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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Comments (6)
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  • Roger Landes says:

    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.

  • MariaPopova says:

    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.

  • Mark says:

    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

  • Mark says:

    And thanks for post­ing, by the way.

  • Jane says:

    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.

  • Cello Tuner says:

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

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