Usually one looks to a museum to find a national treasure. But we can find a trove of them at Montclair State University and dozens of lucky students get to play with them.
We are referring to the handmade instruments of composer Harry Partch (1901-1974), who created them to play his original music, which left behind standard tunings for unexplored territory.
Using materials such as driftwood, gourds, light bulbs, artillery shell casings, tuned liquor bottles and hubcaps, he created musical pieces of art which sound as unique as they look. Since 1990, Dean Drummond, now a professor at MSU, became the official custodian of the instruments. Originally housed at SUNY Purchase, the collection spent a year in a warehouse upstate before Montclair gave them an official home, where students perform several concerts a year on them.
Some of the aspiring musicians knew what they were getting into when they registered for Drummond's course, but many had no idea. Drummond himself first experienced Partch when he was in high school. His trumpet teacher, noted jazzman Don Ellis, told Dean that Harry needed some players. He continued playing with Partch in college, exploring microtonal music with an American original.
So he knows firsthand the experience of facing foreign musical ground. Each student, Drummond noted, has a different challenge with music that "includes new notation, new playing techniques, unfamiliar musical challenges. The best part is that having interesting music to play makes students eager to meet the challenges."
Rebecca Schmoyer, a classical guitarist, knew of Partch but had no idea that the instruments were there. "It's a great privilege to play the instruments and learn the music," she said. "It's like being a part of history."
Concerts at the Kasser Auditorium include a fascinating variety of compositions. The most recent was comprised of Partch originals, Bach, Chopin, several student works, and a Drummond piece as well. The instruments utilized included the Gourd Tree, Zoomoozophone, Surrogate Kithara, Harmonic Canon, and the Spoils of War.
Experiencing the performance, visually and sonically, one wonders why the instruments and music are not more widely known. Granted, the music is not what one is used to hearing on the radio, but its uniqueness alone makes it worthy of exploring.
As for the instruments, we were thinking the same thing as Ms. Schmoyer, who said, "I thought they'd be in the Smithsonian."
Upcoming concerts are May 1 at 4 p.m. and May 4 at 4:30 p.m. at the Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University.