SA6: The Maker Issue

Music is similar to philosophy in the sense that it attempts to articulate a non-empirical idea or concept. Though the science of acoustics, for example, allows us to understand the mechanics of sound through waves and the biomechanics of hearing, the human perception and decoding of a musical gesture in time and space is as difficult to definitively express as the concept of Freedom, or Immortality. There is nothing objective about the experience of music; the individual listener can never map how music affects him or her onto the human species as a whole, which is what makes the subjective arguments concerning the merits of certain compositions, musicians, and recordings so compelling. The desire to articulate a personal theory of what music is compels many musicians to while away the better years of their lives studying, practicing, and thinking about the construction of a melody, the minutiae of timbral differences, or the perfect transition from one melodic fragment to another. As in philosophy, the attempt to define a specific a priori truth from something as subjective as music becomes a game of how the musician expresses his or her point of view. Like the concept of darstellung in Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno’s writings, musicians define their position and their personality in the language and structure they use to convey their concept, in this case musical gesture or composition or song, to their audience. The majority of musicians’ choices in this regard are based on a historical model of a specific instrument (instrument being defined here as essentially a machine for making sound). Even those engaged in radical presentations of ideas on these instruments are relating their vision of language and structure to the entire history of that machine. For each instrument, there is a range of musico-historical context that the musician can choose to fit in to create their darstellung based on the history of the repertoire, famous practitioners, and cultural and stylistic norms. Some choose to use a historically reproductive language to express what they perceive as a variation on the elegant structures of the past (think period instruments and repertory jazz orchestras), while others choose to use this historicity as a set of guidelines of what to avoid in their attempt to radically recast the instrument’s history. In this issue, Sound American features a set of musicians that, while finding their own way of expressing a concept of music, have decided to sidestep this continuum and construct a system in which the language and the manner of speaking are outside of the agreed upon tradition of historical musical instruments. They’re expressing their “truths” by making new machines to create new sounds and add new dimensions to the human model of what it means to experience organized sound as something personal and worth experiencing. This doesn’t mean that they are stepping outside of the historical context but, rather, that they are choosing to experiment and engage with that sense of tradition to innovate. There are few examples as strong as the musical mind of Harry Partch: one of the great American musical revolutionaries of the 20th century, he chose to look to the work of the earliest musical practitioners and fashion a highly personal darstellung, building instruments like the Kithara and using intonations more in line with ancient Greek models than our accepted modern equal temperament. Other instrument builders have followed different models, to more or less the same effect. Hal Rammel’s take on the AACM and the organic exoticism of Lou Harrison and Lucia Dlugoszewski, Cooper-Moore’s connection to the vocal quality of the blues, and Neil Feather’s mad-science connection to futurism and funk all feature prominently in this issue. Sound American always strives to look beyond composition, to find connections within groups of artists and trace paths taken by specific musicians. In this, our sixth, issue, we feature a wildly disparate group that includes technology hackers, avant-garde improvisers, aesthetic engineers, and jazz storytellers. Yet they are all musicians in more or less explicit ways, engaged in cracking open the idea of music and trying to discover what is new inside.

