PARTCHed – December 2019

re-Genesis of a Music

~  A tale of obsession  ~
 by John Schneider

Organ Transplant, pt.3

“Have Reeds Will Travel”

Partch returned to the U.S. in April of 1935 after his extraordinary European sojourn. He hitchhiked to New York, visiting the Carnegie Corporation to ensure that his 6-month grant report had been received, and hurried on to the West Coast, eager to meet his organ at the docks where it would arrive via the Panama Canal:

Los Angeles, April 30, 1935.  My entire expenses from Malta to London to Portland to Los Angeles have been $150—food and transportation. I have 1% of my $1,500 left. 

I spend a week persuading the customs officials to admit the chromatic organ without duty. And, through friends, a way is ultimately found. Its godmother, in Santa Barbara [quartertone composer Mildred Couper 1887-1974], has offered to keep it and pay for its transportation there. Off it goes again, direct from the dock. (Bitter Music)

He ended up eventually removing all of the reeds that he had so carefully tuned in London and began making a new console in an Adult Education night class wood shop at a Los Angeles high school where he also crafted his first Kithara. He finished work on the ‘new’ Ptolemy in 1940 in Big Sur while staying at the Old Convict Camp in Anderson Creek, where he also finished writing his journal Bitter Music:

Anderson Creek Studio: with Kithara, Adapted Viola, Adapted Guitar, and
the new Ptolemy (1941)
New Ptolemy Keyboard console

Sadly, this new incarnation of the instrument was also unsuccessful, though the reeds would travel once again, this time to Chicago where they would find a new home in what became the composer’s “Chromolodian,” the first of many instruments that would bear that colorful name.

Partch’s now famous exodus from the California coast to Illinois—as immortalized in his unforgettable U.S. Highball/A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip—was instigated by an invitation from a Chicago music lover. Years later, in his typically sardonic retelling, the composer remarked, “Having been through more than six years of California depression, I jumped at the chance to see some Midwest depression (somewhat like a prisoner in the county jail eagerly looking forward to a transfer to the county farm, or vice versa).” 

His arrival on October 1, 1941 “…in the dingy, pre-dawn smogginess of industrial Chicago (Genesis),” certainly didn’t dampen his spirits, as just seven weeks later, he was performing Barstow  and a few of his Li Po Lyrics at Chicago’s School of Design, sharing the program with a younger California composer named John Cage. 

In the coming months, he printed a promotional brochure that described—in the 3rd person—his biography, list of works and instruments. The title page read:

Presenting a Resume of
The Music Philosophy and Work of Harry Partch
Composer — Instrument Builder and Player — Theorist

A Modern Renascence of
the most ancient of civi-
lized Musical Ideals  -

In    a Flexible    Scale
Utilizing new instruments having a
gamut of 43 true tones to the octave.

In it, he describes the nascent Chromatic Organ—née Ptolemy—but goes on to describe it’s expedient surrogate:

Clearly keen to continue his compositional projects, Partch first attempted to adapt an old melodeon (a type of reed organ) that was loaned to him by two harpsichordists that he had recently met. This was, of course, the inspiration for the eventual name of this Adapted organ, in spite of the preliminary spelling, “Hence the name, a melodeon that approaches closer to the chromatic maximum of all “colors,”or gradations of tone (‘Panchromelodeon’).”

The results must have been unsatisfactory, however, as he soon obtained a standard 61-key/5-octave harmonium, replacing its reeds with those he had retuned in London, and using it to compose the second draft of Barstow between December and January. This new version added the keyboard part and another voice, and though the score has been lost, the title page of his original solo manuscript reflects the additions:

He also transcribed his Two Psalms (1932), “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and “By The Rivers of Babylon,” replacing the original Adapted Viola part with the new keyboard. 

By the end of February 1941, Partch began performing these pieces along with Six Lyrics by Li Po (voice & Adapted Viola) with two new Chicago acquaintances, organist Gilman Chase & a young tenor called George Bishop. In March, they even recorded them with recording equipment borrowed from the same kind gentlemen that loaned him the melodeon, though Partch was unhappy with the results, writing to one of the officers at the Guggenheim Fund that he, “was not able to experiment to any appreciable extent with placings of the microphones and instruments.” That was not the case the following November when his solo lecture demonstration at the Eastman School of Music produced six excellent 12-inch acetate discs that were forwarded to the Guggenheim in support of the composer’s upcoming grant application. 

Partch used the Chicago-adapted Chromolodian for another three years, in spite of shipping damage that occurred when sending it further east for lectures at Bennington and Eastman. This prompted a comment in a letter to Otto Luening, his Bennington host, “All my shipments were damaged. I’ll just have to do something about it. If I could only find a portable reed organ—one that folds up like a suitcase—to adapt, my biggest problem would be solved. I have priced them, but the cheapest I could find was $65. They’re very popular with sidewalk evangelists.”

The instrument survived all of his presentations and—after some repairs in Boston in December ‘43—was featured in his historic debut at Carnegie Hall on April 22, 1944 when The League of Composers presented



Ethel Luening — Soprano        Alix Young Maruchess — Kithara

Henry Brandt — Chromolodeon, Tin Flutes and Tin Oboe

Harry Partch — Intoning Voice, Adapted Guitar, Adapted Viola,
Chromolodeon, Flex-a-tone
Partch & musicians rehearsing for Carnegie Hall, 1944

Notice that the keyboard formerly known as Chromolodian had changed its name, but many more changes were on the horizon. In the following decade, the rechristened  Chromelodeon would change much more that that!