Matt Cook

“I most enjoy the communal elements of music. I like making connections in our community and exploring how music impacts other communities or cultures.”

Music has the rare power to transcend vast swatches of reality in its effort to build connections, and most often, we want music to do exactly that…transport us to a place aside this one, remove the spaces between us and the other, such that we lose the distinction between ourselves and our surroundings, environment, and community. That’s where we gain the freedom to rebuild those relationships in our own image: how many friendships have begun with a handshake and an inquiry…”do you play the drums?”

Matt Cook spends his time cultivating connections from the ground up, a rare combination of master percussionist, educator, and leader in the non-profit arts community. Originally from Duluth, GA, Matt pursued his muse at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, his focus on orchestral and contemporary percussion, especially in a chamber music context. 

Matt came to PARTCH Ensemble in 2011 via the arm team, otherwise known as the California Institute of the Arts, where he completed his graduate studies with then Head of Percussion Studies (and a PARTCH Ensemble member emeritus) David Johnson, while working closely with world percussion maestro Randy Gloss and resident swing master Joe LaBarbera. As Matt’s musical horizons grew, it was a natural fit for him to join the ranks of the growing Los Angeles phenomenon that was PARTCH Ensemble.

Harry Partch didn’t make things easy for the performers in his ensembles. There were often new parts to learn on familiar compositions that had been updated to include one (or more) of his newly invented instruments; each of these instruments was informed by the composer’s own notion of the idiosyncratic nature of the instrument in question, and the notation that came with it would reflect this. Whenever a new instrument arrived, it meant new compositions, new parts, and new notation, all unique to that new instrument. In turn, this meant “somebody” had to learn to play these new parts…in PARTCH Ensemble, we more often than not turn to Matt.

His vast multi-percussion experience serves a much needed role in our group: his ability to travel from instrument to instrument within the ensemble, be it stringed or percussive in nature, has worked to allow the ensemble to vastly expand its playable repertoire. Matt has performed extensively on the Cloud Chamber Bowls, Bass Marimba, Kithara, Harmonic Cannons, Surrogate Kithara, Spoils of War, Diamond Marimba, and Marimba Eroica, as well as performing traditional orchestral percussion instruments on several of the ensemble’s collaborative ventures with composers writing for PARTCH Ensemble with extended instrumentation (see Anne LeBaron’s LSD – The Opera). 

Challenging as it may seem to the outsider, it is part and parcel with the musical experiences Matt has always chosen to pursue…in fact, the challenge alone was enough to draw Matt’s interest to the ensemble:

“I was drawn to the unique playing techniques and challenges that Harry’s instruments presented. As a percussionist, I’m always searching for new sounds and new challenges to explore.”

Matt is a highly active member of Los Angeles’ vibrant professional music community: performing regularly on film, television, and other recorded media, he is also a founding member of the illustrious Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (along with another PARTCHian, Nick Terry), as well as a member of the dynamic contemporary music ensemble WildUp. Currently part of the teaching faculty at Fullerton and Ventura Colleges, Matt has recently ventured further in the area of professional Performing Arts administration, working as a Development Director to secure opportunities for various ensembles to continue their mission statement and present their works for public consumption. 

“I feel that Partch’s music is most relevant today as a rewarding live concert experience. The albums give listeners a glimpse into his world, but to really experience the music it requires a fully immersive, live concert experience…[It is] the most unique performing experience that I’ve ever been a part of. I think Harry would be proud.” 

Each member in PARTCH Ensemble would echo this sentiment in our own way, but Matt’s words are especially prescient, cutting to the core of what our group is about…come see it Live…as this is the most effective, direct, and transcendent communication of thought. Building connections through performance or recordings, through education or development, or through the sheer joy of sharing moments onstage with friends and colleagues…each a branch of the same tree that roots us in the same reality. And while true that music can transcend the spaces between people, it also acts as the very bridge that connects them. We are honored to work alongside Matt Cook for the vast plethora of talent, experience, knowledge, and follow-through of his artistic and professional vision. 

Learn more about Matt Cook at his website:

Alison Bjorkedal

[It] occurs regularly…the instant before we start playing; that breathless silence before the first note, when I crouch down to peer through the kithara and connect with each ‘Partchian’…the excitement, the smiles, the trust in each other…that is my favorite moment.”

Musicians are often asked this very simple question: why do you do what you do? Answers vary from person to person, era after era…variations as numerous as grains of sand. And each musician needs to discover their own personal why, and then cultivate that reason into a drive…that’s the point where it is possible to become an artist. It’s a term that is not to be used lightly; those of us in the business of professional music know when we encounter a visionary, a true artist…while it may not necessarily take one to know one, it does take one to understand that the label does not confer a level, or an aptitude. The label is only that.

True artistry is transcendent: it goes beyond talent and embraces the full spectrum of a person and their internal motivations and drives. It’s a lifelong journey, and the joy comes by being a willing and conscious participant in said journey. The journey towards true artistry is similar to that of self-realization: only you can walk the walk.

