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Vireo: Q&A with Partch Music Director John Schneider

Partch music director John Schneider

Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org.

John Schneider is an internationally recognized guitarist, composer, author, broadcaster, and champion of Harry Partch's musical instruments. Since 2000, Schneider has recreated many of Partch’s unique instruments to perform the composer’s singular chamber music. He is music director of the Partch ensemble, which performs exclusively on Partch's instruments.

Vireo, Episode 7, "Dismal Pure Inane" will feature Schneider and Partch. John was kind enough to answer a few questions ahead of the shoot.

Vireo: Can you talk a little bit about what Partch instruments your ensemble is playing and how they work?

 Q&A with PARTCH Music Director John Schneider
Harry Partch playing his Cloud Chamber Bowls

John Schneider: For Episode 7, Lisa Bielawa has chosen a handful of evocative instruments designed by Harry Partch.

Cloud Chamber Bowls are made from 16" Pyrex carboys (think giant Sparklett's water bottles) cut in halves and suspended from rope. When struck, each bowl creates not just a note, but a chord of exquisite luminosity — they are visually stunning, and when played together, create a cloud of unforgettable harmony.

The Chromelodeon is an antique reed organ that has rebuilt with parts from seven different instruments, and tuned (like all of Partch's instruments) to a scale of 43 notes/octave, all based on overtones. The player must pump the air through the instrument with foot pedals, which takes a lot of pumping for the lowest Sub-Bass octave that goes down to 33Hz.

The Kithara is 72-string chordal harp based on the ancient Greek instrument of the same name: rather than a string of single strings, its notes are arranged in 6-string 'hexads', rather like having 12 guitars sitting upright all in a row. An intriguing feature of the instrument is that the hexads on either end have pyrex rods that slide under the strings, making a glorious slide guitar sort of sound.

 Q&A with PARTCH Music Director John Schneider
The 6-foot high Kithara

Surrogate Kithara has two 8-string canons, each with pyrex sliders mimicking the two sliding hexads of the Kithara.

Harmonic Canons "Castor & Pollux" are 44-string table zithers, one tuned to the 43-tone scales, and the other to a special series of melodies and chords. They are played with the fingers and with guitar picks.

The Diamond Marimba is a chordal version of that familiar instrument, but with the keys terraced, and the entire layout shaped like a diamond. The high notes go top to bottom in tiers, and unevenly from left-to-right – a percussionist's dream, or nightmare!

V: Many of Harry Partch's later works were composed for performers to sing, dance, and speak as they played his instruments. Do you think that his instruments are well-suited for a operatic setting?

JS: The Partch instruments are superbly suited to operatic performance because of their distinct color, and the dramatic physical methods used to play them — a technique that Partch called "Corporeal."

V: Your ensemble Partch recently collaborated with the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, who will also be performing in Episode 7. What are the risks and challenges when performing with non-microtonal instruments such as saxophones?

 Q&A with PARTCH Music Director John Schneider
The Diamond Marimba

JS: No risks with saxophones: these players are so adept that they can actually bend their standard equally tempered notes to match ours — so the challenge is up to them, and they have met it admirably.

V: From what you have rehearsed so far, can you talk about what role you feel like Partch has in the story of Vireo? What atmosphere does your ensemble help create in the music?

JS: Vireo goes into so-called 'altered states' as a visionary, and I can't think of a better way to characterize another world than to bring in the distinctly alternate universe of these colors, tunings, and harmonies that are produced Partch's sound world.

V: Many of Partch's instruments look as extraordinary as they sound. Do you think there is a visual impact that will be felt when you perform in Episode 7?

JS: Absolutely — Partch designed them to be feed the ear and the eye, and felt that their striking design as well as the balletic method of playing them was an essential part of their existence.

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