Harry Partch’s Kooky Orchestra of DIY Musical Instruments

Composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch (1901-1974) is one of the pioneers of 20th-century experimental instrumentation, known for writing and playing music on incredible custom-made instruments like the Boo II and the Quadrangularis Reversum, and laying the foundations for many of today’s most creative experimental musical instruments.

In this Universal Newsreel footage from the 1950s, Partch conducts a student music performance on his instruments, built with insights from atomic research and Partch’s 30-year obsession with finding the elusive tones that exist between the tones of a regular piano. The setting is Mills College in Oakland, CA. The unorthodox orchestra performs music tuned to the 43-tone scale Partch invented, rather than the usual 12-tone, even though individual instruments can only play subsets of the scale.

For more on Partch’s genius and seminal innovation, see his excellent 1949 meditation, Genesis of a Music: An Account of a Creative Work, its Roots, and its Fulfillments.

Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and DesignObserver, and spends a great deal of time on Twitter.



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  1. Roger Landes says . . . | August 9, 2011 / 12:11 pm

    Calling Partch’s instruments “kooky” is deeply offensive.

    Also, you might have recommended the 1974 2nd edition of “Genesis of A Music” because it’s still in print.

    And might I suggest that you source an posting like this with information other than what you can gather in three minutes on Wikipedia? What you said is simplistic and inaccurate.

  2. MariaPopova says . . . | August 9, 2011 / 2:55 pm

    Dear Roger, to me “kooky” has a highly affectionate connotation, like my favorite kooky ant – quirky and delightful. The article does make a point of how technically innovative his work actually was. Your hostility is unnecessary and makes me sad that you feel compelled to resort to it. Cheers.

  3. Mark says . . . | August 10, 2011 / 5:18 am

    Most likely, this was a report on the Mills College production of Partch’s music drama King Oedipus. The school put it on in March 1952. Here’s a note about it on my blog: http://bit.ly/qlVqhA

  4. Mark says . . . | August 10, 2011 / 5:19 am

    And thanks for posting, by the way.

  5. Jane says . . . | September 4, 2011 / 4:23 pm

    Montclair State College in Montclair, NJ is where Partch’s instruments are archived and still played on today. About 11 years ago I was lucky enough to attend a performance there of Partch’s music on the instruments.

    I adore Open Culture and am fascinated by the treasures you share with us! Thank you.

  6. Cello Tuner says . . . | September 21, 2011 / 2:39 am

    Wow, didn’t know that they were radical since the 50′s

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