Barbs and Broadsides
The text of this transcription first appeared in print in the journal "Percussive Notes, Research Edition - Volume 18, No. 3, Summer 1981, a publication of the Percussive Arts Society. It appeared then with the permission of the Harry Partch Foundation. All rights reserved. The only alteration of the text was to format it for online viewing.
Harry Partch, transcribed by Danlee Mitchell and Jonathan Glasier
Contents : Reading : BarbsHOME

"Barbs and Broadsides" is an edited transcription of a series of lectures given by Harry Partch between 1950 and 1970. The tapes of these lectures are being collected and edited by Danlee Mitchell. The title "Barbs and Broadsides" was given to this series of lectures by Danlee Mitchell for a presentation at the Exhibition/Festival of New Instrumental Resources which was held at the Center for Music Experiment and Related Research, University of California at San Diego, in May of 1979.

"Harry Partch: American composer, librettist, philosopher, publisher, record distributor, teacher, satirist, instrument builder and designer, sculptor, instrument repairman and tuner, theorist, experimentalist, iconoclast, self-taught musician, percussionist, adapted violist, conductor, author, retired hobo, seaman, sewer cleaner, dishwasher and kitchen flunky, comedian, vagrant, member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, and graffitist. Until his death, Harry Partch had lived in San Diego and had been doing his own thing for more than half a century. Partch's own thing began with his rejection of the European masters and the traditional bourgeois concert-hall performance." [Numus-West; 6/74, Page 28]



The creative person shows himself naked, and the more vigorous his creative act, the more naked he appears. Sometimes totally vulnerable, yet always invulnerable in the sense of his own integrity. I am now 69, as this is being said and I have been doing my own thing for more than five and a half decades. This thing began with truth, and truth does exist.

For some hundreds of years, the truth of just intonation, which is defined in any good music dictionary, has been hidden. One could almost say maliciously, because truth always threatens the ruling hierarchy, or they think so. Nor does the spiritual corporeal nature of man fare any better. We are reduced to specialties, a theater of dialogue without music, for example, and a concert of music without drama: basic mutilations of ancient concept. My music is visual, it is corporeal, oral and visual.

The direction in which I have been going for the past 44 years has much in common with the activities and actions of primitive man as I imagine him. Primitive man found magical sounds in the materials around him -- in the reed, a piece of bamboo, a particular piece of wood held in a certain way, a skin stretched over a gourd, or a tortoise shell . . . some resonating body. He then proceeded to make the object, the vehicle, the instrument as visually beautiful as he could.

His last step was almost automatic: the metamorphosis of the magical sound and the visual beauty into something spiritual. They became fused with his everyday words and experiences: his ritual, drama, and religion, thus lending greater meaning to his life. These acts of primitive man become the trinity of my work: magical sounds, visual forms, beauty and experienced ritual.


I use the words "ritual" and "corporeal" to describe music that is neither on the concert stage nor relegated to a pit. In ritual, the musicians are seen. Their meaningful movements are part of the act. Collaboration is automatic with everything else that goes on. How could it be otherwise?

The various specialties do not come from sealed spheres of maturity, pure art, pure music, pure theater, pure dance, pure film. As far as large involvements of music in this modern world are concerned, we have really only two choices: we have the pit or we have the obsessive formality of the concert stage.

On the theater stage with Virgil Thompson, an occasionally with others, there is something like a ritualistic approach, a corporeal approach to music that is an integrated part of theater. But the degradation of either the actual pit or the mental pit is the fate of music and nearly everything else.

I had begun to call my music "corporeal music" while I was playing the viola, and I'm sometimes pressed to really explain this. The best I can say is that "corporeal" to me involves the whole body, the whole person, the whole mind. It really takes an effective form when all the instruments are together and especially when the Marimba Eroica is included. Because of the nature of the Eroica's sound, the pulsations in the air, the rarefactions and condensations actually hit the belly, and some people say they feel it through their feet.

The vision of player and instrument together must be beautiful. Those who play the large instruments especially are very conspicuous in the studio or on the stage. Bends are frequently necessary in playing and should be at the knees. Footwork must be dexterous because of the large areas to cover. The musician must always present pictures of athletic grace.

This brings up another point that is very important in my musical concepts. That is, the spatial sense involved in placing instruments; it's true on the stage and it's true even in the studio. I am very, very aware of it. The spatial -- call it the situation, the architecture of the studio or the architecture of the stage -- the spatial thing is fantastically important and also the attitude of the players who are, who have now become actors. They aren't in a symphony orchestra where they're counting a hundred bars. Of course they never do this; they know the music so well, they don't have to do this. But they are very much in the limelight, and when I get to the small hand-instruments, I'll take a step further and try to get away from what I call the curse of specialization.

Specialization -- a dancer is just a dancer; a musician is only a musician -- is self-defeating because it denies fulfillment. I want my musicians, at least occasionally, to get out on the stage floor and become a moving, playing chorus.

