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Microtonal, just intonation, electronic music software Microtonal, just intonation, electronic music software
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2005-03-12 at 12:00

Harry Partch and Erv Wilson

Now that we've begun to offer installments of Interval, I would like to give those not acquainted, a little historical update. My microtonal exposure began early. At the age of three, our family moved to desert town in Southern California called El Centro. We had a boarder, Harry Partch, who had just recently finished his book Genesis of a Music at the University of Wisconsin. While at U of W he had been pals with my uncle Marshall Glasier, a fellow iconoclast and great artist. My father John Strong Glasier soon met Partch and a lifetime friendship ensued. As you may know, Partch was a hobo during the late thirties and early forties and he always lived with the conundrum of being a creator and having to find space to store his creations. So here I was, a three year old, playing on the Boo, Diamond Marimba, and hearing all this microtonal music. So it was never weird to me. It was normal.

Later when we had moved to San Diego (1949) we connected with the Driscolls (Harold and Bertha). Bertha was a writer for the LA arts magazine Saturday Night in the thirties and had written favorably about Harry. Partch visited us through the years and finally moved to San Diego in 1964, mostly to be near Danlee Mitchell, the man who help him most and who was left with his instruments when Partch died in 1974. My work with Partch began in the mid-sixties. I learned pieces on the Harmonic Cannon's I and II and the Diamond Marimba. As a part of the Partch Ensemble from '65 to '67, we performed at Royce Hall, I and later became his assistant at UCSD where he was a Regent's Professor in the Music Department. My last work with the ensemble was for the biopic "The Dreamer That Remains."

Partch gave me much to think about. Here was this genius, visionary, iconoclast, who had a vision that tore through the heart of even the avant-guard status quo, though he struggled mainly because he could not compromise. His "corporeal" message locked him in and locked him out of collaborating much with others which could have given him more publicity and success. But he held fast, tenaciously guarding his vision of the integrated art form where the musicians are not relegated to the "pit" but are, as actors, on the stage.

After his death it looked as though the microtonal movement might be over. I had been looking for somewhere to continue my microtonal studies, and found nothing at UCSD, or anywhere else, but in 1975 I hooked up with some UCSD grad students to form the ID Project (Improvisation Development). With Tom Nunn, Prent Rodgers and others, we brought together about 10 people, made our own instruments and toured around Southern California and San Francisco. We created the "wing", "Godzilla", and lots of stuff that produced new timbres and further developed my improvisational spirit. That had begun early, aping flamenco, and East Indian styles on my guitar and then improvising for many years with my father (mostly guitar and violin/viola).

Also, during the ID Project period, I visited Erv Wilson, and discovered 31 ET. We built a 31 ET tubulong, which was a real ear opener for me. Finally I had my own microtonal instrument. Shortly thereafter, I met Ivor Darreg in 1977. Here was a man who was creating microtonal instruments and music and writing about it. He had been self-publishing his Xenharmonic Bulletins and I met him through another long time microtonal friend, John Chalmers. Ivor was another genius in his own right, inventing instruments, writing microtonal music and living off of "a broken shoestring in the underground sub-basement of society". With wires he would scavenge from underneath telephone poles, he made a number of instruments dating from the 1937 electric keyboard oboe, which is still functional today, to the megalyra, a seven foot electro-acoustic (which will always mean to me a transducer activated from an acoustic source) slide steel contrabass guitar. This instrument which has been copied by many, has a great future and sounds like tuned thunder. It and its brothers (Kosmolyras, drones and Megalyras of various sizes) also function as comparative scale laboratories, and often Ivor would put a just scale, and two other ET's on one instrument. He also made charts which basically showed the same thing. He also built other instruments and refretted guitars which got me playing my first microtonal guitars.

All of this new input led me to think that the microtonal movement was not dead but just needed some publicity. That was what led me to write the first Interval/a Microtonal Newsletter in 1978. Soon thereafter, I was sending magazines all over the country and to various places around the world. It became my main activity for the next ten years and it did basically what I had wanted it to do...Get the word out that microtonality is the logical new development to change music...give it new life...broaden the palette.

But, after ten years, I needed to redirect myself to the making of microtonal music. That is why the Sonic Arts Gallery is focused on creating microtonal music on refretted guitars, Array instruments and electronic music synthesizers and software. We hope to be web casting by the end of the year, so that people will be able to experience the creation of our microtonal efforts first hand.

Lately we have been playing the 19ET guitars. Our recording setup is finally coming back online after some reworking so by next month there will be a steady stream of alternative music...real alternative microtonal music from the Sonic Arts Gallery.