Greetings SFGC Community, Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director, Photograph by Liz Linder

I zoomed through Geneva, Switzerland, last weekend, world center of such soothing things as World Peace, Great Chocolate, and the International Red Cross. Also, I learned, home of the early 20th-century League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, which included—in addition to such towering minds as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann—the beloved composer Bela Bartok, whose choral music for young people is so loved by so many of us choristers, young and old.

Cloud Chamber Bowls (1950-1951) -Harry Partch

Geneva also houses the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, CERN, and so it was appropriate that I found myself hard at work there writing music for the “Cloud Chamber Bowls,” a whimsical percussion instrument created from Pyrex carboys used in Radiation labs like CERN to trace the paths of subatomic particles by eccentric Northern California composer, theorist, and instrument-builder Harry Partch, whose passionate advocacy for microtonal music made him a total anomaly in his time (he was most active in the 50’s and 60’s). I first became interested in his music around 15 years ago, and went looking for recordings of his music. I remember coming home with a new Partch CD once, unwrapping it and seeing my own father’s name on the list of musicians, playing something called the “Chromolodeon” (as you can see, Partch’s hand-built instruments have famously whimsical names, like "Blo-boy", "Boo" or, my favorite, and a kind of mix-’n-match combo of multiple other instruments, the "Spoils of War").

Harry Partch's "BloBoy"


Writing for these strange beasts is especially challenging because they are “microtonal,” which means that the notes they play are, for the most part, not actually notes you would find on the piano. In fact, Harry Partch used a scale that had 43 notes to the octave! I got a chance to read his book that explains it all (somewhat…), and now I’m here in SoCal, where chorister Emma MacKenzie and I are spending the weekend in rehearsals with Charlie Otte and the cast for Episode 7 of my TV opera Vireo, which will feature four of these instruments in action. Emma has been cast in the role of Caroline, the mysterious twin sister of Vireo herself—two girls caught between three centuries, communing with visions and spirits. Congratulations Emma! We will all be having our first hands-on encounter with the strange microtonal instruments that are curated lovingly by the LA-based group Partch, one of only three ensembles in the world that boast a comprehensive collection of Partch instruments, and the musicians who have figured out how to play them.

Partch LA rehearsing in San Francisco.

Listen to this Marimba that has been tuned to his 43-note scale.

Does it have a melody? Can you write melodies if you don’t have the notes of the piano scale? Can you hum them? Later he uses this same music in a bigger texture.

Can you hear the Marimba melody in there? How can you recognize it? Is it just the sound of the instrument, or does your ear recognize the melody as a melody?

Partch’s 43-note scale, by the way, is his own system built around what is called “just intonation,” a system that is not at all new or experimental, as it turns out. Long before the piano was invented, harpsichords and other early instruments used all kinds of different tunings—none of them used equal distances between the keys, (or “equal temperament”) like the piano does! In fact, equal temperament hadn’t been invented yet. Wonder what this sounds like? Take a listen to these three different versions of Pachelbel’s “Canon," each in a different tuning system:

[embed][/embed] The first and second versions (the second starts at 3:55) use the kind of tuning systems that might have been used in the time of Pachelbel, or Bach, or many of the most beloved Baroque and early Classical composers. Only the last version uses the actual pitches you would find on a piano (starting at 7:50). Can you hear the difference? Which one do you like the best? Do the first two sound at all like Harry Partch? Why or why not?

Back to work—the Chromolodeon beckons!

Best wishes,