Anaïs Nin’s Artistic Associations: Harry Partch, Musician

Harry Partch
Harry Partch

Anaïs Nin is not only noted for her associations with other writers, but with artists of all genres, in particular musical innovators, such as Louis and Bebe Barron, early electronic musicians. One form of abstract music that appealed to Nin was that of Harry Partch (1901-1974), whose approach was organic but definitely unique. Nin writes in her diary in 1955:

The first time I heard the music of Harry Partch…I had the same sensation as when listening to Balinese music…the sensation of fluidity.

[Partch] was an unusually handsome man…preoccupied with metaphysics, born in San Francisco and exposed to Oriental influences. He had designed his own instruments. He lived a difficult, independent, individualistic life. He had to sell his own records.

The instruments themselves had wonderful names: Marimba Eroica; Bass Marimba; Boo; Diamond Marimba; Spoils of War; Kithara 1; Kithara 2; Harmonic Canon One; Harmonic 2 (Castor and Pollux); Surrogate Kithara; Chromelodon 1. [Click here to see and even virtually play these instruments]

The recordings came from “Gate Five,” Sausalito.

At the beginning of his career, Harry found that the extremely subtle tones he wished for his music (he devised his own scale with forty-three tones to the octave) could not be reproduced by conventional Western instruments. To solve this, he not only designed his own instruments but constructed them as well, often using exotic materials like glass carboys or Plexiglas. But he said: ‘I am not an instrument builder but a philosophic musicman seduced into carpentry.’

He had to train gifted and devoted students to play each instrument. And again, because conventional music notation could not encompass the tremendous range of notes or the very complex rhythms, he devised his own system of notation…

The affinity with nature, the sounds coming out of Sitka spruce, Philippine bamboo, Brazilian rosewood, redwood, Pernambuco reeds, played with picks, fingers, mallets and felted sticks. The affinity with Oriental music, which has a flowing, enveloping, oceanic rhythm. Rhythm was an essential part of Partch’s music, a native, contemporary rhythm. The richness of it gave to contemporary compositions the depth and dimension which so far existed only in the music of the East. (Diary 5 240-2)

Nin followed Partch’s career for years. In 1959, she writes: “Rejoicing over the success of Harry Partch in New York. The Bewitched. Everyone writes me how beautiful it was, how he made beauty out of American folklore, how fluid and marvelous the music was” (Diary 6 189). She had an admiration for him that lasted for the rest of her life, one that she readily expressed in her diary, lectures, and her biographical film, Anaïs Observed, by Robert Snyder.

Today, Partch’s music, although still undoubtedly obscure, lives on, primarily because of the dedication of aficionados—one in particular, John Schneider, leads a group of musicians who play Partch’s songs with replicas of the original instruments. When I visited Los Angeles in the summer of 2007, I was lucky enough to catch one of the performances, a photo from which is below. Partch’s original instruments are kept at Montclair State University by the organization Newband, which maintains a Partch web site.

John Schneider (left) in Partch performance. Photo: Paul Herron
John Schneider (far left) in Partch performance. Photo: Paul Herron

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