Composer Harry Partch walked his walk. Many musicians have taken up the walk in the years since Harry’s journey ended in 1974, and have done so with equal parts zeal, love, and madness, with varying results, and of course, a multitude of destinations.

This month’s Member Spotlight features harpist and resident Kitharian Alison Bjorkedal, a stalwart of the Los Angeles classical, new music, and contemporary music community. As with many members of PARTCH, her personal journey into music began at an early age, where the deep end of the pools of music she was shown suffered her no consternation.

“I began playing piano at age 3 and cannot remember a time when music was not a daily, integral part of my life.”

Originally from Kennewick, WA, Alison first encountered the harp in high school, and was able to gain access to an instrument owned by the local school district; from that moment on, Alison’s path was committed to the harp. The path led south from Kennewick, first to the University of Oregon for a Bachelor of Music degree, leading to both Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California. Seeing the musical landscape of Los Angeles as a fruitful bed of opportunity, Alison permanently relocated to southern California, and began quickly making inroads to the broader classical music community.

In 2011, the path veered suddenly towards Harry Partch: “Harry Partch was mentioned, almost as a side note, in an undergraduate music history course. But, sadly, I had not explored his music until…”

Enter John Schneider.

“John speaks with such love about the ensemble and its mission of keeping this music alive…I was delighted by the uniqueness and the incredible wit of the music.”

I will reiterate: it may not take one to know one, but it does take an artist to understand the commitment, the drive necessary to embody the journey of true artistic development, especially as it manifests in another. John recognized it in Alison, and the invitation to join the group was forthcoming, if not altogether expedient.

“…I could not resist his invitation to learn more…”

Alison is PARTCH’s resident master of the Kithara, the 72-stringed behemoth of a harp, setting 12 distinct (thought intrinsically related) hexachords formulating Harry Partch’s unique harmonic foundation. Additionally, Alison has performed extensively on the Harmonic Canons, Surrogate Kithara, Cloud Chamber Bowls, and recently added her voice to the ensemble’s rendition of Harry’s beloved Barstow, performing the part of “Marie Blackwell.”

She serves on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts, guiding students immersed in their own personal journeys with the harp. Simultaneously, Alison teaches a class in Music Appreciation at Pasadena City College.

“As a teacher, I observe my students’ bravery and commitment to finding their artistic voices and [Harry] Partch’s music mirrors that exploration and expression in a very unique and inspiring way.”

Her career as a first-call harpist has featured performances with Sia, Madonna, Nate Ruess, and Kid Cudi; on-screen appearances with Andrea Bocelli and the Pentatonix; appearances with the San Diego Symphony, Pasadena Symphony/Pops Orchestra, Long Beach Opera, and the Long Beach Symphony.

“Discovering Partch’s music has compelled me to think about music differently. It was very humbling to start fresh learning a new type of music notation and an instrument unlike any other…I hope our journey as an ensemble brings that experience to more people as we work to expand our performance and recording opportunities.”

The journey towards true transcendent artistry begins with an unspoken desire; there are years then spent seeking, learning, expanding, before self-actualization…before earning the title “artist.” PARTCH Ensemble is fortunate that each member has not only discovered this journey on their own, but that the path led them to the group. From here on out, it is a shared journey, and for one who has considered the path Less Traveled…knowing that it is shared with friends and mates who share the same values has made all the difference. PARTCH is grateful to be sharing this part of our collective journey with Alison Bjorkedal traveling with us.

Learn more about Alison at

PARTCHed – May 2019

re-Genesis of a Music
  ~  A tale of obsession  ~

 by John Schneider

Part V: Adapted Guitar II

By 1998, I had decided that there was no turning back (see Part IV), as the search for a deeper understanding of Partch’s music had already begun in earnest. With the successful construction of the Adapted Guitar I, followed by performances, a recording, and very enthusiastic audience response, I felt absolutely compelled to continue down that path. I wanted more… But what next? Of course! There were at least three different guitars in Partch’s history, and I had only explored one. 

Having finally decided that I must reconstruct the 10-string Adapted Guitar II, I was facing all sorts of hurdles. So many questions! It turns out that Genesis of a Music, Partch’s essential book first published in 1949 with a second expanded Edition in 1972, not only serves as an extraordinary music theory primer, hidden history of music, and autobiography— it’s also a cookbook. The ingredients needed to recreate his marvelous instruments can be found in those pages: tantalizing recipes with most of the details intact, though certainly not all, as I was about to find out. Luckily, Partch supplied a photograph for each instrument, and the Adapted Guitar II was no exception. 

Figure 7.69.tiff
Adapted Guitar II, Genesis of a Music 2nd Edition

Sure enough, the exotic fingerboard was there all right, with what was basically a wooden ruler on the treble side that was evidently covered with the ratios of just intonation.  But they were completely illegible. AND the fingerboard itself was with covered with an amazing pattern what were supposed to be colored triangles, according to the written description. But it was a black & white photo! Sigh. I would just have to visit the original.

