Iconoclast composer Harry Partch recorded opus in vacant Petaluma hatchery in 1964
Harry Partch (1901-1974) was one of the most visionary and innovative musical composers of the 20th century, but during the two years that he lived in Petaluma, hardly any local residents knew who he was.
Partch was an iconoclast who developed a new musical scale, designed and built nearly 30 instruments and explored new tunings for his compositions. He lived and worked in a vacated Petaluma chick hatchery from 1962 to 1964. It was here that he composed and recorded “And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma,” a collection of 34 one-minute verses.
“Petaluma as a whole did not know that Partch was in residency there,” said Danlee Mitchell, 83, in a phone interview from his home in San Diego. Mitchell was Partch’s friend, assistant, accompanist, musical director, manager and ultimately executor of Partch’s estate. “He wrote (‘Petals’) in the spring, when the petals were falling from the trees,” Mitchell said.
Born in Oakland and raised in Arizona, Partch was a vagabond who spent years as a hobo when not living in San Francisco, Sausalito, San Diego, Los Angeles or Illinois.
He studied music at the University of Southern California, but became disillusioned by the concert music he was being taught. He considered it a middle-class, dead, white European tradition. He soon dropped out and began to explore a different form of composition.
Partch believed that there was no logical reason for the 12-tone octave that had been the foundation of western music for centuries. He eventually developed a microtonal scale with 43 notes per octave, reflecting the wider intonations of the human voice.
He later wrote, “The notion that there must be a standard pattern of tonal belief … without which music would cease to exist, is a crag so monstrous that it blots out the vision.”
After developing his new scale, Partch figured out a way to write it down in notation form. Then, believing that musical instruments needed to blend with his scale, he started inventing new instruments. His first was the Adapted Viola. His later instruments included the Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Surrogate Kithara, Spoils of War and Zymo-Xyl.
“What this man did within one short lifetime almost defies description, and he continues to wield a remarkable influence in musical and performance worlds to this day,” said Jon Szanto, a percussionist who played with the Harry Partch Ensemble and maintains a website dedicated to chronicling Partch’s life, www.corporealmeadows.com.
Partch had returned to the Bay Area in September 1962 after six years in Illinois and began looking for a studio. He heard that the old Pioneer Hatchery at 416 Sixth St. was available and found the low rent ($45 a month) and large floor space (adequate for all of his instruments) appealing. He moved in a few weeks later.
The day after his first visit to Petaluma, Partch wrote to his friend Peter Yates, “(Petaluma) has a characteristic of being off the beaten track. I would like to be near a metropolitan area, if only because I could sell more records. Eventually, I would like to form an ensemble, and Petaluma would be hopeless in that regard.”
But by May of 1963, he was getting to like his new residence.
“I am feeling more at ease, more poised, than I have in years,” he wrote to Mitchell. He described Petaluma as “very conventional,” but he liked that “nobody cares what you do here.”
But living, working and composing in the old hatchery became problematic. Returning from a two-month trip to the Midwest in November of 1963, he found his studio in appalling condition, according to Bob Gilmore, Partch’s biographer.
“No heat, no gas, a huge leak in the roof, dampness and mold,” Partch said. The city required him to pay $25 for a temporary use permit so that his gas could be reconnected, and told him he had to replace the electrical wiring to meet city codes.
However, shortly after the rewiring was finished in February of 1964, his landlord told him that the hatchery had been sold and would be torn down. A new apartment complex would be built on the site. It was unfortunate timing for Partch, who was about to begin writing the verses for “Petals.”
Mitchell and Michael Randa, both percussionists who had met Partch during his residency at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, arrived in Petaluma toward the end of April 1964 to record “Petals.” According to Gilmore, Partch’s world was “caving in” and he was “living week to week under threat of eviction.” Partch and Randa drove around the Petaluma countryside looking for a place to store his instruments, but found nothing suitable.