The UW houses a unique collection of instruments designed and built by American composer Harry Partch — constructed from wood, bamboo, glass, found objects and more — and will host a concert with them on April 26.
If I told you there’s a huge bass marimba sitting in one of the rehearsal rooms at the University of Washington School of Music, you might wonder what it sounds like — though you could probably guess.
But if I mentioned that it was being kept company by a chromelodeon, a surrogate kithara and some cloud-chamber bowls, you might wonder: “What the heck are those?”
They’re music-making devices invented and built by maverick American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974), constructed from wood, bamboo, glass, found objects and altered string and keyboard instruments. He built each one to facilitate his complex, microtonal approach to composing, which takes its cues from the pitch variations of the human voice.
Music of Today: ‘The Music of Harry Partch’
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $10-$15 (206-543-4880 or tickets.artsuw.org).
On April 26, you will have a chance to hear them in action in an all-Partch concert at Meany Hall. Chuck Corey, director of the UW’s Harry Patrch Instrumentarium and a composer in his own right, will conduct.
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Items on the program include Partch’s otherworldly instrumental pieces, “Daphne of the Dunes” (1967) and an excerpted version of his 35-minute “And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma” (1963-66), as well as sizable chunks of his works for speaking and singing voice — most famously, “Barstow” (1941-1967) which takes hitchhiker and rail-hopper graffiti as its libretto. (During parts of his life, Partch was homeless and rode the rails, especially in the 1930s.)
Partch’s instruments are a wild anomaly in the classical music world, and UW’s custodianship of the entire Partch collection is a big deal.
The instruments belong to a longtime Partch assistant, percussionist Danlee Mitchell, a native of Tacoma now living in San Diego, who has given his blessing to the new arrangement. Until a few years ago, they were housed at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where composer Dean Drummond, leader of the contemporary music ensemble Newband, was head of the Harry Partch Institute. Upon Drummond’s death in 2013, the fate of the instruments became uncertain and Corey tried to find a home for them.
Newband had performed at Meany Hall in late 2012, and the warm response to that concert prompted Corey to reach out to UW School of Music director Richard Karpen.
“It felt like a good fit,” Corey said in an interview in Karpen’s office.
“This is personal,” Karpen added. “This music’s been part of my life since I was a teenager.”
The plan is for the instruments to be a dynamic presence on campus, with new work commissioned to be played on them.
Partch’s aesthetic, Corey said, celebrated the human body as much as the speaking voice. “He didn’t like the idea of someone sitting timidly behind a music stand, playing. He wanted vigorous motion … The instruments lend themselves to being played in an expressive, physical way.”
That was evident at a recent rehearsal as Marcin Paczkowski — a graduate student in the UW’s DXARTS center for experimental media — played the surrogate kithara, a variation on a zither. He seemed alternately frustrated and delighted by the effects he was pulling off.
As Corey explained, the surrogate kithara incorporates two groups of eight strings, both equipped with a Pyrex rod that the player slides, while also using picks, mallets and fingers.
“You need to get it in exactly the right spot for the tuning, but you want to take as much time as you can to get it there, so that you get these long glides … If you hit it just right, sometimes that’s a surprise because it’s so difficult to accomplish. And sometimes if you miss it, that’s the surprise.”
Vocalists in Partch works face complex challenges, too.
“The pitches have to be exactly on, but you’re more or less speaking on them,” Corey explained. “Every other measure is ‘Sing,’ ‘Intone,’ ‘Speak,’ ‘Sing,’ ‘Speak,’ ‘Intone.’”
“It’s such a kaleidoscope of color and sound and pitch and singing and not singing,” Karpen added.
The Asian influence on Partch’s music is obvious. “He was born in Oakland, California, to parents who had just fled the Boxer Rebellion in China,” Corey said. “Partch always claimed he was conceived in China, even though he was born more than a year after they moved … His mother would sing him Chinese lullabies.”
Much of the instrumentarium is still in storage in the basement of Meany Hall. What it really needs, Karpen said, is a long-term endowment.
Germany’s Ensemble Musikfabrik is so enamored of Partch that they’ve built replicas of all of his instruments. Karpen hopes its members might collaborate with UW School of Music in putting the originals to good use. Paul Simon is another possibility — his website reports that the upcoming album “Stranger to Stranger” draws inspiration from “musical possibilities first suggested by Harry Partch.”
Karpen will take any help he can get to preserve the instruments.
“It’s a great feeling to have them here, but it’s also a weird feeling,” he said. “These are the instruments of Harry Partch, and they’re in this little room in the music building … It’s crazy.”