That would have been a lot easier back when I first met the instruments in 1977, when they were still living in San Diego under the supervision of Danlee Mitchell, Partch’s assistant for the last twenty years of his life. But now they were back East and in the care of Dean Drummond & his group Newband, who had been performing and recording with them since their arrival for a spectacular performance of Revelation in the Courthouse Park at Philadelphia’s American Music Theatre Festival in 1987 (recorded on Tomato Records TOM 3004). Sadly, I didn’t have the budget or time to make the necessary pilgrimage east to examine those mysterious colored triangles, but luckily, I happened upon this announcement:

Newband presents “Harry Partch and His Legacy”
Thursday, Sept. 23, 1999 at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center;
Tickets are $13-15. Partch instruments will be on display Sept. 21-23

Now that I could manage, Yerba Buena being in San Francisco. So I booked a flight, bought a ticket, and wrote to Dean to arrange some private time with the instruments before the performance.

JS with AG II Original_1999.jpg
Adapted Guitar II & Gourd Tree

My, what a strange instrument this was! Originally a 6-string Oahu brand ‘squareneck’ Hawaiian guitar, this version had ten strings, and the craziest headstock I’d ever seen. When Partch adapts an instrument, it seems like everything changes. In order to add those four extra strings, he attached a set of four connected mandolin tuners to the top of the newly designed tuning head, and made a custom bridge & nut that were much wider than the original, suspending two bass strings & two treble strings over either side of the original fingerboard.  And then, there were those triangles:

Original full fingerboar202.jpg
Adapted Guitar II fingerboard

So I took lots of pictures & measurements, bringing them home to figure out what it was all about.

As Partch had discussed in Genesis, the triangles are colored to correspond with the Chromelodeon Color Analogy, assigning the six different colors of the rainbow spectrum to each of the six harmonic overtones of his just intonation Hexads:

1………… = root, or fundamental
3………… = 3rd harmonic above the fundamental = perfect 5th
5…………..yellow = 5th harmonic above the fundamental = Major 3rd
7………… = 7th harmonic above the fundamental = minor 7th
9………… = 9th harmonic above the fundamental = Major 9th
11…………orange = 11th harmonic above the fundamental = Octave + tritone

Ratios would be represented by two colors, since an interval is the relationship between two different pitches. The pure Major 3rd G-B, for example, is described numerically by the ratio 5/4, which is the distance between the 5th harmonic and the 4th. The 4th harmonic is the G two octaves above the fundamental, and would be represented by RED, while the 5th harmonic is the B a major third above that, represented by YELLOW. Thus, to find a 5/4 on a particular string, the guitarist slides the plexiglass rod to the base of a triangle that is colored YELLOW/RED. 

Suddenly, it all made sense, as the actual colors were the Rosetta Stone that made the possibility of making an accurate copy the instrument a reality. 

But why there were two continuous lines of Isosceles triangles, touching apex to base all the way from the nut to the soundhole? And why were the patterns different? There was only one set of ratios on the ‘ruler,’ which were in the correct order, but they only corresponded to some of the note/triangles in the lower row, not the upper! (Guess I’ll have to ask Partch next time I see him, since Genesis certainly never said why.) What the heck: just copy them, and figure that out later.

Next question: what instrument should I use? I suppose I could try to find a 1930’s Oahu (they were actually manufactured by Kay guitars for the Oahu Publishing Company of Cleveland, Ohio that was riding the huge wave of Hawaiian music’s popularity). Partch’s creative tuning head would be a challenge to make, but not insurmountable. But I remembered the instrument being very hard to handle because of those extra strings hanging over both sides of the neck, the exact place a player hands onto when carrying the guitar on & off stage, let alone removing it from its case. Hmmm…its case…the original had no case, and maybe that’s why! Very impractical.

Ten strings, eh? Wait a minute, there already exist 10-string lap steel guitars that are played in exactly the same way. Perhaps there are acoustic versions? Nope—very rare, so that’s out. 10-string Pedal or Lap steel guitars I could find, but they were all solid body electrics: the sound would be all wrong—another dead end. So instead making a ten-stringer by adding four strings to a six string guitar (6+4=10), I decided to go the other way: get a twelve string guitar, and take two strings off (12-2=10), and that would also fit in a premade guitar case. Hello, Ebay…

When my 1975 Martin D-12-28 arrived, it went straight to Greg Brandt’s shop, where he removed the frets, and laboriously ground down the Ebony fingerboard to a quarter of its original height, polishing the surface to ready it for the triangles to come. He also copied the original bridge, and replacing the initial six pairs with ten equally spaced holes:

Old AG II Bridge.JPG
Original 12-string bridge (6 pairs) 
New AG II Bridge.JPG
New 10-string bridge (equidistant)

Off to the hobby store to buy six little glass bottles of Testor’s Enamel Paint in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, & violet. Time to paint the triangles! It took almost a month to paint the dozens & dozens of triangles, as each tiny triangle needed a day or so to dry before I could safely use the masking tape to paint those that abutted it. 

