Our Adapted Viola is an exact copy, made in Amsterdam in 2001, of Harry Partch’s Adapted Viola, built in New Orleans in 1930. Like Partch, we first bought a normal viola (from Amsterdam’s Palm Guitars) and retained the body while adding a new, elongated neck and fingerboard. For help with obtaining the precise measurements of Partch’s instrument we are grateful to the late Dean Drummond, custodian of the Harry Partch instrumentarium. Here’s some information on the original instrument and Partch’s use of it, conveniently taken from Bob Gilmore’s Harry Partch: a Biography (Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 72-73:
Among the belongings Partch brought to Louisiana [in spring 1930] was the fingerboard from a discarded cello that he had begun to mark two summers earlier in Santa Rosa with ratio indications. In New Orleans in April a local violin-maker, Edwin Benton, attached the fingerboard to a lengthened neck which was then joined to a viola body, creating a new hybrid instrument that Partch called the Monophone, after the name he had given to his tuning system. By 1933 it had become known as the Adapted Viola, the name it was to retain. The instrument is held between the knees in playing, like a viol. Open strings, because of their unconventional length, are tuned a fourth below the usual viola tuning (or an octave below the open strings of a violin); he used cello strings, which gave the best sound. The lengthened fingerboard has twenty-nine indications for ratios within the octave, corresponding to his “1928 theory of the more essential tones”: tiny bradheads have been hammered into the fingerboard at these points beside the strings, so that they act as guides for the fingers of the left hand, not as frets. Pitches other than the twenty-nine indicated are stopped comparatively.
The idea of a new instrument was motivated ostensibly by the desire for a medium that could readily project the full pitch resources of his tuning system, and the two principal adaptations Partch made to the conventional viola—the elongated neck and fingerboard, and the bradheads in the fingerboard—have the same purpose: to permit greater accuracy in the precise stopping of the strings for the microtonal degrees of his scale. More than this, he was free to develop his own technique, one that could grow together with his compositional needs.
Partch’s own playing of the Adapted Viola was intended from the outset as a partner or complement to his voice. It clearly invokes the ancient bardic tradition of a singer or chanter of stories accompanying himself on a stringed instrument. His intent was that voice and Viola together form a sinuous couple, with a liquid and sensuous gliding movement, close to human speech, in place of the technique of organ-like “precise discrete steps” into which he felt Western bowed string players were indoctrinated. The “one-finger technique” which he devised is dependent on the careful control of the speed and timing of the finger glides, and on the nuances of bowing.
text by Bob Gilmore