Harry Partch, 1901-1974
I. He Appeareth Before the Audience, Is Condemned
You only put that music on to annoy
people, she said.
Ive forgotten who. Friend of a friend, some party,
but a thrill roils from it: when Partch
sets Li Po
I heard someone in the Yellow Crane House
playing on the sweet bamboo flute
the tune of falling plum flowers
he doesnt score a flutes
song, but a man
reaching to describe his memory of it
with a vocal imitation,
his who-hoo-oo-oos in a high voice,
higher than he would usually use;
a man telling a story about something
and wants you to hear,
too . . .
Much of that which is man-made we ignore, such as
the music of speech. Well, Im not ignoring it.
The plucked viola like a long-legged
picks its way around the fallen petals.
Nobody likes this,
she said again.
II. He Faileth to Be Born in China
Forgive him in his
wishes and delusions: he is beset.
Chinese lullabies (the only ones she
knew) from his missionary mother;
Mandarin from his gone-atheist father,
faithlost in Shantung Province;
furniture of black bamboo, Sung Dynasty
paintings theyd bought there;
more books in Chinese, accordion-folded, with ivory thongs, illustrated
by gory colored lithographs of the beheading of missionaries, than
books in English;
these he remembers from childhood:
they so stamp their impress that he
claims he, too, sparked to life
in Chinaconceived in a Boxer
prison campor later, at sea,
learning in the womb for all time his
mothers queasiness as they fled
alone of his siblings he is Californian, all.
He would have accepted that from his
parents: birth in China
(perhaps only that).
It would have explained many things
Occupant is a Heathen Chinee,
the note on his last door sang.
III. He Consigneth His Music
to the Fire
"...in pursuing the respectable, the widely accepted,
I had not been faithful."
He has been unfaithful,
and thus does he purify himself:
the piano concerto
the string quartet
the symphonic poem
the popular songs
everything he has written
hideously unsuited to his needs
ash in the depths of a pot-bellied
Take that, self.
And here too the sinning arm, which wrote it: burn.
As late as 1960 I was still pulling out bits of ideas
from that pot-bellied stove, ideas stored away
that mysterious structure of cells and spirit
Everything must be proven in the fire.
Here spark a few live cells
What is tempered? What dies?
IV. He Heareth the Voice
I see little evidence that poets
the sounds of their own voices...
He liked to cite the Emperor Chun (from
Let the music follow the sense of the words.
The unborn listen for months
to their mothers, and born,
they turn for that one song
conducted through bone,
through fluid and dark:
its different nowharsher
and the world all glare
and some search years
for that wordmusic,
the mothers filtered tone
speaking inward, to one
Harry insists all speech
holds melody and rhythm:
not hers alone.
I needed other scales and other instruments.
Li Po speaks unaffectedly;
and Hobo Pablo in his letter, the newsboys
crying through the fog of San Francisco:
he heareth the voices, that we may
V. He Stretcheth a Viola by
There isnt room on this fingerboard
to find all the notes.
Should be 43 in each octave:
they all mush together.
(People are already laughing somewhere.
Edward Bentin helps him:
fixes a cello fingerboard to the viola
and Harry marks the stops with fractions and brads,
cradles the soundbox between his knees
gingerly, to calm it.
Two over one: the diapason,
the octave. Greek first, then the Latin.
Three over two. The diapente.
In just intonation, a "perfect
fifth." And so on.
First he hears the Beloved speaking low.
The song comes.
To write the song down
he must invent notation.
To play it, he must become
a carpenter, building new instruments
that respond to the melodies he hears.
To perform the song
he must teach all the musicians
and all the singers who will ever present it
the notations, the instruments
You see where this is leading.
You have been there.
He is a long time alone
VI. He Dreameth the Kithara
copied the kithara from a Greek vase in the British Museum he wanted
She found someone to build it for her
during the war, there was no wood, the guy used an orange box somebody
threw out it got a good tone.
She let him examine.
Partch was thinking, I could get
an orange box.
She figured out the tuning, being an
expert on auloi and Greek harmoniai, but he wanted his own tuning
and more strings arranged in chords and wanted it bigger.
I must have one.
Also the design could be improved.
Plectra on every finger
He awakens in Anderson Creek with a
redwood timber from the wrecked bridge, thinking a base for the
Thinking that dream was so real
I could smell taste touch it.
VII. He Wandereth as
Getting a ride in California: could
counting the gone cars slash by slash in pencil
with a rail through for the fifth
like this railing preventing the cars
down from the asphalt, wrecking, their drivers thrown
and dead, the bum still stranded
in Barstow, California, still without
February 1940: cold, waiting.
He fingers the smooth rail: reads
two months worth of hobo graffiti
where handouts are good, where someone is headed
if only a ride would stop;
or who wants a husband or a wifeeloquent
in what it fails to express in words. Music
hides in this everyday speech:
Harry is homeless when he hears its
one voice, the tradition of China, of Greece,
the words matter, guiding the music;
accompanies himself on an instrument
like an ancient Celtic bard.
