Greek Myths and Microtonal Instruments: Harry Partch’s Oedipus

by Maggie Molloy

We all know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, the cursed king who slept with his mother—but you’ve probably never heard it told on hand-crafted, rainbow-colored microtonal instruments before.

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

That opportunity comes this weekend with a rare staging of Harry Partch’s avant-garde theatrical extravaganza Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama. The performances, which run May 5-7, are presented through the Harry Partch Instrumentarium currently in residence at the University of Washington.

A pioneer of new music, Partch was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his musical texts and corporeal theatre works. The Instrumentarium houses over 50 of his rare instruments, each hand-crafted out of wood and strings, gongs and glass, gizmos and gadgets.

Chuck Corey, Director of the Instrumentarium.

Directed and curated by Chuck Corey, the Harry Partch Instrumentarium puts on a handful of performances each year—but this spring marks the first time Corey and his microtonal music troupe are staging one of Partch’s full-fledged, evening-length theatrical works.

“I have had the opportunity to work with Partch’s instruments for nearly half my life, and am still amazed by some of the sounds he creates in his music,” Corey said. “Partch is best known for his just-intoned tuning system and the instruments he invented, but if he were not also a great composer I don’t think his work would have gained much of a following. For me, it is rewarding to perform his music and solve the problems his instruments present, and I remain impressed by his distinctive musical language.”

Based on Sophocles’ original Greek tragedy, Partch’s Oedipus is not quite a play and not quite an opera: the story unfolds through a combination of speech and song, augmented by the exotic harmonies of Partch’s notorious 43-tone scale.

“The voice can be used in a variety of ways in Partch’s work,” Corey said. “He often calls for intoning voice (words spoken on precise pitches), and in the case of Oedipus, we will cover the full range between speaking and singing. There are many passages in Oedipus where each character is at a different point on this spectrum.”

Oedipus floats freely in and out of Partch’s microtonal musical world, shifting between spoken monologues and hypnotizing musical settings, dramatic movement and dance. Partch’s orchestra of oddities is percussive, haunting, and hypnotic—almost ritualistic in its depth and drama.

In fact, Partch designed his instruments to be corporeal; he sought to involve the whole body and the entire person in the art. The result, for audience and performer alike, is a deeply immersive experience that brings together music, sculpture, dance, and drama in a fascinating culmination of Partch’s iconoclastic ethos.

To learn more about the magical and mysterious musical inventions of Harry Partch, take our photo tour below:

Diamond Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyDiamond Marimba:
This instrument is a physical manifestation of one of Partch’s most crucial theoretical concepts: the “tonality diamond.” Built in 1946, the instrument contains all twelve of Partch’s primary tonalities, each laid out in a series of thirds. It’s used as a prominent percussion instrument in many of his works.


Gourd Tree - Photo by Maggie MolloyGourd Tree: Built in 1964, the Gourd Tree is comprised of twelve temple bells attached to gourd resonators, each of which hangs suspended from a eucalyptus branch. Yes, a eucalyptus branch. The instrument is often played in conjunction with Partch’s Cone Gongs, which are made out of nose cones from airplane fuel tanks.


Cloud-Chamber Bowls - Photo by Maggie MolloyCloud-Chamber Bowls: Partch’s most iconic instrument, the Cloud-Chamber Bowls are made up of large glass gongs of varying sizes suspended in a wooden frame and played with mallets. Partch initially created the instrument in 1950 using Pyrex carboys discarded by the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.


Chromelodeon - Photo by Maggie MolloyChromelodeon: The colorful Chromelodeon, built in 1945, is an adapted reed organ modified to conform to Partch’s tonality system. The instrument plays a 43-tone per octave scale, as opposed to a typical Western keyboard, which plays 12 tones per octave. In addition to a standard keyboard and a collection of stops, the Chromelodeon also includes an additional keyboard of Partch’s own creation called the “sub-bass,” located in the upper left corner of the instrument. Both keyboards have colored and numbered labels representing ratios of the tuning system. Oh, and also: the player has to furiously pump two foot pedals throughout the entire performance in order fill the organ’s bellows and create sound.


Kithara II - by Maggie MolloyKithara II: Towering at nearly seven feet tall, the Kithara II requires the performer to stand on a riser in order to play it. Built in 1954, the instrument has twelve sets of six strings which correspond to Partch’s primary tonalities; four of these sets employ Pyrex rods as movable bridges. The Kithara II is also Chuck’s personal favorite instrument in the collection.