Introducing the Great Harry Partch

Listen to Harry Partch: The Dreamer That Remains - A Study in Loving

The term “iconoclast” has been coopted in our modern culture to generally describe an artist’s larger-than-life personality rather than their willingness to break down boundaries. While Harry Partch was no cultural wallflower, he was the encapsulation of an artist that sought to upend dogma and musical convention: a true iconoclast. The composer, theorist, and instrument builder created a body of work that materially changed the way that American composers could engage with their own musical practice by introducing or reinforcing the study of ancient musical models, alternate forms of tuning, and the creation of new instruments. No other twentieth-century American musical mind, with perhaps the exceptions of John Cage or Charles Ives, took their highly personal musical language to such heights of artistic power and visibility within avant-garde musical circles. Born in the summer of 1901 to Presbyterian missionary parents, Harry Partch was proficient on a number of different instruments at an early age, and had begun setting dramas to music by the time he was 14. After growing up in Arizona and New Mexico, the young composer enrolled in University of Southern California’s School of Music. His college career was shortlived, however, for after reading a translation of Hermann von Helmholtz’s On The Sensations of Tone, Partch became intrigued by the idea of just intonation. This new fascination led to his life-long pursuit of his own artistic vision of musical form and language. The eight-year period after USC was one of experimentation and musico-historical research, Legend says that Partch burned all the compositions he wrote before and during this period in a pot-belly stove before presenting the works that would introduce the listening public to his revolutionary world of sound. His first music from this post experimentation period, such as Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po, already featured attributes that would become trademarks of Partch’s mature compositions, such as the use of a 29 tone microtonal scale, the importance of combining the drama of words with music, and his first invented instrument, the adapted viola. Harry Partch’s music defies simplification, but there are certain elements of his thinking that may have provided the need for his creation of new instruments. The primary element was Partch’s study of ancient Greek and Asian musical theory and formal models. This study led to the use of non-Western “microtonal” tuning systems in his music. The music of these early cultures also impressed the idea of music being composed in the service of text or drama. In one way or another, Partch was able to address these concepts in the structure and design of his musical instruments. Much of Partch’s compositional thought came from his research of ancient Greek and Asian music and dramatic forms. He believed that to put music at the service of the drama of words was an honest pursuit for a composer. His settings ran the gamut from Greek mythology (Revelation in Courthouse Park or Water! Water!) to roadside inscriptions he transcribed during his transient hobo days in California (Barstow and U.S. Highball). This idea of the subjugation of music to drama is also evidenced in the staging of his works such as The Bewitched and The Delusion of the Fury. In most instances of Partch’s music, the musicians are part of the narrative and are active on stage, providing a visual dramatic element to the performance through the dance-like movement that is necessary to properly play instruments such as the Kithara. Many of his instruments, like the kithara, also feature a certain physical design element that echoes the instruments used in Ancient Greek and Asian musical practice. The topic of tuning systems is complex enough to be almost impossible to explain outside of a complete course of study. However, the use of microtonality is such a central part of Harry Partch’s melodic language that it must be given at least a cursory attempt here. The term “microtonal music” refers to music that using a tuning system that divides each half step in smaller than the usual equal ratios that make up equal temperament. Equal temperament is a system in which the ratio of frequencies is equal between steps in a 12 note to the octave scale, and is typically what our modern ear hears as “in tune” in Western music. Simply put, the equal temperament that most Western music is based on means a 12 note octave in which each note is spaced equally from the notes immediately adjacent to it, while microtonal music is, in terms of intonation, everything else.* As opposed to the traditional 12 notes to the octave, Partch’s early instruments like the adapted viola contained 29 notes to the octave, while later creations, like the pump organ-like chromolodeon divided the octave 43 times. Almost all of these instruments used tuning systems that Partch had culled from the same research into ancient sources that had delivered him to the idea of music and drama. In some cases, Partch’s music combined his own instruments with traditionally equal-tempered instruments such as saxophone and brass to create harmonic clashes that colored the sound of the ensemble in a way unique to his music, as in Rotate the Body in All Planes-Ballad for Gymnasts from 1961. Between the early 1940s and Partch’s death in 1974, Harry Partch created dozens of new instruments, often using found materials like carboys (large water bottles), artillery shell casings, and old fuel tanks alongside natural materials such as bamboo. He created a musical theory and language; in essence, an aesthetic for his work, and through his own ingenuity and boundless creativity found a way to express this aesthetic using what was readily available to him. Many of these instruments were constructed in ways that would not be intuitive to those who studied modern percussion, string, or wind instruments. Because of these anachronisms, Partch was forced, not only to modify standard western musical notation to reflect the possibilities of his new creations and his musical ideas, but to find a group of performers willing to adapt their learning and skills to build a new virtuosity around his musical vision. In this issue, the emphasis is on the impetus to build and create new instruments, but with an artist like Partch, this was a pragmatic foundation for a completely unique vision of modern Western musical composition.

Diamond Marimba

Listen to the Diamond Marimba


The percussion instruments of Harry Partch are classified into three major categories, along with one ancillary group that contains small hand instruments used only in his Delusion of Fury. The first is the marimba type and includes, besides the Diamond Marimba, the Quadrangularis Reversum, Bass Marimba, and Marimba Eroica.


The Diamond Marimba is a practical musical representation of Partch’s diamond tonality, which is given a simple introductory explanation here.

Blocks of either Pernambuco or Brazilian rosewood were cut to lengths corresponding to the ratios necessary to produce the tones necessary to Partch’s diamond tonality and its intonation. To amplify the tones, differing lengths of Brazilian bamboo are placed below each bar as a resonator. For each block of wood which becomes a striking surface, the nodes, or the points where it vibrates least or not at all, are determined. These nodes occur near the opposite ends of each piece of wood. To lower the pitch and give it the precision necessary to be consistently usable in composition some amount of the wood is then milled away between these two nodes, making the center of the block thinner than the points near the ends. The lengths of bamboo used to resonate underneath each striking surface are determined in a way similar to the pipes of an organ. Since the ends of each bamboo “pipe” are closed to air (by using the natural partitions or “knots” in the wood). In essence, the length of the pipe produces a specific vibration or soundwave. By increasing or decreasing this length of pipe and affecting the diameter or end-opening, one can change the vibration of the pipe and thus control the pitch in the same fashion as milling the center of the struck surfaces. The block (struck surface) and the resonator should be in roughly in unison regarding their tone for the best result. In performance, the Diamond Marimba combines typical marimba percussive technique, striking each bar in the center to create the largest sound, with methods involving sweeping the mallet over multiple bars to create chordal effects.



