Harry Partch (1901-1974), one of the greatest and most individualistic composers of all time, was not only a great composer, but an innovative theorist who broke through the shackles of many centuries of one tuning system for all of Western music, a music instrument inventor who created dozens of incredible instruments for the performance of his music, and a musical dramatist who created his own texts and dance/theatre extravaganzas based on everything from Greek mythology to his own experiences as a hobo. Between 1930 and 1972, he created one of the most amazing bodies of sensually alluring and emotionally powerful music of the 20th century: music dramas, dance theater, multi-media extravaganzas, vocal music and chamber music---mostly all performed on the instruments he built himself.
With parents who were former missionaries to China, living in isolated areas of the American southwest, Partch, as a child, was exposed to a variety of influences from Asian to Native American. After dropping out of the University of Southern California, he began to study on his own and to question the tuning and philosophical foundations of Western music. During and after the Great Depression, he was a hobo and itinerant worker and rode the trains, keeping a musical notebook of his experiences, which he later set to music.
In 1930 Partch broke with Western European tradition and forged a new music based on a more primal, corporeal integration of the elements of speech with music, using principles of natural acoustic resonance (just intobnation) and expanded melodic and harmonic possibilities. He began to first adapt guitars and violas to play his music, and then began to build new instruments in a new microtonal tuning system. He built over 25 instruments, plus numerous small hand instruments, and became a brilliant spokesman for his ideas. Largely ignored by the standard musical institutions during his lifetime, he criticized concert traditions, the roles of the performer and composer, the role of music in society, the 12-tone equal-temperament scale and the concept of "pure" or abstract music. To explain his philosophical and intonational ideas, he wrote a treatise, Genesis of a Music, which has served as a primary source of information and inspiration to many musicians for the last half century.
The 12-tone equal tempered tuning system has been around for about 300 years in the Western world but is scientifically an impure system of pitch relationships. In other words, notes have been ‘adjusted’ or put out of tune from the pure intervals of the harmonic series. This is borne out by the fact of much non-western music having different pitch relationships to the 12-tone system and, of course, much so-called ethnic music has been around since the dawn of time. One of the most ancient scales exists in Javanese gamelan. In the Paris fair of 1898 composers such as Debussy were strongly influenced by these strange oriental scales and tuning systems. However, this wasn’t the first encounter by a westerner of such tuning systems. In 1580, for instance, Sir Francis Drake logged in his diary that the music of this land ‘was of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful.’