Painting Triangles203.jpg
Painting triangles

In the end, there were 142 of them, and as you can see by the patterns, some were monochrome (black = secondary ratios) or two-tone (primary ratios), while some were subdivided into four parts. Several were divided into 14 tiny triangles in 7 separate colors, indicating that the 1/1 G note that it could function as the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, or 11th of various different tonalities:

AG II Triangles closeup.jpg
Various Ratios & their Color-coded Triangles on new AGII

Mind you, those 142 triangles only described the pitches produced on some of the strings, the lower chain of compound triangles showing the notes for the 3rd, 7th & 9th strings that were all tuned to F (16/9), while it turned out that the upper line revealed the pitch identities found on the 5th, 7th, and 10th strings that were three octaves of C (4/3):

[low ]  C – F – C – F – Ab – C – Eb – F – F# – Gb  [high]

The plexiglass slide would then move to the base of the triangle (the widest part always on the right side from the player’s point-of-view) to produce the wanted pitch:

Partch with AG II.jpg
Harry Partch playing his Adapted Guitar II with a lead-weighted plexiglass slide

But what if he wanted a note on one of the other four strings? Partch used a kind of tablature that showed which string to play, and where to put the slide using either the top line of triangles or the bottom, depending which tuning he was using.  So the ratio in the score tells the performer where to put the slide, not the resultant pitch. In the opening of The Crane (1949), we learn that the guitar is tuned in the ‘minor’ or Utonality tuning that will use the lower row of triangles. The first guitar chord uses all ten strings strummed low to high, and the slide should be placed at the base of the multicolored triangle, indicated by the 1/1 on the white list of ratios on the New Adapted Guitar above:

The Crane_excerpt.jpg

The opening vocal note, however, was in fact an 11/9 on the 7th string, but the (20/11) below it also refers to where the slide would be if one was using the lower line of triangles. Hmmm. So in making my copy of the instrument, I added another row of ratios on the bass side of the strings to supplement those on the treble side as found on his ‘ratio ruler.’ 

It must also be remembered that not only did Partch’s Monophonic Scale have 43-tones to the octave, he actually used many more than that. And yet, this Adapted Guitar only has 14 triangles per octave. Why!? Simplicity, really. (He used the same concept on his Adapted Viola, marking only 29 notes out of 43, as we will see in an upcoming edition of PARTCHed.) The triangles are landmarks, but the performer must know where all of the ratios live between them. No small task!

This is, by the way, just one of the reasons that Partch’s music has remained such a mystery for all of these decades. The musicologists, composers, performers and critics that are tacitly responsible for carrying on traditions of the past have had an impossible task when confronted by two dozen unique tablatures for even more exquisitely singular instruments. But fear not—that is starting to change!

After all of the tiny triangles had dried on the new instrument, it was time to figure out what gauge strings to use, since the open strings went as low as the Cello C2 (~65Hz) up to F#4 (~370Hz) which meant a .076” mando-cello string for the lowest note down to a .009” for the highest:

AG II copy.jpg
The new Adapted Guitar II  (2000)

Luckily, Partch himself had recorded the Three Intrusions—“The Crane” as well as two others called “The Rose” & “The Waterfall”—in 1950, so I knew exactly what the instrument should sound like. Tuned up and ready to go, a full year after I had first held Partch’s instrument in San Francisco, I hit that first chord…and it was exactly right:

JS with AGII.jpg

I was thrilled – those haunting harmonies were finally there beneath my fingers, giving me shivers down my spine. There was only one problem…there was no music for solo Adapted Guitar II! In order to play those Three Intrusions (1949), I would need a marimba. And not just any marimba either, but one shaped like a Diamond…

Stay tuned for Part 6 – “Diamonds are Forever…”

PARTCHed – March 2019

re-Genesis of a Music
  ~  A tale of obsession  ~

 by John Schneider

Part III: “Oh, for a picture—just one picture….!”

Theoretically, I was good to go:

1. I had the score to the solo version of Barstow (1941)
2. I finally knew what actual pitches the dozens of ratios in the music referred to
3. I knew how the original Adapted Guitar I was strung and tuned

But most importantly, I had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and decided that, in order to do the piece justice, I had to recreate not just the notes, but the actual guitar itself. But how far should I go? He couldn’t make standard fretwire work, so he had used “high, stainless-steel frets into slots in a brass plate, which was then screwed onto the neck…” I had access to luthiers who could work with regular frets…perhaps I could reverse engineer the guitar by simply finding which frets I would need to play the piece.

      While first attempting to transcribe the piece, I had already gone through the score and determined that Partch had used 39 notes to the octave, but that was for both the voice and the guitar parts. So I wrote out just the guitar notes:

Guitar Scale for Barstow.jpg

and since the score was written in tablature, I knew exactly which string had to perform each note. Next step? draw a model of the fingerboard:

Proposed Frets for Barstow.jpg

Looked good…but how would I know if I was right? There was no recording of this earliest version of the piece, and the famous Columbia Recording didn’t even have a guitar in it. If I only had a photograph of the guitar! 