Surrogate Kithara - Photo by Maggie MolloySurrogate Kithara: As the name suggests, the Surrogate Kithara was originally invented as a substitute for Partch’s original Kithara, and was created when he began writing music for the instrument that was too difficult for one person to play. The Surrogate Kithara features two sets of eight strings, each with a Pyrex rod that serves as a movable bridge.


Bamboo Marimba II - Photo by Maggie MolloyBamboo Marimba II (Boo II): Affectionately dubbed “Boo II,” the Bamboo Marimba II (built in 1971) consists of 64 tubes of mottled Japanese bamboo organized into six ranks. Each tube is open on both ends, and tongues are cut into the bamboo at approximately 1/6 of the length of the tube in order to produce a harmonic at 6/5 of the fundamental pitch.


Bass Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyBass Marimba: Built in 1950, the Bass Marimba features 11 bars made of Sitka spruce. Just to give you an idea of the massive size of this instrument, the top of the bars are five feet above the floor, and the player must stand on a riser six feet wide and over two feet tall in order to play it.  Each bar is situated over an organ pipe which serves as a resonator, and the lowest bar corresponds to a C2 on piano which, for those of you who don’t play piano, is pretty darn low. The instrument can be played with mallets or by slapping the bars with the pads of your fingers.


The Spoils of War - Photo by Maggie MolloyThe Spoils of War: Created in 1950, this instrument takes its name from the seven artillery casings that hang from the top of the instrument. The instrument also includes four Cloud-Chamber Bowls, two pieces of tongued bamboo, one woodblock, three steel “whang guns,” and a guiro. Just think of it as a Harry Partch drum-set of sorts.


New Harmonic Canon I - Photo by Maggie MolloyNew Harmonic Canon I: Built in 1945, the New Harmonic Canon I is a 44-stringed instrument with a complex systems of bridges. It was built specifically to accommodate a second tuning, allowing the performer to play in either one or both of the different tunings simultaneously. The strings are tuned differently depending on the piece, and are played with fingers, picks, or in some cases, mallets.


Harmonic Canon II - Photo by Maggie MolloyHarmonic Canon II: Nicknamed the “Castor and Pollux,” the Harmonic Canon II (built in 1953) features two resonating boxes with 44 strings across the top. Bridges are placed beneath the strings specifically for the tuning of each composition. Like all of Patch’s Harmonic Canons, the instrument may be played with fingers, picks, or mallets.


Adapted Guitar II - Photo by Maggie MolloyAdapted Guitar II: The ten-string Adapted Guitar II is a steel-string guitar which is played with a slide. Partch first began experimenting with adapted guitars in the 1930s, and by 1945 he began using amplification for them. The ten strings of the Adapted Guitar II are typically tuned either to Partch’s “otonality” or “utonality” (terms Partch used to describe chords whose pitch classes are the harmonics or subharmonics of a given fixed tone). Thankfully, the headstock is specially designed to allow the player to change the tuning within seconds.


Performances of Oedipus: A Music Theater Drama are Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 7 at 2pm at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Diary: How to Read John Cage

by Maggie Molloy

For a composer who once created an entire piece out of silence, John Cage certainly had a lot to say. So much, in fact, that he recorded a five-hour diary in the years leading up to his death.

Diary

Titled “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” the piece is written in eight parts, traversing vast musical and philosophical territory—often within the span of just a few sentence fragments. Cage’s writing extends far beyond the music itself, all the way into the trivial details of everyday life and back out into the vast expanse of history, global politics, philosophy, science, and society—and all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit.

Inspired by his fearless exploration into the art of sound, I made it my mission to read through his entire diary and create my own personal diary tracking the experience. Click on the icons below to read each installment!

Introduction Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII

NEW VIDEO: Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint

by Maggie Stapleton

New York Counterpoint for amplified clarinet and prerecorded clarinets is one of many pieces in Steve Reich’s “counterpoint” series, in which one live performer typically plays against up to a dozen recordings of the same instrument. Reich aims to capture “the throbbing vibrancy of Manhattan” in this work, performed here by Rachel Yoder, who also recorded the backing tracks.

This is our first of three Steve Reich videos in collaboration with On the Boards Ambassador James Holt, who is presenting a concert dedicated to the music of Steve Reich on Tuesday, February 2 at 8pm:

Counterpoint | Phase – A hypnotic evening of music in a non-traditional setting from the American master of minimalism. 

