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Ancient Champion: Harry Partch, The Greatest Outsider Composer and instrument maker, Harry Partch

Ancient Champion: Harry Partch, The Greatest Outsider

Composer and instrument maker, Harry Partch

by Ancient Champion, Columnist
first published: March, 2022

approximate reading time: minutes

"If we're not concerned about youth, we are at a dead end." Harry Partch

One of the night’s of my life, I will say after I am dead, was the one that happened while I was over in London, maybe 20 years ago. Lake, the Outsideleft man who frequently edits OL’s movies and cultural content, had the planned way ahead - this in itself is remarkable for we are not the planning types, I don’t think. Anyway, Lake had gotten tickets for an evening of Harry Partch compositions at the Barbican. What made it so, so very special was that the instruments Partch had made, to play the compositions he had written in scales he had devised made up of 47 unequal tones, had been brought over from the USA. Which when you see them. mostly made of glass, you’ll realize, was no mean feat. 

The sounds we heard were astonishing.

Gavin Bryars, “The great thing about Partch is that he turns everything on its head. He says everything we have been given, everything that you learn about music, largely from the last 300 years of classical music, is a mistake.”

Probably before Harry Partch almost instantaneously concluded after enrolling in the music program of University of Southern California in the early 1920s, that concert music was no more than a middle class, dead, white, european tradition. That he had little interest in studying. He’d attended a recital resplendent with blue-rinsed ladies and wasn’t happy with exclusivity he’d witnessed. It was an unappealing tradition he became rapidly disillusioned with.

“If we’re not concerned about youth, we are at a dead end.” He’d said.

From the very beginning Partch was kicking against the pricks, and this of course rendered him an outsider. Ten years a real life hobo, even. After cutting himself adrift from USC Partch found an influential voice in the German physicist and philosopher, Hermann von Helmholtz, whose work had  journeyed into sound. For all this and Harry Partch’s marvelous music too, let’s play the 50 minute film, The Outsider - The Story of Harry Partch.

Wow. Makes you reappraise your concept of what might constitute experimental music spinning on your turntable, unimpressing your party guests or something, right? 

I don’t know how long The Outsider - The Story of Harry Partch will be here, it’s made by the BBC a while ago and was put online by Suzy Alphanzo, I am grateful to them for that. Hopefully it will be there for long enough for you to consider whether 12 notes in an octave is anything other than a musical conspiracy, and to find a copy of Partch’s book, Genesis of Music, so you can play along.

Essential Info
The only Harry Partch website that matters, Corporeal Meadows

Ancient Champion

Ancient Champion writes for OUTSIDELEFT while relentlessly recording and releasing instrumental easy listening music for difficult people. The Champ is working on Public Transport, a new short story collection that takes up where 2021's Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere (Disco City Books) left off. It should be ready in time for the summer holidays. More info at

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