He rideth the rails all through the
he dishwasheth, picketh California fields,
readeth proof for newspapers
a week, a month at a time. In
he hones his theories, he dreams his new works
unhindered. And moves along.
VIII. He Buildeth the Chromelodeon
A six-2/1 harmonium from
which the old reeds were removed and into
which reeds of the forty-three-degree Monophonic scale were
in sequence, so that the new 2/1 covers a much wider keyboard
extentthree and a half octaves.
All along he had heard it in his head,
Now you can hear it.
your hand cant make an octave
(not that octave means anything
All the surfaces in his room covered,
with pill bottles.
Hes on a weird diet, too: he
Bowles, attending an early performance,
convulsed, asked for it again, whereupon
which had given one the impression
improvisation by a group of maniacs,
impossible to reperform,
as exactly as if it had been a playback.
At the verge of the room, with its
striped keys numbered,
it beckons you. Go ahead and try
IX. He Wandereth with
Two tons of instruments on his back,
to El Centro
the hobo in him cant settle
to Mills College
for rehearsing musicians,
to Yellow Springs
proper storage conditions, cheap rent.
to Northwestern University
five times he
relocates his private and fragile
orchestra. Fifteen times in sixteen years,
he counts up on a scrap of paper (why?).
As a hobo, he carried a viola case:
to Del Mar
for viola and
X. He Playeth the Marimba Eroica
The instrument requires a player with
robust shoulders, back, arms.
If he possesses this equipment, and is also something of a percussionist,
the playing of the instrument is not difficult. . .
It is his visual aspect that
the Eroica player must cultivate.
He must give the impression of a sure winner.
In exciting and furious passages
he must look like Ben Hur in his chariot,
charging around the last curve of the final lap.
XI. He Hangeth the Cloud-Chamber
Or, he taketh a turn toward percussion.
As in, he maketh many marimbas
from bamboo, pernambuco wood, hormigo,
padouk, rosewood, redwood, and Sitka spruce.
Sands them to tune them.
He has already rejected electronic
Prefers his harmonium to an electric
for its deferent response to the performer.
We observe here his moment of crossing-over:
a temptation of Pyrex carboys
from the Berkeley Radiation Lab.
Let he among you who could resist,
Besides, they were a gift.
Sawed in half they made the most
When he stands behind them, playing,
their curved transparencies surround
like so many noisy haloes. . .
XII. He Vieweth the Gourd
The future needs the sensuality and corporeality in music of the
same kind that Walt Whitman gave to poetry.
Literally in a trashpile.
A eucalyptus branch
scavenged, dragged home dead:
he made a base for it, made
a tree of it, with fruit
of Chinese temple bells
hanging ripelike papayas,
he thought, the smallest
at the top... It looked
almost alive, colt-awkward,
gangly. Oddly passive.
in dynamic relationship
with a human body
who glides around it
Dance and song
and an instrument
an Ancient, come back,
XIII. He Speaketh to the Audience
The creative artist acquires
a shade of anarchism
that after several decades of weathering,
begins to bear
the strange patina of the recidivist, the unregenerate criminal.
We as a people give loving attention
to details of individual crime
from a perfectly logical envy of the criminal: crime is one area
where individuality is taken for granted.
This is hardly the case in the creative arts.
I am a profound traditionalist, but
of an unusual sort.
We are trapped by our own machines,
which tend, progressively, to remove us from nature.
My instruments are absolutely primitive.
They are visual, as are those at a Congo ritual.
The players move in a way to excite
This is not an abstract communication
but something that will agitate our
XIV. He Wandereth After His
me Ulysses, you say youve traveled around the world,
have you ever been arrested?
Nobody likes this music,
conviction in her voice
vagrancy gone chronic,
the ashes tumble piecemeal to
Here at the last station you can barely
make out his white hair.
The instruments, without him, travel
familiar patterns of eviction: they circle.
Let not one year passI now say to myselfwhen
I do not step one
significant century, or millennium, backward.
are rides on the highway at Green River, but they go right on by.
There are rides on the freights at Green River, too, but the Green
River bull says:
"You exclamation mark bum!
Get your semicolon asterisk out o these yards, and dont
let me catch you down here again, or youll get thirty
days in the jailhouse!"
In Petaluma, the tune of falling roses
echoes eighth-century China, vibrating
the steel strings.
hold no wish for the obsolescence of our present widely heard instruments
I feel that more ferment is necessary
to a healthy musical culture.
I am endeavoring to instill more ferment.
Harry Partch (1901-1974) was a composer whose microtonal works were
largely performed upon instruments he invented. He was homeless
for about eight years of his life; his hobo experiences during the
Depression are reflected in several of his works. Sources for the
poem include Genesis of a Music (Harry Partch, U. of Wisconsin
P.), Bitter Music (by Harry Partch, edited by Thomas McGeary,
U. of Illinois P.), Enclosure 3 (edited by Philip Blackburn,
The Composers Forum), and Harry Partch: A Biography (by Bob
Gilmore, Yale Univ. P.). Instrument names (Chromelodeon, Cloud-Chamber
Bowls, etc.) are Partchs own.