Born in Oakland, California in 1901, the musician and composer Harry Partch began studying his craft at an early age. Perhaps it is because of this that the fellow grew well beyond traditional ideas of scale, composition, and even instrumentation. Or maybe he was just a mad scientist genius.
Either way, as an adult, Partch created some of the world’s strangest instruments, based on complex, sometimes antiquated, tuning scales. Those interested can behold these creations at the recently established Harry Partch Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 2014, more than 100 years after Partch’s first birthday (and about 40 years after his passing), the University of Washington’s School of Music acquired dozens of his handmade instruments. In the years since, the instruments have been placed on display and played for public concerts. In addition, a program has been built around the care and preservation of the quirky collection.
Among the dozens of examples of his instruments are the piano-like Chromelodeon, the bagpipes-like Bloboy, and the Kithara, which looks more like a loom than a conventional instrument.
In addition to dreaming up unusual instruments, Partch composed wonderfully inventive pieces of music. His work utilizes scales based on unequal intervals, also known as “just intonation.”
While the Harry Partch Institute at the University of Washington aims to celebrate the innovation of Partch’s music, part of the allure of the collection is the visual appeal of his instruments. Partch’s creations, in all their strange size and dimensions, demonstrate an imagination for music outside of any normal box. It’s not a xylophone he altered: it’s a whole new instrument manifested.
Update as of November 2019: The collection has closed and will be moving to a new undetermined location in 2020.
Know Before You Go
The music and scope of Harry Partch’s creations are unlike anything else in the world. To appreciate the inventiveness and the jarring sounds, keep an open mind. This isn’t the Rolling Stones, but then again, it was never meant to be.