Partch's diagram of the layout of the Diamond Marimba, which corresponds to his diamond tonality (from Harry Partch: Genesis Of A Music Da Capo Press)

Notation: Similar to the Kithara, the Diamond Marimba maps its physical structure onto the standard five line staff. Each block of the marimba is given its own position on, above, or below the staff. Because of Partch’s use of his diamond tonality (see explanation) Utonality and Otonality hexads are described in the notation by printing the numbers of the hexads above the note for Utonalities and below for Otonalities.

Cloud Chamber Bowls

Listen to Cloud Chamber Bowls




The third subset of Harry Partch’s percussion instruments is made up of percussion instruments constructed using found materials and objects. This category included the Spoils of War, Gourd Tree and Cone Gong, and the Zymo-Xyl.

Probably the most iconic of Partch’s instruments also comes from this category. The Cloud Chamber Bowls are made from large pyrex containers, called carboys. The original instruments came from the University of California radiation laboratory, where they would cut out the middles of the carboys for use in cloud-chamber experiments. Partch used the tops and bottoms, which he hung from ropes from a wooden frame (the bottoms were inverted to facilitate their installation). The bowls may be struck in two different ways, creating very different tonal qualities. The best, most resonant sound is made by striking the bowl close to its bottom edge with a very soft mallet. Another shorter, sharper sound is produced when hitting the tops of the bowl. A rigorous attention to how the bowls are struck is necessary to avoid breakage due to their delicate material. This material also restricted Partch’s ability to exactly tune them. If a bowl broke, it would be impossible to find another that matched its exact intonation. Partch’s answer was to simply rewrite the Cloud Chamber Bowl parts in his pieces to reflect the new tuning.




Again, using the standard five line staff, each bowl is given a position, under which is written its ration and a number to help the player distinguish that pitches correlating bowl. To denote which of the striking styles should be used, on the edges or on the tops, different note head shapes are used: square for tops and the standard round noteheads for edges.

The Boos

Listen To The Boos

The Boos (Bamboo Marimbas) belong to the second classification of Partch percussion instruments, many of which are made from bamboo and use a tongue and resonator apparatus, in which the resonator is manipulated, usually by cutting notches to create a vibrating surface to be struck or “tongue” which activates the rest of the resonator.

The resonators are struck using felted dowels at an angle to each section. This creates a clear, crisp sound, and the resonators’ tiered arrangement allows for glissandi by quick motion over multiple sections. In the case of the Boo I, the instrument consists of 64 of these tongue and resonator sections of bamboo farmed from the Philippines or Japan. The tongues are cut in a way to control the pitch or “tune” each section. The ends are closed and the resonators cut to length in the same way as the resonating bamboo tubes of the Diamond Marimba to match the vibrations as closely as possible between struck surface and resonating chamber. As opposed to the Diamond Marimba, the resonators of the Boos are stacked in such a way as to make a rough diamond shape vertically as opposed to horizontally, allowing the performer to strike each section from the top.








Due to the mercurial nature of the material of bamboo, Partch used galvanized metal straps attached with a bolt around each portion. The bolt could then be tightened or released to help fine tune each section for performance.










As opposed to a combination of bamboo from the Philippines and Japan, the Boo II uses only the Japanese Mozo type, which allows for more sonic predictability.

In the Boo II, Partch has opened the ends of each bamboo section, which allows a strong overtone not present in a closed pipe system like the Boo I or Diamond Marimba. This also grants a great deal more projection of sound toward the audience and the player. A third Boo, Boo III, was completed after Partch’s death and, instead of using wood, was made of phenolic resin tubes. Notation: The Boos have six rows of resonators. For rows that have an odd number of sections the center piece of bamboo is numbered “0” and the sections to either side are numbered outward. For those rows with an even number of resonators, the center two pieces are numbered as “1”s and the counting continues outward in each direction in a similar fashion. The pitches to the right of center are then represented on the lines of a standard five line staff, the pitches to the left in the spaces. This is represented more clearly by Partch’s own table. The fractions below each note refer to the ratios in his intonation system for these instruments.

Harmonic Canons

Listen To Harmonic Canon I





Another example of Partch’s stringed instruments is the Harmonic Canon. Like the Kithara, the Harmonic Canon had multiple iterations over the years, depending on the demands of Partch’s music, especially in regards to tunings.

