Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better Know a Composer: Harry Partch

In 1952, Mills College students banded together with professional musicians from around Oakland, taught themselves how to play Harry Partch's array of strange, self-made instruments, and put on the composer's King Oedipus.

Oedipus garnered a surprising amount of national coverage (surprising in that it got any at all), including (most likely) the newsreel footage that Open Culture posted on its website yesterday.

In this report, the announcer identifies cloud-chamber bowls "derived from atomic research" (!) and a 72-stringed kithara as byproducts of Partch's search for "the elusive tones that exist between the notes of a regular piano."

Whether you think Partch was "kooky," as Open Culture puts it, or not (see the comments following the article), this newsreel is intriguing in that it takes Partch's search for new musical resources seriously. The tone is not jokey or disbelieving, but straight-up, delivered with the same seriousness as the latest update on the virtual front of the Cold War.