Ironically, I knew exactly what kind of guitar it was—a 1927 Koa-wood Martin parlor guitar—as there was a picture of it in his book Genesis of a Music. But years before, Partch had removed the high frets, restrung the instrument with six equidistant G-strings, and turned it into a slide guitar by raising the strings and covering the brass slotted fingerboard with a thin board with painted lines. 

There were simply no photos of the original fretting available: I was on my own.

      BUT – I remembered that in McGeary’s catalogue, there was mention of some 1945 acetate recordings made by an amateur recordist that included the 1943 version of the Barstow with kithara, guitar, & chromelodeon…so I started making phone calls. Lots of phone calls. This was pre-internet, of course, so research meant letter writing and a huge telephone bill. I was able to track down Dr. Warren Gilson in Wisconsin who had made the recordings, and though he fondly remembered both Partch and the sessions, the details of the instruments were a blur and his records were long gone. I was, however, able to reach Partch scholar Richard Kassel, who kindly mailed me a cassette of Gilson’s recording. I listened to it over and over again,  for days on end, to get the sound of Partch’s guitar into my head.

      In the meantime, I had acquired a classical guitar that had a special fingerboard invented by the German luthier Walter Vogt that used sliding frets such that each note on every string could be individually tuned. 

Vogt Fingerboard Head Left.jpg

If I could fret that guitar with the proposed Barstow frets that I had worked out, then I would know if I was on the right track. Since the strings of the Barstow guitar were basically three pitches Eb-G-B (doubled at the octave like a 12-strings), I tuned the 4th string D up to Eb+14¢ [a pure Major 3rd below the 3rd string G], and tuned the 2nd string B down 14¢ to be a pure major third above the G. I then slid the frets to match the pattern I had worked out. Mind you, I didn’t have a proper electronic tuner to tune the frets, but I did have a Yamaha DX7-II synthesizer that I had tuned to the Partch scale, so I carefully matched the frets to the keyboard pitches, sliding one fretlet at a time until they were in sync.

With the tuning and fretting finally done, I gingerly played the opening chords that I had been listening to for weeks. To my amazement, the same strange chords that had been emanating from my stereo were suddenly coming out of the guitar in my lap. It worked! I rapidly went through the score and tried all of the chords, and they all checked out. Time to make some sawdust!

With incredible luck, I had been able to locate a Japanese copy of a pre-war Martin, and took it to the Los Angeles luthier Greg Brandt, who pulled the frets, and prepared the recently vacated premises for its new tenants. He then re-drilled the bridge to place the six strings in three pairs rather than the original equally spaced sextet, and we strung it up. Then, using a piece of fretwire that had the tang ground off, we slid the fret over the smooth ebony surface to mark where each fret should go, using the synthesizer to tune each note by ear. 

What a job! First I would find the right note on the synth, then step on the sustain pedal so that the pitch hung in the air while we moved the fret wire up & down until the two notes matched. The slightest move to either the right or left created beats, so the process was very exact. Three hours later, the 27 exact placements had been marked before Greg could make the precision cuts in the wood and start hammering frets:

Greg Brandt AG I_1.jpg

Three days later, Greg called with the news, “The guitar is ready!” It had taken a professional to accomplish the delicately difficult job of refretting that Partch, a self-proclaimed “philosophic music man seduced into carpentry” was not able to achieve.

And so, in August of 1992, Partch’s original Adapted Guitar was reborn. There in the workshop, I picked up the instrument and began strumming the chords that I had memorized. The paired stringing made the chords very easy to play, and this time, I not only recognized the same chords as the original score, but also the same exact twanging timbres that had been buried in those crackling acetate grooves half a century before.

What a journey! The seeds that had been planted way back in 1978 and the quest that had begun in the Spring of 1991 was over: the music & guitar that I had virtually lived, breathed, slept and eaten for a year and a half was a reality once again. With boundless enthusiasm, I began to rehearse an within six weeks, I was performing the piece in public:


A year later, I had the pleasure of recording the piece for the Bridge Records album Just West Coast, giving listeners a chance to hear the piece as Partch himself had originally conceived and performed it back in the 1941-42:

Just West Coast cover.png

It turns out that after 1942, Partch started re-orchestrating Barstow, adding new instruments as he invented them: first in 1942, with two voices and Chromelodeon, then in 1943 adding the Kithara, again in 1954 using the slide version of the Adapted guitar with Surrogate Kithara and Diamond Marimba, and finally in 1968 with no guitar whatsoever, but adding his bamboo marimba called the Boo.

But was I right…?

It wasn’t until nine years after I had completed the guitar, having performed Barstow on three continents, that I finally saw a photo of the original guitar with the original stainless steel frets. After all, the music worked – I played and sang every note in the score, but did I get the instrument right? Were my best guesses at the frets and strings correct…? 

In 2001, I produced a Harry Partch Centennial Celebration at UCLA, a 12- hour extravaganza of lectures, films, panels, and a concert. At the event, the Harry Partch Foundation presented an exhibit of photographs from the composer’s life in the lobby of Schoenberg Hall. And there, amidst dozens of unforgettable prints, to my profound relief and delight, was this photograph:

Partch & Adapted Gtr I

Turns out that I was right after all. (Whew!!)