The basic concept of the Harmonic Canon is that of a monochord. The monochord is an ancient stringed instrument with one string stretched over a resonating surface. In some cases there is a bridge that moves under the string, changing the relationship of vibrating string between the bridge and the end where it’s tied off. Monochords are often used to explain the mathematical relationships involved in tuning, especially the Pythagorean theory. In Partch’s version the bridges move under two sets of strings placed over each other over a resonating soundbox. The first set of 44 strings, called the A set, run parallel to the “belly” or soundboard of the instrument, while the X set (also 44 strings) are placed between the strings of the A set and at an angle to the soundboard. A 14” long pyrex rod is inserted underneath the X strings and is used to change the intonation and height of the different set of strings. Without the rod, the X strings are only playable on the right side of the instrument, the A strings on the left, due to the slant and placement of the X strings. Of course, both sets can be played near their intersection, a point which changes depending on where the pyrex rod is placed. As in the case of the Kithara, the Harmonic Canon has multiple versions, some with different concepts and some that are copies with slight changes of the original ideas, resulting in Harmonic Canon I, New Harmonic Canon I, Harmonic Canon II, and Harmonic Canon III. Harmonic Canon I, the instrument explained in essence above, and New Harmonic Canon I are similar with the only physical differences being a different wood and color of Plexiglas being used to make the New Harmonic Canon I, as well as the separate tuning necessary to perform Partch’s later work.





Harmonic Canon II, however, takes the one large soundbox of Canon I and splits the 88 strings into two boxes of 44 strings each., essentially separating the A set and the X set and placing them over their own resonating surface.  In Partch’s score, he denotes the separate sides of Harmonic Canon II by giving them names of the classical astral twins, Castor and Pollux. Each box  has 44 strings, tuned to unisons or octaves, and a system of bridges to manipulate the strings for the player to perform the pitches, patterns, and scales in Partch’s score.








Harmonic Canon III, built in 1965, has three canons, but only two are used at a time. In the case of Canons II and III, the instruments are essentially “trays” that the canons can be placed in, two at a time, for performance. This allows for a more efficient change between the custom bridge arrangements necessary for different tunings.

Notation: Harmonic Canon notation consists primarily of string numbers (pasted onto thin redwood tags and affixed to the instrument for the ease of the player) on a standard five line staff with stems to denote rhythm. In the case of complexity between the A and X sets of strings, two staves will separate the parts with the A set on top and the X set below.
Harmonic Canon I Notation
Harmonic Canon II Notation n the case of Harmonic Canon II, the Castor or Pollux will be denoted to the side of the part to inform the player of which box they should be using to perform.

The Kitharas

Listen To The Kitharas






Partch made three separate kinds of Kithara: Kithara I and New Kithara I (the Roman numerals of the instrument change, only if the concept of the instrument changes), Kithara II, and Surrogate Kithara.


All three instruments share the same basic construction that is found in the Kithara I: sets of strings over some sort of resonating soundboard, some of which use pyrex rods that are used to change pitch and tuning in performance.



Instruments that utilized strings make up a very important part of Harry Partch’s world: the first instrument of his own making was the Adapted Viola, which he played throughout his life. Although the Adapted Viola was a bowed instrument, playing techniques for some of his other stringed instruments may include percussive elements; their practical musical use tending to lean towards a standard plucking and string pressure approach. Of course, with an instrument like one from the Kithara family, this becomes the basis for a physical performance practice that expands into movable pyrex rods for ascending and descending glissandos which requires the performer to engage the instrument with a “…movement [that] is athletic, graceful, a kind of functional dance.”








The Kithara II was built in Sausalito in 1954 with the intent of broadening the range and especially the bass frequencies of the Kithara I. It consists of six large resonators, all at least five feet in length. The resonators and bridges are made of spruce and cedar and the added height necessary to reinforce the bass resonances required that a riser to be built to accommodate the performer.  This, in turn, demands a physicality and theatricality that fits well with Partch’s interest in Ancient Greek drama.


The Surrogate Kithara was conceived as a way of providing a solution to the virtuosic Kithara part in 1952’s dance work Castor and Pollux, and is the most radically different of the Kithara family.


To begin with, it is a much smaller instrument, and is played while seated. It consists of only two resonators, as opposed to the Kithara II’s six.  This configuration allows the performer a greater dexterity in changing the pitch by applying pressure to the strings, and opens up the instrument for use of percussion techniques on the strings.

Notation: In the notation system for kithara, there are three considerations that must be taken into account: Which string will be used? On which pitch of the hexad, or six-note chord, will that string be plucked? What is the position of the pyrex rods?

There are twelve courses of six strings. Each of these courses makes up a hexad, which could then be plotted as above

Partch then transferred this system onto a standard five-line staff with no clef or key signature, each note signifying one of the six strings




In the instance of a quick ascending or descending chord, Partch would notate the number of the string and the “notes” of the hexads through which the player should travel:







To play a single tone, the notation simply shows the number of the string and the position of the hexad at which it should be plucked:

When the composition requires the movement of the pyrex rods, Partch uses colors to denote their different positions. This takes into account the possible confusion between the numbers of the strings and hexads: