, using the notes that are inherent in every musical tone. A byproduct of this system is that each note, the so-called ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ s has at least 4 or 5 shadings according to it’s use – producing far sweeter consonances and far more ferocious dissonances than the scales currently in music. The result is a scale of at least 43 notes per octave, instead of the standard twelve.

To facilitate performance of these new intervals, the notation used to convey what to play on these instruments is also much different from standard music notation. Many are notated in proportions rather than in notes, and most use a tablature that is unique to Partch—a very eccentric instrument-based notation that rarely shows what you hear, but rather what you DO to get what you hear which is somewhat like playing a 3-dimensional chess game. Learning this new language was essential to convey my musical ideas to the players.

Because Partch was involved with theater, I decided to create a theater piece using the instruments themselves as characters in the drama. Each voice has its own personality and their interactions form the basis of my composition. The work was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in conjunction with an exhibition of artwork by John Baldessari, so I chose the names of Baldessari’s works for the title of my piece, There Isn’t Time and for each movement.

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.
All photos from the original Gate 5 recordings of Harry Partch’s music. Special thanks to Sedgwick Clark.

The first movement, “Line of Force,” introduces five instruments: Cloud Chamber Bowls, Diamond Marimba, Kithara, Bass Marimba and Harmonic Canon. The Cloud Chamber Bowls are 11 dome-shaped glass bowls of differing sizes, hung on a rack 7 feet long and 6 feet high. The frame is of metal, the bowls are glass carboys, and they are hung with rope for suspension purposes. The instrument is constructed of the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys (the bottoms are inverted). The bowls are played with mallets of different degrees of hardness, and this, together with where the bowls are struck, affects the tone profoundly. There are two basic ways to strike the bowls: on the side, which creates a full, warm, sustaining sound, and on the top, which produces a sound more like a high marimba—short, staccato and sharp. The bowls give a bell-like tone, and each has at least one inharmonic overtone. When one of them breaks it is virtually impossible to find an exact duplicate. Each bowl’s sound is so complex it cannot be represented by a single pitch but rather a collection of pitches.

The Diamond Marimba (Gate 5)

The Diamond Marimba is 40 inches high at the back, 33 at the front and 36 inches across the top. The blocks are Brazilian rosewood and Pernambuco, mounted on thin foam rubber; the resonators are plexiglass. The 36 blocks are arranged in diagonal rows, so that one sweep of the mallet will sound an arpeggio-like chord. Strokes with the right hand are major; those with the left hand are minor (from top to bottom). The range is almost three octaves, beginning with the approximate C# above middle C.

The Kithara is more than 7 ½ feet high to the top of the music rack; 5 feet broad at the base, tapering to 38 inches at the tops of the arms; the same width throughout, 7 ¼ inches. The soundboards (string sides of each of the six resonators) are thin vertical-grain Sitka spruce. The other sides are ¾ inch redwood. The two sides, at the bottom, are ¼ inch redwood ply. The strings are mando-cello, guitar, tenor guitar, and banjo, and the heads are guitar tuning heads. The instrument is arranged in twelve hexads, each containing four to six identities of a tonality. Four are used with ½ inch glass rods for stopping purposes. The Kithara is played with fingers, and with celluloid and felt picks attached to the fingers at right angles.

The Bass Marimba is 5 feet high (to the block level, not including the music rack) and 7 ½ feet long. The longest block is 52 inches, the shortest 27 inches. The player stands on a riser 22 inches high. The resonators are organ pipes, and frame is metal. The blocks are vertical-grain Sitka spruce, mounted on rope. The Bass Marimba has eleven blocks ranging from the low cello C to the Bb below middle C (approximately). It is played with a variety of heavy and light mallets, bare hands (as in bongo drumming), felt-covered sticks on the edges of the ends, and wire whisks.

The Harmonic Canon is 30 inches high in front, 36 at the back (not including the music rack) and slightly more than 6 feet long. The resonating chambers are each 30 ½ by 22 ½ inches, outside. The frame is made of redwood with thin vertical-grain Sitka spruce soundboards, oak ends on the resonating chambers, spruce bridges, mandolin tuning heads fixed on strap brass, with guitar second strings on Pollux (right) and guitar second and fifth strings on Castor. The Harmonic Canon can produce any pattern that is desired.

At the beginning of the piece, two drummers, playing a fierce rhythm, enter from the back of the hall, walk onto the stage, circle each player in turn, and surround them. The drummers accompany each instrument in turn, giving the opportunity to hear each separately before the end of the movement when all play together.

The second movement, “Falling Clouds,” stations 2 players on either side of the Cloud Chamber Bowls. The music is a conversation between the tones, each player being assigned specific bowls, and each phrase descending in asymmetrical patterns.

The Hypo Bass is the highest key of the Marimba Eroica, the A an octave above the lowest piano A. The metal key is mounted at the nodes on foam rubber. The instrument is played with heavy padded mallets, and with hands in padded gloves. The third movement, “Spaces Between,” has 2 Hypo Bass instruments on either side of the Bass Marimba and the Diamond Marimba. At first, these deep, resonant tones are separated by long pauses, giving them a chance to ring. Gradually the pauses between the notes shorten and the space dissolves.

I composed an original theme with 24 variations for the fourth and final movement, “Story in 24 Versions.” In several variations, I quote fragments from Partch’s Oedipus and Castor and Pollux. Progressing with increasing complexity to the 12th variation, the remaining 12 variations add each of the preceding variations in reverse order, and summarize material used in the first 3 movements of the piece.

The Harry Partch Instrumentarium (Gate 5)

In conceptualizing the music, it was necessary to refresh my memory of the instruments. Dean Drummond, the director of the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University, generously allowed me to spend an afternoon with Nate Liberty, a graduate student, who demonstrated Partch’s original instruments, giving me time to study each sound and to touch and play each instrument myself so that I could reacquaint myself with their special aural and kinetic properties. Because they are handmade works of art, their visual and spatial dimensions are an integral part of their function. As this was my first venture into Partch’s 43-tone tuning system and into microtonality in general, I had a lot of new information to absorb. In the end, I did use all of the pitches on each of the instruments as well as Partch’s notation system.

Applying this knowledge to my composition was both stimulating and challenging. I could not rely on techniques I would use on the instruments of the orchestra, nor did I want to force them into patterns that did not suit them. Discovering what they could do particularly well was my goal. Although his instruments are idiosyncratic to his own composing style, from the experience I have had writing There Isn’t Time, I can attest to the degree of flexibility they offered me. I felt that through them I was able to express my own compositional voice.

Partch’s original instruments are fragile and irreplaceable but the efforts of groups performing on replicas, like John Schneider’s Partch, afford wider access to this new sound world. According to Schneider:

My replicas were designed to be much heartier than the originals, and road-ready, in other words, designed in such a way that then can be broken apart for compact shipping. Several have been ‘improved’ by changing designs which hampered their ability to sound. Harry himself rebuilt the Kithara, for example, three times, each time improving what was lacking in the last one. I also use light amplification on the weaker instruments (as did HP, using a 15″ Jenson speaker & an amplifier with the first Kithara, way back in 1945!). There have been no controversies about the reproductions (as of yet!)…and my activities are fully endorsed by Danlee Mitchell and the Harry Partch Foundation.

Since their formation in 1991, Partch (the ensemble) has toured on a regular basis, including a three-week residency in Japan, under the auspices of the American Embassy’s prestigious Interlink Festival, and a NEA-sponsored cultural exchange to Mexico where it represented Los Angeles at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. In the United States, the ensemble has appeared on the Songlines series at Mills College, Sacramento’s Festival of New American Music, Minnesota Public Radio’s American Mavericks, and, since 2004, has performed annually at Disney Hall’s REDCAT Theater. Dance collaborations include Molissa Fenley’s new choreography of Castor and Pollux, and a residency at Salt Lake City’s Repertory Dance Theater (RDT). The group has also recorded for Bridge, Innova, Mode, and New Albion and are the resident ensemble of MicroFest, Los Angeles’ yearly festival of microtonal music.

I believe that other composers could gain a great deal by writing for these instruments. We are always searching for new sounds, and Partch offers a sound world of staggering variety and beauty, based on natural acoustics and the kind of pure consonance we seldom hear in our “tempered” world.


Victoria Bond

Composer and conductor Victoria Bond’s extensive catalog includes works performed by the Houston, Dallas, Shanghai, and Richmond Symphony Orchestras, the Saint Paul, Indianapolis and Cleveland Chamber Orchestras, American Ballet Theater, Pennsylvania Ballet, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, New York City Opera, and members of the New York Philharmonic. She was recently honored with the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Walter Hinrichsen Award, established by the C.F. Peters Corporation for the publication of a work by a gifted composer. As a conductor, she has led more than a dozen major orchestras and opera companies throughout the U.S., Europe, Brazil and China.