Partch Harp (1987-89)

Manfred Stahnke

harp and keyboard

This piece was written in 1987/89 for a harp in scordatura, containing “natural” just major thirds (5/4) and “natural” just minor sevenths (7/4). The synthesiser’s tuning follows the harp tuning and allows these just intervals for any played pitch up and down. The numbers 5 and 7 indicate the partials of a fundamental tone “1”. Thinking in “whole numbers” looks quite mathematical, but it is very closely linked to how our ear works. Apparently, the ear tends to “simplify” what it hears. If we listen to a so-called “tempered” interval, the ear adjusts these intervals mentally to the simpler forms, and will accept a “detuned” third as a “natural” third with some added noise features.

In my piece Partch Harp, however, the “noise” is artfully incorporated. If the devia-tion from the simple interval is too big— say a quartertone—then the ear cannot adjust anymore and detects a “wrong” interval. This is especially true for my octaves and fifths, the very simple 2/1 and 3/2 proportions. Imagine three “just thirds” on top of each other C-E-G#-B#. The summed-up deviation from an octave C-C is almost a quartertone. The same is true for my synthesiser tuning, where every minor second is “short” by 3.5 hundredths. If you superimpose 7 of them to get a fifth, this strange “fifth” misses by (7 x 3.5) 24.5 hundredths, a very audible eighth tone.

The strange—or charming—feature of Partch Harp is that the harp is tuned in perfect octaves, and the synthesiser is not. Because of this I get a strangely drifting vessel in an ocean of well tuned asymmetry.

As the title: Harry Partch (1901-73) invented a just tuned 43-tone scale, and to play it, he built his own collection of instruments.

Manfred Stahnke [ii-07]

Performance