Barstow Fret Closeup.jpg

Next month: “Wait, weren’t there two Adapted Guitars?”

Erin Barnes

[Composer Harry] Partch made a big point of the corporeality of music. HIs instruments and tunings were intended to reach a listener physically…[Partch] wanted performers who were physical presences…and he got them in the likes of Erin Barnes.

Mark Swed, Music Critic, Los Angeles Times

The California Institute of the Arts is one of few accredited institutions in the world that feature music curricula beyond the scope of what is found in a traditional conservatory environment: CalArts boasts programs specializing in North Indian (Hindustani) Classical Music, Balinese and Javanese Gamelan, and Ewe Drumming from Northern Ghana, collectively dubbed World Music Studies. It’s one thing to hear music from these regions and be moved, but another thing entirely to practice these art forms under the guidance of the established masters of the genre; CalArts offers the opportunity to experience both, in significantly meaningful ways.

As a percussion major at CalArts in the 1990s, Los Angeles-born and raised percussionist Erin Barnes was exposed to all this and more. Early on in her CalArts tenure, her interest in instrument building led her to discover alternative concepts of intonation, and an introduction to the work of Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist Kraig Grady. Kraig’s own brand of microtonal string and percussion music was firmly rooted in theories set forth by (amongst others) composer Harry Partch, and it was through this collaboration that Erin Barnes was first introduced to Partch’s music, and ultimately led to her to the Diamond Marimba, a fixture in virtually every performance of the PARTCH Ensemble.

“It was…1998, but I think the first piece I heard (of Harry Partch’s) was And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, or Daphne of the Dunes,” says Erin, when recalling her first experience with Partch’s music. “At that time, I was also deeply immersed in the world of dance, taking several ballet and modern classes a week…When I started playing Partch’s music, I had no idea about his philosophy of corporeality and music. Castor and Pollux, a highly physical piece, was the first piece I learned as a part of this group, and naturally I found myself moving around the instrument a lot. When I later learned that Partch wanted his musicians to move, to have a strong physical connection to the music, it made complete, perfect sense, and I felt deeply that I had found my perfect artistic match.”

“When I later learned that Partch wanted his musicians to move, to have a strong physical connection to the music, it made complete, perfect sense, and I felt deeply that I had found my perfect artistic match.”

Indeed, Erin’s command of the corporeal Diamond Marimba has become one of the great highlights of all PARTCH Ensemble performances since joining the group in 2003; at that time, the ensemble was but three people, still performing under the name of founder John Schneider’s group Just Strings. Together with Schneider and fellow percussionist (and CalArts mentor) David Johnson, the group performed for two more seasons, recruiting current members Nick Terry and T.J. Troy along the way, before officially establishing the ensemble now known as PARTCH in 2005.

Beyond the microtonal world of PARTCH, Erin is active in many different musical and educational capacites in the Los Angeles area, performing on the hammered dulcimer, focusing on traditional Celtic, Swedish, and American “Old Time” string music. Recent projects include a return to 1920s Xylophone and novelty Piano music (which also require a 1920s era xylophone, a sudden and preoccupying obsession!). She currently serves on the faculty of the Pasadena Waldorf High School, leading their Percussion Ensemble, and coaches the Violin and Cello sections of the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, Erin is a trained yoga instructor, her work focused on elderly practitioners.

Yet, it is the spirit of invention championed by Harry Partch himself that engages Erin on a fundamental level, revealing deeper musical meaning through her experiences with PARTCH Ensemble. “The most meaningful memory” she shared, ”…probably my deepest experience as a musician and human being…happened to be with PARTCH.

“We were at UC Santa Cruz, having played the previous night at Mills College to a large and enthusiastic audience. The Santa Cruz audience was smaller than Mills’, and maybe this set the scene for a more relaxed performance. For a fleeting moment, while playing Pollux (possibly my favorite music to play, ever), I experienced a clear and deep feeling of complete oneness between the music, the sound of the instrument resonating in the hall, myself, and the audience. It was such a calm, powerful, and beautiful moment, and as it occurred, I realized I was conscious of it.”

While music’s power to transport and inspire imagination has been documented repeatedly throughout all eras of human existence, it is the transformative aspects of music that are more elusive; more likely than not, it’s because the unique nature of these experiences leave little to compare to another’s. Regardless of what inspirations brought Erin Barnes to the music of Harry Partch, it is our PARTCH Ensemble that benefits from her inspiration to stay there, to keep searching for the deeper parallels, the resonances that reach across decades and across people, to arrive at a place where the corporeal interacts with the spiritual…this is where Harry operated, and in that space, Erin Barnes continues to dazzle with the pure physicality that is music in motion.

“I truly appreciate this group as a mix of wonderful musicians…I feel like I learn so much from everyone in this ensemble. As for Harry, there really is no other music like his.”

