Harry Partch: Sausalito’s Hobo Composer

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

While most Sausalitans were listening to Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como and the Ames Brothers on their transistor radios in the early 50s, a new kind of music was being produced right here on Gate 5 Road.

COURTESY PHOTO  Harry Partch as shown on the cover of his album,  The World of Harry


Harry Partch as shown on the cover of his album, The World of Harry

The innovative creator, Harry Partch, was a composer, music theorist, and inventor of musical instruments. By fourteen, he was composing, and particularly took to setting dramatic situations. Later he dropped out of the University of Southern California's School of Music to pursue his unique focus, using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, and became one of the first 20th-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. He even built custom-made instruments such as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl   to play his compositions.

Partch led a peripatetic life that brought him back to the Bay Area in 1953, where he was living out of his Studebaker. Local author Betsy Stroman, in her book The Art and Life of Jean Varda, says: “In 1953 Varda reconnected with his old friend Harry Partch, the musician who had lived in the Anderson Creek cabins at Big Sur in 1940 and 1941. Partch, always restless, had lived only briefly at Big Sur, before going on the road again, catching rides on top of freight train boxcars. During the succeeding years he had found temporary resting places with a number of people who admired his work, done some composing, given some lectures, continued building his instruments, and had some concerts. He had even been the subject of a favorable profile in the New Yorker and his musical work, Oedipus, had been performed, to critical acclaim, at Mills College in Oakland, California. By 1953, however, Partch was homeless again, and living in his car, until he happened to meet Gordon Onslow Ford and his wife, who took him in.” Onslow Ford, profiled in this column last March, was Jean Varda’s first partner aboard the ferry Vallejo. 

The Library of Congress website reports: “Gordon Onslow Ford, an artist sympathetic to Partch’s aesthetic approach, helped the composer secure a shed in the abandoned shipyards in Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco. When Partch went to the 200-foot-long shed that served as his studio, he entered the shipyards through the fifth gate and so christened his new studio “Gate 5.” With the further help of a “Harry Partch Trust Fund,” established by local friends, Partch set out to record some of his music and distribute it by mail, selling them for the sum of $7.50 each. With a group of musicians drawn from San Francisco that he dubbed the ‘lost musicians,’ Partch issued roughly one album a year under the “Gate 5 Records” label, finally returning to “U.S. Highball” in 1958.”

According to the website www.harrypartch.com, “While working in this space, his issued recordings of Plectra and Percussion Dances and Oedipus, the latter of which followed successful performances of the work assisted by poet and artist Gerd Stern who served as his ensemble manager.” Stern was one of the personalities featured in the Historical Society’s recent exhibition "The Sausalito Renaissance and the birth of Mid-Century Modern in Sausalito" at the Bay Model.

Another website, www.corporeal.com/gate5_gallery.html relates that the name of Partch’s label, Gate 5 Records, “was not picked out of a hatful of the most unlikely names for application to a work place, ensemble, or record label, although there are probably worse ways.” Of course, the side street had retained its name following the closure of Marinship after WW II, but  the website contends,

“there is the more intriguing circumstance that Gate 5 carries an occult meaning in sundry ancient mythologies. In ancient pictographs the city, center of culture, has four pedestrian gates. These are tangible; they can be seen; physical entrances can be shown. But the city also has a fifth gate, which cannot be shown because it is not tangible, and can be entered only in a metaphysical way. This is the gate to illusion.”

Partch’s music has been described as corporeal, and he himself as a hobo composer, an outsider artist and startlingly original.  You can sample some of his experimental works on YouTube or on Pandora Premium (free trial available).  But don’t expect to be snapping your fingers or tapping your toes.  I found Partch’s unique sounds to be eerie, dramatic, repetitive and as dense as Bay mud.  Like him or not, Harry Partch deserves a place in Sausalito’s pantheon of unique characters.



Harry Partch as shown on the cover of his album, The World of Harry