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Gearhead: Harry Partch and the Quadrangularis Reversum

A spectacular percussion instrument created by an American maverick

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The Quadrangularis Reversum, photographed at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University in 2014. (photo: HorsePunchKid)
The Quadrangularis Reversum, photographed at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University in 2014. (photo: HorsePunchKid)

The American composer and inventor Harry Partch (1901-1974) had lots of unusual ideas. Dissatisfied with the sounds that Western music could offer, he became interested in exotic scales that made use of the microtones lying between standard notes. Eventually, he came up with new scales, which divided an octave into 43 notes instead of the 12 that most of us know best.

Because few instruments could play the music he wrote using these scales, Partch decided to build his own. The strikingly odd string, keyboard, and percussion instruments he created over the course of 40 years had fanciful names like the Chromelodeon, the Zymo-Xyl, the Cloud Chamber Bowls, and the Quadrangularis Reversum. That last one, built in 1965, is the monumental contraption you see pictured on this page.

Essentially, the Quadrangularis Reversum is a giant marimba—79 inches tall, 103 inches wide across the top—made of African padauk, eucalyptus, redwood, and bamboo. It expands on an earlier Partch invention, the Diamond Marimba, so called because its wooden bars are configured in a diamond shape. The 36 blocks in the center of the Quadrangularis also form a diamond, but their order of pitches is an upside-down-and-backwards version of the Diamond Marimba’s (that’s where the “Reversum” comes in). The other 20 blocks—10 on the left, 10 on the right—are for lower-register melodies.

Partch wasn’t exactly a jazzman, but he did love Gerry Mulligan’s early-’50s quartet with Chet Baker, and even wrote a piece for Mulligan and Baker called Ulysses at the Edge of the World. Sadly, those paragons of West Coast cool never performed it. It may have been difficult for them to do so, because Partch’s style of music notation—a sort of cross between guitar tablature and mathematical formulae—is so idiosyncratic that most classically trained players have little idea what to do with it. Similarly, his strange scales make it difficult to incorporate the instruments he built into any music other than his own.

All the same, Partch’s unique compositions and inventions have long fascinated many jazz musicians, and they’ve become the focus of intense study in the decades since his death. In November 2014, his instruments, including the Quadrangularis Reversum, were moved from their longtime home in New Jersey at Montclair State University’s Harry Partch Institute and took up residence at the University of Washington’s School of Music in Seattle, where they should continue to inspire scholars, performers, and listeners for years to come. 

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Funky Junk

Funky Junk

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.