PARTCHed – February 2019

re-Genesis of a Music
  ~  A tale of obsession  ~

 by John Schneider

Part II: “Seduced into Carpenty…”

There I was, back in 1991: in one hand a photocopy of a heretofore unknown copy of the original version guitar/voice version of my favorite Partch piece Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions (1941). In the other hand, I held his book Genesis of a Music, the Rosetta Stone that would enable me to interpret the enigmatic fractions that covered the score. It had been handed to me years before by Partch’s longtime assistant and collaborator Danlee Mitchell who had warned me, “It’s unplayable – the instrument is gone and there are no recordings.” (It would take me many decades to realize that neither of those things were actually true.) But as a classical guitarist, I was used to transcribing music from other instruments, and as the owner of several refretted guitars, surely I could make this piece work on a custom fingerboard…If I could only figure out what those numbers meant, I could turn them into notes, then frets, then actual tones. 

From Genesis, I soon discovered that those fractions were actually ratios, describing  the relationship between two pitches. In Partch’s world, everything relates back to the pitch G, and that was called 1/1. For example G3, the “G” below middle-C, vibrates at 196 times a second (Hertz or Hz). The so-called octave above it vibrates at twice that speed (G4 = 392Hz), so Partch would call that note a 2/1, that is, the higher note vibrates two times for every single vibration of the lower G. A Perfect 5th is another relationship: the D4 above G3 vibrates 3 times every time the lower note vibrates twice, so the ratio of a perfect 5th = 3/2. A major 3rd = 5/4, minor 3rd =6/5, minor 7th = 7/4, and so on. In fact, Partch made an exhaustive list of hundreds of intervals found within an ‘octave’ and listed them in Genesis, also measuring them in Cents – a unit of measurement that = 1/100th of an equal tempered semitone. I was already used to measuring ‘microtonal’ versions of equally tempered notes from playing the refretted guitar music of Lou Harrison for years, so no problem there. Through that experience, I also knew that there were many versions of the ‘same’ note, depending on its function. The C a major third above Ab would need to be 16¢ lower than the C a perfect 5th above an F, while the C a minor 7th (7/4) above a D, for example, would need to be 31¢ flatter, etc. 

Once Partch had discovered the exact pitches of pure intonation, he could no longer use what he referred to as the “Alice in Wonderland mumbo-jumbo” of alphabetical Western notation. For his music, always tuned to ‘just’ intonation,

“The only, clear, logical, rational terms are numbers – the relationships of numbers. That is, frequency ratios or the ratios of parts of sounding bodies… The word ‘octave’, for example, is a palpable imprecision…used to describe a physical distance on the modern keyboard….the aural quantity (is described by) the correct term, the ratio of two to one [2/1]. The terms septimal whole tone, septimal minor third, septimal tritone sound delightfully erudite – but in fact, the terms 8/7, 7/6 & 7/5 are far more meaningful.” 

The resulting scale looks like this, with each ‘note’ fine-tuned by several ratios:

Partch Scale.tif

All of a sudden, the opening ritornello of Barstow started to make a little more sense: 

Barstow Ritornello

But what were the 0’s? open strings? Back to Genesis:

I purchased my original guitar in 1934 and spent several years (1934-1942) in the effort to evolve effective frets in Just Intonation. The usual low, wire-type frets were not very satisfactory, and I eventually fitted high, stainless-steel frets into slots in a brass plate, which was then screwed onto the neck. Both Barstow and U.S. Highball were originally written for this guitar, and I played it in performing these pieces for some two years…(it is) tuned in three pairs of 2/1’s, the lower tone of the middle pair being 1/1-98, the pitch of the lowest string on the Adapted Viola. [G-98Hz] 

The three lowest strings and the three highest strings (a 2/1 above) are separated by successive 5/4’s. Partly because of this pairing of strings, the instrument is played more like a mandolin than a guitar, but its low range of pitch and 2/1 pairs contribute to a result that is unlike either.

So the open strings were Eb2-Eb3-G2-G3-B2-B3, making the opening triplet chord a G-minor chord: the 3/2 = D, O = open G-strings, and the 6/5 = Bb on the highest course, etc, with the last three chords representing all strings played open.

Grabbing a pencil, I dutifully went through the Barstow score and wrote down all of the notes needed to play the guitar part, translating the ratios into pitches. There were eighteen notes to the octave, with four flavors of A, two F#’s, two C#’s, and two E’s. On the next page, the vocal part began. Luckily it was written in standard ‘mumbo jumbo’ notation on a five-line staff and standard pitches, though each standard note had a ratio below it to show how to tune that particular C, Eb, etc. 

Barstow_But Today I am a man.jpg

All in all, both parts needed a total of 39 notes/octave, so armed with that list, I started to transcribe.