It has been said in public print that if my ideas were to become dominant in music schools, it would be the end of music as we know it. May I say it first, that the danger is singularly slight. All or beyond this, the implication is that music be monolithic -- that whatever is decided by the majority or the most powerful must be adhered to by everyone. This idea is totally outside the thrust of Western civilization which has prided itself for over 2,000 years, off and on, in the concept of allowing strong individualism without alienation.

Monoliths are just dandy in stone. They do not belong in the world of ideas, to be sure. They have their advantages because of the present musical monolith. It is possible for 20 or 30 musicians to get together in a recording studio and to create practically on site, a soundtrack for a film of a TV series. This is fine. Let the commercial people have their monoliths. I have seen some evidence of fissures in it even there. But for schools of higher education, it is an obstacle to strong creative thinking, and I prophecy that it will not be tolerated forever.


Meaningfulness must have roots. It is not enough to feel that one's roots extend back only a decade of a century. It is my strong belief that the human race has known and abandoned magical sounds, visual beauty, and experienced ritual more meaningful than those now current. I must therefore decline to limit the dimensions of my rather intense beliefs by the modernly specialized word "music."

I believe devoutly that this specialty must become less specialized for the sake of its own survival. The experimental, ritualistic, dramatic area has constituted a very large part of my belief and work; and as for imaginative and sculptural forms of instruments, I have easily given as much time to this endeavor as to intonation.


We are all frequently depressed by the state of the world. And we have reason to be. In some sense, civilization is a tragedy. The kind of tragedy that befell the Greek city states who defeated themselves. Alexander didn't defeat them. Rome didn't defeat them.

There's a work on the vanishing bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Southwest Africa, and there is a passage, a fragment, a prescript, perhaps, at the front of the book, I think of it in terms of our world, our civilization.

    "I am the dreamer that remains, the man clear-cut against the last horizon."

I am sure there are dreamers. There are a lot of them probably. If there are enough of them, perhaps we will survive.



I had worked with conventional instruments for many years, from about the age of 5 until, well, about 1925. Somewhere in there. And I composed for them from the age of 14. The development of the adapted viola gave me a basis that I felt could carry me onward in the way I wanted to go. But at any rate, after the viola was almost finished, I took all the things that I had written before -- many songs, a symphonic poem, part of a piano concerto, and I forget what else -- I simply put them in a big potbellied stove and burned them. I called it an "auto-da-fe". And it gave me a great feeling of freedom, even though it was the destruction of, oh, how many years . . . not 20 years but almost 20 years of work.

The adapted viola was the result of previous experiments with paper fingerboard covering on violas and violins. I realized very quickly that I had to have a longer fingerboard in order to do the sort of thing I wanted to do with the viola. I found it of great difficulty to put the new viola between my legs.

I had always been enchanted with the viola's quality of tone and, automatically, I went to that for many reasons. It's impossible to experiment with a piano. It's a rigid instrument, it has a steel heart. It's not thoroughly impossible, of course, but it certainly does not lend itself with latitude to the problems that I wanted to examine.


Long ago I said to myself, I think life is too precious to spend it with important people. There are so many plays for status and selling; but one gets among a group of hobos, or among transient orchard workers and right away, there's a human contact. It doesn't mean that they always like each other, but there's a human contact without this fighting for place constantly. It's just a little sidelight on why I felt it necessary during the Depression to be a hobo and take a pack on my back.

When I was a hobo (in the 30's and early 40's), I began studying hobo speech. I had been studying the speech around me, and this is what I wanted to make it -- the speech around me. not this strange language that is sung by people in operas and on the concert stage. At any rate, these two ideas, the idea for a musical instrument and the ideal of music for it, grew simultaneously. They always have. There's never been an exception to that.

As for the music itself, it is almost always a dramatic idea. I can't think of more than two, maybe three of four small things that I have done as studies . . . that is to say, a study just to use musical materials. There is always an idea. Perhaps only a meed, but usually a dramatic idea.

I have never in my life built an instrument or conducted an acoustical experiment simply for the purpose of solving a problem in acoustics or musical theory. Never. Everything grew together. That is to say, if I had an idea for an instrument, I also had an idea for music for that instrument.

Eucalyptus is an extraordinarily beautiful wood, not so much in the sense of, say, for fine furniture, nothing like that, but it takes such fantastically beautiful shapes, and I had been observing these for many years, and I finally picked one up. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but pretty soon, after looking at it for a few months, I knew. It became the Gourd Tree.



Of what year is just intonation? It is an ancient truth, as ancient as the civilizations of China, Babylonia, Egypt, and of course, Greece which in the West was accoladed.

Basically, it is a philosophy of the idea of tone, this ancient truth based on the relationship of small numbers, small numbered parts of a string, as for example (or in modern terms) small member frequency ratios -- which doesn't mean that if one uses just intonation, he has nothing but consonants.

The smaller the number, the greater the consonance; the larger the number of the two numbers of the frequency ratio, the greater the dissonance of the less the consonance. And this was true in the world prior to the advent of the piano, or let's say the keyboard scale, which has been a monolith for about 300 years, and in my opinion, a rather tyrannical monolith. Certainly some great things came out of it, yet it has its own truth. It's just not the truth that I happen to like.

