Landmark Microtonal Composer Honored at NEC Symposium

From September19 to the 21st, the New England Conservatory and Northeastern University partnered to create a symposium and tribute to legendary composer Harry Partch for students in the Boston area. Many consider Partch to be the father of microtonal music, which features notes not normally seen in the 12-note musical scale. Partch’s symposium celebrated not only his innovative style, but his ability to inspire other musicians to test the bounds of musical possibility.

Harry Partch was one of the first 20th-century composers to work substantially in the field of microtonal music. His passion for music led him to create an entire orchestra of his own instruments in the ‘40s and ‘50s, some of which included augmented forms of common instruments like the guitar and the viola. His determination to question the boundaries of the music scale itself led him to become an innovative composer and creator of musical devices. “Like most other people that are learning western music, I thought there were 12 tones in the octave, and Harry Partch had broken through that using far more tones per octave than 12,” said Dean Drummond, Director of the Harry Partch Institute and Associate Professor of Music at Montclair State University.

The tribute served as a learning experience for those less familiar with Partch and his music and allowed Partch fans all over the Boston area to revel in a rare and rewarding experience. “I think that this is more of a local influence. The instruments have never been here, so a lot of people that are here have never heard the music live,” says Drummond. Viewing a substantial collection of Partch’s instruments together at the concert series was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most attendees, as amassing the amount of resources that is required to transport the large and rare items is extremely difficult.

For both fans and those new to the microtonal world altogether, the concert series was the landmark feature of the symposium. On Wednesday night, attendees were treated to a show that incorporated both modern compositions inspired by Partch and original Partch compositions themselves, performed by musician John Schneider. During the performance, Schneider played on one of the Partch instruments—the adapted guitar. While it had the same amount of strings as a classic guitar, it was tuned in thirds instead of fourths, so the six strings (equally spaced on a normal guitar) were divided up into three pairs of two.

The concert itself may have been different or even mystifying to those new to Partch. “I had heard of microtonal music but had actually never seen it performed,” said Savanna M. Arral ’16, a Harvard freshman who attended the concert. “I thought it was extremely interesting. I think that’s honestly the only way that you can really look at that kind of experimental music: [it] is interesting at first, and [then] it becomes more beautiful the more that you listen to it.”

Those who are more familiar with Partch may be better able to communicate why the music eventually draws all different kinds of people in. “He had the kind of vision of total artwork. Music and dance and drama and everything embodied on the stage. And people love his instruments—there is a whimsical side that people really respond to, there is the impressive nature of someone who built their own orchestra over a decade,” said Jonathan Wild, Assistant Professor at the Department of Music Research at Schulich School of Music and board member on the comittee that planned the week-long tribute.

Partch and his unique music have certainly made an impact not only here in Boston this past week, but have also inspired many musicians to think outside of the box and follow in his footsteps, as evidenced by the many Partch-inspired compositions that were played all week. “He was really born at the wrong time,” says Wild. “He was born either too late...or too early, because it is much more accepted now to [push the bounds of music].”

Harry Partch’s ability to open new possibilities in the field of music has inspired musicians for decades. Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory brought the world of Partch to the Boston community, hopefully spreading knowledge about his story, his instruments, and his music to other musicians who may want to someday follow in his footsteps.

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