Harry Partch


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A Biography

Bob Gilmore

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Visionary composer, theorist, and creator of musical instruments, Harry Partch (1901–1974) was a leading figure in the development of an indigenously American contemporary music. A pioneer in his explorations of new instruments and new tunings, Partch created multimedia theater works that combine sight and sound in a compelling synthesis. He is acknowledged as a major inspiration to postwar experimental composers as diverse as György Ligeti, Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson, and his book Genesis of a Music, first published in 1949, is now considered a classic.

This book is the first to tell the complete story of Partch’s life and work. Drawing on interviews with many of Partch’s associates and on the complete archives of the Harry Partch Estate, Bob Gilmore provides a full and sympathetic portrait of this extraordinary creative artist. He describes Partch’s complicated relationships with friends, patrons, the musical establishment, and the world at large. He traces Partch’s upbringing in the remote desert towns of the Southwest, his explosive encounter with formal music education in Los Angeles, and his revolutionary course as a composer that began with an interest in the musicality of speech patterns. After immersing himself in hobo subculture during the Depression, Partch came to occupy a lonely and uncompromising position as a cultural outsider. Richly fascinating in themselves, Partch’s compositions, writings, and life also have much to reveal about American society and the creative impulses of the artistic avant-garde.

Bob Gilmore is lecturer in music at Dartington College of Arts in England.

"Gilmore . . . has done an outstanding job in piecing together the scanty documentary evidence of Partch’s life and conducted numerous interviews with friends and associates, resulting in a superbly written, captivating work. Partch’s copious travels, hand-to-mouth existence during the Depression, tumultuous formal music education, and relentless pursuit of an alternative to traditional European art music are carefully and lovingly chronicled. . . . This is an outstanding achievement."—Library Journal

"This is an outstanding achievement. Highly recommended for all collections."—Larry A. Lipkis, Library Journal

"Harry Partch: A Biography reads like a great mystery. . . . How did one of America's truly visionary composers, instrument builders, and rough-hewn individualists survive and persevere through horror at a young age, homelessness in the prime of his life, and nearly constant rejection and alienation by our culture? Bob Gilmore tells the whole story in this thoroughly researched, tragic, poignant, warm, and vividly memorable biography."—David Harrington, violinist, Kronos Quartet

"I visited Harry Partch in 1972 and had the opportunity to play on his instruments. I was interested in Partch's basic research on pure intonation, also in the totally original music which derived from his alternative tuning other than equal temperament and changed my concept of harmony."—György Ligeti

"Harry Partch is an American original. Though not as well known as some of his contemporaries, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, he developed a strong and independent voice of his own. I first became aware of his theater work at a performance of 'The Bewitched' at the Julliard Opera Theater in 1959. It was one of the first new music theatre pieces I had witnessed and it made a very big impression on me. I am delighted to find Bob Gilmore's biography of Harry Partch both illuminating and entertaining. This is a big chunk of American music history for which we should all be grateful."—Phillip Glass

"Gilmore's loving biography of an isolated, often bitter man depicts him as being ahead of other contemporary composers while on a track parallel to theirs and as being unique in his belief in pre-determined, rhythmic, tone-centered music."—Booklist

"[A] cleanly written, concise and exceptionally well-informed biography. . . .Gilmore has obviously talked to the right people . . . Gilmore, to his credit, knows to balance the man against his art. You have to admire [his] evenhandedness . . .this is the first full work on Partch’s life, his achievements and their continuing impact to see print." —LA Weekly

"[A] magnificent biography. . . . Gilmore's book succeeds both as a fascinating psychological portrait and as a study of the music. Interweaving the music and the life, he reveals how, in Partch's case, they're inseparable. . . . It is beautifully produced with a wealth of photographs, including many of the fabulous instruments. More than a biography, it is an essential commentary on modern American music."—Andy Hamilton, The Wire

"Gilmore's research has been exhaustive, and his writing brings to life an irascible seer, sometimes charming eccentric, sometimes pitiable, irritating genius. He illuminates, too, music that can be heard only on Partch's terms, almost unreproducible and existing beyond interpretation."—Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Gilmore provides a smooth narrative of a visionary career and how Partch came to build the bizarre, fabulous instruments that, even 25 years after his death, have won him a huge following among a younger generation."—San Francisco Examiner

"[This] is the definitive biography of a man who obscured large chunks of his background and cultivated a reputation for being difficult and unknowable. Using the complete archives of the Partch estate, Gilmore has uncovered details about the composer’s life and work that may lead to an overhaul of his myth. Gilmore convincingly claims that Partch down-played certain aspects of his musical development to make himself seem all the more self-made. . . . But rather than tarnishing the myth, Gilmore uses the new revelations to create a fuller, more rounded, and ultimately more satisfying narrative of Partch’s life."—City Paper

"Now 20 years after [Partch’s] death, there is a biography—a superb one by Bob Gilmore…Mr. Gilmore has unearthed everything worth knowing about this vexing character…Harry Partch is no longer a mystery, Mr. Gilmore has taken him off the road."—Jay Nordlinger, Washington Times

"The first thorough rendering of the life of the Most Obscure Composer of the Century…Gilmore does a good job in tracking Partch’s development from the "simple" early monophonic works to a more fully realized compositional style, in which theoretical concerns were downplayed in favor of the integrity of his instruments."—Eric Banks, Bookforum

"A quarter of a century after his death, Harry Partch's place in American music remains uncertain, and until the appearance of this detailed, thoughtful, and extraordinarily fairminded biography, much about his life was obscure. . . . A puzzling case. An excellent biography."—John Dizikes, Journal of American History

"This biography of visionary composer, theorist, and creator of musical instruments Harry Partch is the first to tell the complete story of his life and work. . . . Richly fascinating in themselves, Partch's compositions, writings, and life have revealed much about American society and the creative impulses of the artistic avant-garde."—Chamber Music

"Harry Partch: A Biography is the first full-length treatment of the composer’s life and work. . . . Partch . . . emerges from this book as a brilliant but troubled man with a strong paranoid streak and immense determination."—Carol J. Oja, Notes

Winner of the 1999 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in the Symphonic Books Category
ISBN: 9780300065213
Publication Date: June 16, 1998
480 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
30 b/w illus.