Song 'n' Dance for Harry Partch
for adapted viola, diamond marimba, strings, and percussion

James Tenney
James Tenney
Composition Date: 1999
Duration: 00:20:00
Genre: Orchestra / Large Ensembles, Chamber Orchestra (10 to 20)


Instrumentation Set Number 1:
  • 1 x Other orchestra
Programme Note:
Perhaps in this work I can finally repay my considerable debt to Harry Partch, without incurring his wrath. As his student/assistant, for several months in 1959, our relationship was somewhat problematic -- mainly, I believe, because I was unwilling to become the devoted disciple that he needed -- and surely deserved (if anyone deserves such a thing). But now, many years later, I have to admit that I learned everything I know about just/microtonal tuning theory from Partch and/or his book, Genesis of a Music. As the title suggests, Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch is in two movements -- a “song”, subtitled “My technique”, written for Partch’s Adapted Viola (now played by the Tenor Violin, built by Carleen Hutchins, which has recently been used as a substitute for the Adapted Viola in performances of Partch’s music), and a “dance”, featuring the Diamond Marimba, and subtitled “Mallets in the air”, a phrase drawn from Partch’s admonition to any future player of the Diamond Marimba: “Do not wave the mallets in the air, daintily or otherwise.” The text of Song is taken from an essay by Harry Partch called Manual: on the maintenance and repair of -- and the musical and attitudinal techniques for -- some putative musical instruments, only recently published for the first time in its original form in a book entitled Enclosure 3: Harry Partch, by Philip Blackburn. The “song” is based entirely on certain acoustical properties of the words in Partch’s text, although these are not performed vocally. The sounds of the text have been translated into a purely instrumental form by assigning the fundamental frequency of each vowel to the Adapted Viola (or Tenor Violin), and harmonic partials of that fundamental nearest to each of the first two formant peaks for that vowel to the orchestral violins and violas. Consonants are represented by pizzicati in the ‘cellos and basses (for g, d, and b), and by percussion instruments for unvoiced plosives (k, t, and p on the Diamond Marimba) and fricatives (s and sh in suspended cymbals; th, f, and h with wire brushes on three tom-toms). Partch’s music makes use of a just, microtonal pitch-set of some 43 different pitches per octave, based on a basic “otonal” hexad (involving relative frequencies 1:3:5:7:9:11) built up over each pitch of a “utonal” hexad (1/1:1/3:1/5:1/7:1/9:1/11) My Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch makes use of the same set of harmonic relationships. The text for the “song” is given below: If I were to use a single term to describe my technique [for the adapted viola], I would call it one - finger. There has been, throughout the history of the bowed string in the West, a flat denial of its intrinsic spiritual character, in the same way that there has been, for centuries, a flat denial of the capabilities and spiritual actuality of the human voice, in so-called serious music. Both have been obliged, through centuries of this discipline, to perform like pipe organs. Precise, discrete steps. Press a key -- there is the tone. Lift the key -- the tone ends. . . . My Adapted Viola looks little different from other bowed strings, but in the playing of it I am far closer to the spirit of the Indian vina (which is no pipe organ). The one-finger technique, strongly at the base of its use, has nothing in common with the pipe organ either. . . . In the one-finger idea there is the potentiality of a fine art. The finger may start slowly on its move, increase speed, and hit the next ratio exactly. It may move very fast away from the first ratio, and then slowly and insinuatingly into the next -- so slow, sometimes, that one is not sure as to the point where rest has been achieved. Or, all this may be reversed. What the bow is doing meanwhile is supremely important. It may press down hard at the beginning of a one-finger glide, and move smoothly into a pianissimo, or do the reverse. Or, it may give a nuance, either a crescendo or a diminuendo, in the middle of a glide. . . . My final advice to bowed string players involved in my work: seize the concept, even though you don’t understand it, contemplate, do yoga exercises, dream yourselves in the arms of dark lovers in rowboats on the Shalimar, and by the next day pipe organs will have receded to a perspective in the study of music appropriate to their inherent worth. . . . Regarding intonation: my viola has indications for stops, and it is impossible for a beginner to know these ratios without some comparative marks. I do not deny that the human ear can distinguish, and the human apparatus achieve, the desired tones without indications. I proclaim it. But such competence calls for daily discipline in the scale. It cannot be achieved simply by appearance once a week at full rehearsals. Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch was commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Donaueschingen Musiktage, 1999.

- James Tenney

Premiere Information:
17 Oct 1999, Donauschingen Musiktage, Donauschingen, Germany
SWR Sinfonieorchester,Gregory Hesselink, Dominic Donato
Conductor Sylvain Cambreling


  • Call Number:
  • MI 1200 T298so
  • Genre:
  • Orchestra / Large Ensembles, Chamber Orchestra (10 to 20)
  • Date of Acquisition:
  • January 29, 2016
  • Type:
  • Print-music, published
  • Physical Description:
  • 1 score (48 p. ) ;
    48 Pages
    Height: 30 cm
    Width: 23 cm
  • Additional Information:
  • Commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Donaueschingen Musiktage
    For adapted viola, diamond marimba, strings, and percussion
    1. Song: "My technique" -- 2. Dance: "Mallets in the air"

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  • Printed copies of this title are available from Frog Peak Music. Please contact the publisher directly.
    Published by Frog Peak Music