I have been called the 43-tone man, which is (or I've called it), a half-truth, or a quarter-truth. I suppose it is, but actually I have never set a number and said I'm going to stick to that number of tones because in an expanding tonal system one can't do that. Actually, in many of my works, I've tuned extra reeds and put them into the organ for a particular work, and so I could say that this 43-tone scale applies to instruments of fixed pitch and applies nowhere else. Now, it is quite possible to play a 43-tone scale. It isn't always the one I use.

News stories and even reviews have almost consistently latched on to the number "43" as though the were somehow the touchstone of my life. It is not. It is, in fact, about the one-half truth of the one-fourth factor. It is totally misleading. Even on instruments of fixed pitch, I do not necessarily limit myself to "43" just monophonic tones.

One further word of introduction about the language of intonational theory. The only clear, logical, rational terms are numbers. The relationships of numbers, that is frequency ratios or the ratios of parts of sounding bodies.

Ancient peoples in many parts of the world knew musical numbers. Modern man, including modern American music schools, persist in not knowing musical numbers. On the contrary, though my lifetime, I have seen how they jealously guard their precious misconceptions and this, ironically, in a so-called scientific age. Part of the time, I shall translate the accurate language of numbers into the current nomenclature of mumbo-jumbo. Most of the time, I shall not.

The word "octave", for example, is a palpable imprecision. I shall continue to use octave to describe a physical distance on the modern keyboard. I shall not use it to indicate that oral quantity but rather the correct term, the ratio 2:1.

The monophonic scale, if conceived as a scale, is not equal. There are no equal aural increments between successive degrees. This is not possible in any system of just intonation. The largest interval between degrees is indicated by fast beats, the smallest by slow beats.

An inexorable accident inheres within the scale -- an absolutely true triad re[...] 4,5, 6 and 12-tone equally tempered triad on the same fundamental. The 5-identity is, of course, true in the first triad, and in the second, it is 12-tone equal temperament with the falsity of less than a hundredth of a semi-tone which is probably more accurate than most pianos. The 3"2 is true in both triads. if the second triad were played on a piano, theoretically perfectly in tune, it would be false by about a 50th of a semitone.

The tempered triad is strangely uneasy, and no wonder. it wants nothing so much as to go away and sit down someplace. It wants nothing so much as resolution, and speaking of resolution, this is one from page 194 of my book, Genesis of a Music.

"Equal temperament is a current habit as is also the scope for modulation which it allows. Composers can think only in equal temperament for just one reason: because it is all they have got to think in. Music systems are made valid -- and workable -- by significant music..."
and I would add to this right now, that music systems that are not made valid by significant music are so many scraps of paper in a whirlwind.

I am more inclined to think in terms of what I call "tonal flux" rather than in the usual implications of progression of modulation. here is an example diagrammed on page 189 of my book which I have used in at least two pieces of music: two triads with each voice moving by about 1/3rd of a semi-tone in one direction of the other -- 8/7, O-tonality, and 7/4 U-tonality.

This tonal flux is used in the letter, the studying of a letter from a hobo friend. "Cincinnati, Ohio, October 2nd, 1935; hello pal. Gee, I was glad to hear from you, believe it or not. Well, I just received your letter today." It is also used in the third chorus of Oedipus, but the progression from 7/4 U-tonality to 8/7 O-tonality and back is somewhat more complex.

I want to interject something here about tonal senses it has been repeated for years, probably centuries by theorists who have never made an experiment in their entire lives, that just intonation is musically impractical because it does not allow a tone to be taken in more than one sense. This is sheer poppycock.

Again, from the same sequence, the Antiphony . . female chorus voices sustained by the kithara hold a straight 1/1 while adaptive cello and string bass, both in other registers, play the sequence: 8/7 O-tonality - 7/4 U-tonality - 16/9 O-tonality - 11/8 U-tonality - 16/11 O-tonality - 9/8 U-tonality. Every one of these six chords holds and 11 identity in these six different tonalities. The tones that can be taken in several senses are rather obvious. 1/1 is the seventh identity, seventh is another tonality, 9th identity, 11th identity, 11th in another, and at the end, it is still another 9th identity, in that order.


Underlying nearly all of the multiplicity of musical systems and philosophies in our libraries is the common basic assumption, namely, 12-tone equal temperament, the piano scale. And when we force acoustic intervals into the octave of 2:1, we falsify every interval involved. We effectively close all doors to any further adventures in consonance, and also amazingly, we close all doors to any meaningful adventures in dissonance.

A great deal has been said about quartertones, about cutting each from its own exactly in half creating 24 tones to the octave. This would not give us acoustic intervals. On the contrary, so far as I can see, it would simply provide material for a 24-tone row. And I feel that this is one thing the world can easily do without.

I have said many times, and I am by no means the first to say it ... that 12-tone equal temperament not only slams doors against any further investigation of consonance, but it also slams doors in the entire balance of the temple against any further investigation of dissonance. Dissonance in the monophonic systems of just intonation are entirely different servings of tapioca.