HARRY PARTCH (1901-1976)
Excerpted from the Notes of Mickey Hart
In the 50′s in high school, I heard recordings by Harry Partch and his incredible instruments made of glass, brass, giant slabs of wood, cloud-chamber bowls, both looking beautiful and sounding unique, with 31-tone tunings of his own invention. The feelings that they evoked were unlike anything I had ever heard: danger, apprehension, humor, enormous resonance of the giant marimba bars–it appealed to some hidden place inside me; I suppose I noted it in passing and filed it away in the back of my mind.
In 1978 when Francis Coppola first showed me the raw footage from “Apocalypse Now” and asked me to work on the music, one of the first things that came to mind were the sounds of those magical instruments of Harry Partch. The war film images, thick with emotion and meanings, called to mind the tunings and odd sounds that I had stored in memory. I realized that I didn’t have enough varied sound-colors in my own instrument-vocabulary to make the river through the jungle come alive. Though Partch had died a few years earlier, I tracked down his instruments, which his disciples have maintained in a collection at Long Beach, California. I visited that magnificent collection, and was able to study and play many of the instruments. That visit was the direct inspiration for my construction of the Beast, and ultimately of many new instruments that I built for my percussion collection. I started building big drums for the air strike scene, rubbing scritches for Kurtz’s eerie encampment. For the napalm attacks, the Beam proved unbelievably realistic. As an instrument builder, then, Partch was my major influence and inspiration.
Coppola’s concept for the percussion soundtrack to “Apocalypse” was radically different from the Hollywood norm. He wanted me literally to travel on a musical and psychological journey up the river into the Heart of Darkness. In addition to the instruments and sounds that Partch inspired, I immediately thought of Airto, the great Brazilian percussionist who puts the “j” in “jungle.” With Airto as ally and Partch as guiding spirit, I felt secure enough to undertake that perilous journey.
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The Mickey Hart Collection albums, including the “Apocalypse Now Sessions” may be purchased at Smithsonian Folkways.
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