I got two pages completed when I realized that there was no way I could play those octave doublings on a standard guitar: the fingerings would be impossible, and I was beginning to realize that his guitar was a steel-strung, not nylon. How could I possibly justify playing this on a classical guitar! The answer was simple: I couldn’t. In an era that demanded ‘authenticity,’ [Bach should be heard on the instruments and in the tunings of his time, not modern Steinways!] I would have re-create the original instrument. A thousand questions flooded my brain: how was such an instrument strung? I now knew it was in three pairs of strings, tuned in octaves like a twelve-string guitar. But how was it fretted? Low frets don’t work? Would I need a brass plate and stainless steel frets? What about the strings? What gauges were used? should the lower octave string of each pair come first, or second….?

Time to answer all those questions and more. And, time to make some sawdust. As Partch had so memorably stated years before,

"I am not an instrument builder,
but a philosophic music, seduced into carpentry" 

Little did I know it then, but I was about to embark on that very same path…a journey that continues to this day. 

Next: “Oh for a picture—just one picture….!”

David Johnson (Member Emeritus)


In 2001, David Johnson was the first musician recruited by John Schneider in his quest to build a new set of Partch instruments, and the fledgling ensemble that would become PARTCH first began. David, then faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, was a central figure in the band until 2016, providing a rehearsal venue and storage for the band’s instruments from 2006 to 2018, as well as tapping several former CalArtians to fill PARTCH’s ever-growing need for performers.

Originally from Port Angeles, WA, David’s musical upbringing focused around the piano and organ, before settling on percussion as his professional musical voice. His skill set was commensurate with that of a classical percussionist, though his passion lay in jazz and improvised music of his time. The era was the mid-1960s, and after one year of study at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, David transferred to the University of Washington to focus on his Bachelor of Music degree, focused on orchestral percussion.

A fateful meeting with legendary percussionist John Bergamo would change David’s life permanently. Bergamo had just helped found the California Institute of the Arts, serving as the Institute’s first Head of Percussion Studies (a position held until his resignation in 2002), and was in the midst of a recruiting trip…literally driving up the west coast of the United States, picking up any and all interested students to join him at CalArts. He met David at the University of Washington, and after hearing him play, offered him a full scholarship and ride to California. David jumped in the van and never looked back.

He completed his undergraduate studies at CalArts, and was immediately recruited to join the Black Earth Percussion Group, one of the nation’s premiere percussion ensembles. He lived in Champagne, Illinois, home of the University of Illinois, and Black Earth’s main academic support. After touring and recording with Black Earth, David settled back in Los Angeles to work and raise a family in 1977. After a brief teaching appointment at the Winword School, David was offered a part-time teaching appointment at CalArts, a position he would remain in for 26 years, eventually taking over for his teacher and mentor Bergamo as CalArts’ Head of Percussion Studies, working with hundreds of students in the percussive arts, including many of the current members still playing in PARTCH.

In 1970, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, David met Dean Drummond, fellow percussionist and then resident of San Diego, where he studied and played with composer Harry Partch and his strange family of invented instruments. Dean and David became fast and lifelong friends, with Dean inviting David to visit him in San Diego, to meet Harry and personally experience his musical world. The two friends made the trip together, and the impression Harry Partch left on the young David was enormous. When the opportunity came, years later in 2001, to join a new ensemble focused on the compositional output of Harry Partch, David would not hesitate…and after 15 years, thousands of rehearsal hours and hundreds of concerts, PARTCH would rank as one of David’s highest musical achievements.

His work as a freelance percussionist in Los Angeles boasts an impressive resume: primary ensembles include XTET, the New Century Players, the Kim Richmond Jazz Orchestra, the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, Dark Wing, Roger Williams, and the Lian Ensemble. He has worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Zorn, Pierre Boulez, Wadada Leo Smith, Yusef Lateef, Stuart Copeland, Green Day, Dave Brubeck, and the California Ear Unit; he has performed on over 40 major motion pictures, including Spiderman 3 and The Matrix. A noted composer in his own right, his work Quartz City for vibraphone solo with percussion ensemble won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Competition in 1995; other major works include The Oregon Variations for marimba soloist and percussion quintet, Shape Shifter for vibraphone and marimba, Dark Wing for cello and marimba, and Nine Sheets to the Wind for a mixed chamber ensemble and improviser. His book, “Fifteen Etudes for Vibraphone,” along with his other percussion-based works, are published by MalleTech, and many of his compositions have been  included on the Lian Records Dark Wing CD “The Hidden Sacred” and on “Dual Force,” recorded with guitarist Ken Rosser on the Nine Winds label.

David retired from CalArts in 2017, and has since relocated to Port Angeles, where he lives and stays musically active performing solo piano renditions of traditional jazz standards, now and always his first musical love. His contributions to PARTCH are numerous and unforgettable, from his first stints behind the Bass Marimba, to the amorphous and deceptively complex Cloud Chamber Bowls, before finally settling behind the Chromolodeon. David’s tri-level residential building in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles would serve as PARTCH’s de facto headquarters for nearly 12 years,  the definitive roof over the ensemble’s head.

David’s contributions to the band can never be forgotten, and certainly his musicianship, his joy, and his friendship will never be replaced. PARTCH, the band and the music, will be forever richer for his contributions.