The Instruments of Harry Partch

I could easily write an article on Harry Partch's instruments alone. However, as Partch devoted 125 pages (Chapters 12 & 13) to them in Genesis of a Music, I will present here only enough to provoke the curious to seek out his book.

String, Reed and Voice Instruments

Adapted Viola -- The fingerboard of a standard viola was lengthened to extend the range partially into cello territory, and small colored dots were added to make possible the performance of the exact tones of Partch's scale.

Adapted Guitars -- The fingerboards of these were also modified, and the second of three versions was a Hawiian-type guitar where a lead-weighted plastic rod was moved along the fingerboard to give sliding tones.

Chromelodeon I -- A harmonium (reed organ) adapted to Partch's scale.

New Chromelodeon II -- Similar to above, though with a longer keyboard.

Crychord -- This was built by a student in the Industrial Design Department of the University of Illinois, with additional suggestions by Partch. The instrument has a single string (usually struck or plucked by a stick), the tension of which is adjusted by the long lever. Exact intonation is difficult; the tones slide into one another. Partch used the Crychord primarily to improvise with a known, precomposed part.

Kithara I & New Kithara I -- Seventy-two vertical strings (twelve groups of sixes) provide a wide range of performance techniques in an alto register on these two different versions.

Kithara II -- Similar to the above in a bass register.

Surrogate Kithara -- Built to ease the playing of certain difficult musical parts for the above, this version consists of two horizontal resonators (canons) of eight strings each.

Harmonic Canon I & New Harmonic Canon I -- Two sets of fourty-four strings are set on two different intersecting planes so that one set is played on one end, the other set on the other side, and in the middle both sets of strings are played.

Harmonic Canon II -- Simlar to version III described below, but with only two canons (Castor & Pollux).

Harmonic Canon III (Blue Rainbow) -- With three separate sets (or canons) of fourty-four strings (only two canons pictured) this is an example of one of Partch's more versatile instruments. Each canon is divided into four sections of eleven strings. All eleven strings of a series are tuned to the same tone; hence, notes played exhibit a dynamic, rapid staccato nature as several equal strings are struck for a single tone. The supporting arch acts as a fulcrum so that in vigorous playing the canons sway lightly up and down to the rhythm.

Bloboy -- This is a bellows controlled by the foot with three organ pipes and an ancient auto exhaust horn of four tones attached.

Koto -- Not a traditional Japanese koto, but rather a Psaltery with thirteen strings.

Vocals -- These are usually supported by unisons or other simple ratios by the instruments. With this method Partch found it was fairly simple for singers to cope with the new scale.

Percussion Instruments

Diamond Marimba -- Thirty-six wood blocks with bamboo resonators were arranged in the shape of a diamond, so that the blocks could be swept in two different (criss-crossing) directions for arpeggioed chords.

Quadrangularis/Reversum -- This is actually a Diamond Marimba with the tones reversed from top to bottom, and with the addition of two larger, separate rows of blocks on each side.

Bass Marimba -- Eleven Sitka-spruce blocks from 27 to 53 inches long provide the playing surface, with organ pipes serving as resonators.

Marimba Eroica -- Built in four separate pieces, this large instrument gives four tones lower than the Bass Marimba and is designed to be felt more than heard. The lowest tone is struck by a four pound mallet.

Boos (Bamboo Marimbas) I & II -- These consist of sixty-four pieces of bamboo tuned by cutting a tongue of the necessary ratio into the wood.

Mbira Bass Dyad -- An instrument which duplicates the tongue-with-resonator idea of the Boos, but with two (adjustable) low tones.

Eucal Blossom -- Made from bamboo and mounted on eucalyptus boughs, this instrument gives sharp, dry sounds. It is played by mallets with large oak heads, and occasionally lighter wood-head mallets, with glissandi being a useful technique.

Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs -- A dozen Chinese temple bells were bolted to gourds of equal pitches and affixed to a large eucalyptus bough. The two large cone gongs (nose cones from airplane gas tanks) are supported from the floor by a different base.

Cloud-Chamber Bowls -- Suspended by 1/4-inch manila rope are fourteen sections of twelve gallon Pyrex carboys which give long, delicate tones.

Spoils of War -- As hinted by its title, this instrument consists of a variety of items: one Pernambuco (bass wood) block, seven brass shell casings, four Cloud-Chamber Bowls, two tongued pieces of bamboo with both ends open, three Whang Guns (strips of spring steel controlled by pedals), and one gourd guiro (scraped to give a rasping noise).

Zymo-Xyl (zi'-mock-sil) -- This instrument consists of one row of wood blocks, two rows of empty liquor and wine bottles, two hubcaps, and an aluminum kettle top. Partch tested a number of bottles to find the ones with the exact pitches of his scale. The frequency range of the Zymo-Xyl emphasizes the higher registers.

Mazda Marimba -- Light bulbs and globes up to six inches in diameter had their insides removed and were inverted on four parallel racks for playing. The sounds, which Partch likened to "the bubbling of a coffee percolator," must be miked and amplified.

Small Hand Instruments -- Twenty-one different items, mostly unusual varieties of drums, and claves (pairs of bamboo or eucalyptus boughs struck together), were included in this category.

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