LINEUP:
Nagoya Marimbas: Erin Jorgensen & Memmi Ochi
Cello Counterpoint: Rose Bellini
New York Counterpoint: Rachel Yoder
Violin Phase: Luke Fitzpatrick/Marcin Pączkowski

Pre-sales for this event are sold out. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door.

Stay tuned for our of video Violin Phase! Cello Counterpoint is now up and running

RY-2015

Rachel Yoder is a versatile clarinetist and teacher based in the Seattle area, currently performing with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, Madera Wind Quintet and the Odd Partials clarinet/electronics duo. Rachel is editor of The Clarinet, journal of the International Clarinet Association, and works as adjunct professor of music at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. She has performed and presented throughout the United States, including appearances at conferences of the International Clarinet Association, International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), and Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). She holds a doctorate in clarinet from the University of North Texas, and also holds degrees from Michigan State University and Ball State University.

A Shared Lesson

by Joshua Roman

Roman_15There’s something about stretching the limits, pushing the boundaries, that turns me on. When it’s a shared experience, the reward is greatly magnified. I recently had the honor of working with young musicians in a setting that kept all of us on our toes. In partnership with my series at Town Hall Seattle, the Seattle Youth Symphony called on some of their lovely players and alumni to join me and a few colleagues acting as mentors for a concert of 20th and 21st century string ensemble music.

It’s important to demonstrate to young musicians that ours is a tradition of innovation and creativity. Classical music is a living, breathing thing, not stuck in the past. The same discipline used to bring a Beethoven Symphony to its peak form can be turned to the task of helping birth a new work, and share a new idea. One of the most fruitful ways of passing along a teaching is to lead by example, and I’m ever so grateful to my friends from the Seattle Symphony and other orchestras who played in our ensemble as mentors. Sitting alongside their future colleagues, working together to prepare a very challenging program and present it in a few short days was not an easy task. Through Town Hall Seattle’s partnership with Second Inversion and KING FM, we also gave these aspiring musicians a chance to participate in a video recording session, the results of which are now viewable online.

The program: the world premiere of Running Theme by Timo Andres, which was commissioned by Town Hall. Then, John AdamsShaker Loops; and lastly, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento. The schedule: 6 rehearsals including the recording session and the dress rehearsal, from a Wednesday to a Saturday. A chance for the young musicians to have a glimpse of the condensed and intensive experience professional musicians are often faced with.

The diversity of style within the program was integral to its success in creating a powerful experience for the students. The Divertimento is a fantastically fun work that retains much of Bartok’s folk influence, while delving into more chromatic and idiosyncratic ideas in the slow movement. It’s a difficult work, and there are many solos, another opportunity for our mentors to lead by example. Shaker Loops has long been one of my favorite works, and to me represents minimalism at its most exciting and transportive. To see musicians who had never played this kind of music learn to embrace and inhabit a new way of feeling musical structure and phrasing over a few short days was very cool.

Perhaps the best part was the way they rose to the challenge of putting together Running Theme, an entirely new piece of music for which they could not sit and study previous recordings or hear in concert before taking on the responsibility of presenting it to the world for the first time. Every piece in the canon had a birth, every composer in history has counted on musicians and audiences to give them a shot at leading into the unknown. The evolution of one’s feelings as moments begin to be recognized, form really takes shape, and the conviction borne of seeing both the big picture and feeling the importance of subtlety is a beautiful process, one that for me is so integral to how we then share our hearts with the audience.

What’s the value of this experience? Hopefully, for the protégés, a glimpse of what it takes to be a professional musician. To learn to be prepared at rehearsals, on the ball and focused regardless of the familiarity of the music. To be inspired by the level of the mentors, and of course hear the little tips that come along the way. And to be empowered by the notion that they can be a part of the amazing lineage of classical music and its creation, by working directly with an exciting – and in this case young – composer.

For the mentors, to see the growth and feel the energy of youth, and be challenged to lead by example. Also, to be reminded of the wonder they felt sitting in such a group for the first time when they were that age, and the confidence that develops as something unknown becomes a familiar tool in now capable hands.

For me, the incredible joy of seeing the chemistry between musicians, mentor and protégé. And the honor of leading the team as we work together to the best of our ability to convey something that will transport an audience to a place where the impossible becomes possible, and our inner selves are given a common voice.

MUSIC ON ROTATION:
Fiona Apple – Tidal (album)
Timo Andres – Shy and Mighty (album)
Olivier Messiaen – Fête des Belles Eaux – performed by Ensemble d’Ondes de Montreal (2008)