The margin and the mainstream : positioning Harry Partch's theories within the broader discourse of musical aesthetics

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The dissertation examines the broader musical value of microtonal composer Harry Partch's musical theories by locating his critique of abstract music within mainstream compositional theory and aesthetics. This contextualisation aims to deconstruct Partch's iconoclastic image so as to understand his contribution within a wider realm of critical discourse. The work of composers that follow in Partch's footsteps becomes important in this context, especially that of his one-time student Ben Johnston whose own microtonal aesthetic is firmly rooted in European aesthetics from Debussy to Schoenberg. By a study of Johnston's utilisation of Partch's theory of just intonation the dissertation attempts to arrive at a more inclusive compositional theory, one which continues to address those aspects of Partch's theories that serve as a valid and constructive critique of traditional musical values. Taking Adorno's view that musical critique must deal with the problem of reification at the level of musical materials, the author proposes a reading of Partch's corporeal philosophy that is applicable beyond the confines of narrative musical drama. By creating a distinction between historical models of organisation and 'second nature' forms of musical presentation, it is suggested that critique does not necessarily prefigure alienation from the mainstream, but can rather be situated within musical discourse in such a way that a new image of the latter's forms results. On a practical level, the dissertation explores the validity of expanded just intonation as a means of achieving this immanent critique, both in the realm of compositional theory and, implicitly, in that of analytical theory, concluding with the description of a tuning system with the capacity to synthesise the range of compositional theories explored.

Bibliography: leaves 102-106.