Saturday, August 18, 2007

Harry Partch - The Chromelodeon

The Chromelodeon is one of my favorite of Partch's instruments because it is an adaptation of a keyboard instrument, it has a wonderful name, and because it is just so darn colorful.

The Chromelodeon is actually one of Partch's earliest conceptions for an instrument; when he was studying in England in 1934, he drew up plans to build a justly-tuned keyboard instrument he called the Ptolemy. It was a reed organ with a typewriter keyboard and he had a mock-up built, but the instrument broke during shipping back to the states and he abandoned it in favor of the Chromelodeon.

There are actually three Chromelodeons:

Chromelodeon I - a six-octave melodeon (hence the final part of the name) that he obtained in Chicago for experimental purposes. He turned it to play all the chromatic "colors" of his scale (hence the first part of the name) and it has six stops and a series of sub-bass keys to augment the sound it is capable of producing. The keyboard is color coded with bright primary colors to represent the various harmonic relationships between pitches. This was the instrument he used in his early Americana works.

Old Chromelodeon II - originally a chapel organ with a five octave range and four planes of keys on the keyboard. This doubling of keys made it easy to play Partch's music, but he lacked the skills to service the organ and abandoned it in 1949.

Chromelodeon II - a full piano keyboard of 88 keys drew Partch to this version in 1950. It is another reed organ, but Partch tuned it to all the unusual tunings he used in Oedipus, Revelation in Courthouse Park, and Delusion of the Fury so he didn't have to constantly retune the Chromelodeon I.

The sound of all three is as you would expect - imagine being in an old country church singing hymns to a pump organ and you have the sound in your head. But what was amazing to me about Partch's use of the instrument was his ability to make it sound so fresh and new and unlike you might expect. Here's a clip from U.S. Highball, where he often makes the Chromelodeon sound like a train:

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