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20th Century Composers: Harry Partch, "The Hobo Composer"

Updated on November 29, 2010

Harry Partch (1901-1974) was a visionary American composer who found the inspiration for most of his mature work in the ideal of the hobo.  Partch was born to parents who had recently moved back from China where they were American missionaries.[1]  Harry Partch’s childhood was spent in the Southwest under the musical and cultural influence of his parents.  From his parents, Partch learned an appreciation for Chinese folk music, Mexican traditional, church hymns, and Native American music.  When he was old enough, Harry attended music school for one year but left after concluding that the studies were of no benefit to him.


[1] Chris Morrison, Harry Partch; available from http://www.thestore24.com/classical; INTERNET; Accessed 29 September 2003.

Harry Partch, The Hobo Composer in the flesh.
Harry Partch, The Hobo Composer in the flesh. | Source

Sometime during the 1920s and 1930s, Harry Partch began to change. It was during this time that he burned all of the music he had ever composed. During this time, Partch also studied music theory and composition on his own, without guidance. He focused on the ancient Greek philosophies of music and rejected a lot of the basis for western music that had developed since then. During a large portion of the 1930s and 1940s, Partch lived the life of a hobo.[1] Partch’s liberated view of the world that he expressed through his new compositions allowed him to think in terms of new scales and even new instruments. The American that in less than a decade would birth the “beat” generation that also idealized similar hobo ideals into literature and poetry inspired Partch’s music in a similar fashion.

During his time as a hobo, he began collecting what others would consider junk and built instruments which used a mathematically revolutionary tuning system known as “just intonation”. Partch composed original pieces for instruments the world had never heard or even imagined before. Some of these instruments, based upon the principals of just intonation, used scales with as many as 43 tones.[2] Just intonation works on principals theorized by Greek musicians centuries before Western music adopted the twelve-tone scale system. Partch, along with other American and international composers of the time, brought a renewed interest to just intonation in modern composition.


[1] Preston Writing, Harry Partch’s World ; available from http://www.musicmavericks.org/features/essay_partchworld.html; INTERNET; Accessed 29 September 2003.

[2] Preston Wright, Just Intonation ; available from http://www.musicmavericks.org/features/essay_justintonation.html; INTERNET; Accessed 29 September 2003.

See and Hear the Music of Harry Partch

The "Zymo Xyl"

This is the "Zymo Xyl" a Partch instrument from 1963.
This is the "Zymo Xyl" a Partch instrument from 1963. | Source

In his lifetime, Partch also created an estimated thirty different instruments from all sorts of source material. Partch used glass, metal, bamboo, and wood in the creation of his instruments.[1] Often times, his instruments appeared as if they were created right in a junkyard, which is both directly reflective of his hobo ideals while adding to his hobo reputation. If an orchestra of Partch’s instruments could be assembled, it would look as varied and unique as his experiences as a hobo would. This is yet another, though often un-thought of, example of art and life mirroring one another. It is no accident that the subject of the pieces Partch used such instruments to compose was a mixture of the hobo and Greek mythology his life and art had embraced and reconciled within himself.

Partch went on to write a book on his philosophies on music called Genesis of a Music. In it, he discusses his philosophy on intonation and how it affects the creative musical process in his work.[2] As a result of the experimental nature of his work, much of Partch’s career involved getting people to accept his ideas about music. Ultimately his status as an outsider in Western music resembles his personal life’s relationship to western society, which is, that of the hobo. In both his life and his art, the spirit of the hobo made Harry Partch unique, independent, and free.


[1] New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians s.v. “Harry Partch”

[2] Harry Partch, Original preface to “Genesis of a Music”; available from http://www.musicmavericks.org/features/archive_genesis.html; INTERNET; Accessed 29 September 2003.

Quadrangularis Reversum

Another one of Partch's instruments.  This one is from 1965, and it is called the "Quadrangularis Reversum".  Doesn't that sound like a Harry Potter spell?
Another one of Partch's instruments. This one is from 1965, and it is called the "Quadrangularis Reversum". Doesn't that sound like a Harry Potter spell? | Source

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