Music: First, find your hub cap

Harry Partch wrote music using a notation system that could only be played on his home-made instruments. Obscure? Yes. Eccentric? Maybe. But his work is tender, tactile. And never abstract. By Phil Johnson
Tonight at the Barbican in London, the music of the Californian composer, Harry Partch, will be performed for the first time in the UK on Partch's original instruments, played by the ensemble Newband, led by Dean Drummond. It's part of a whole "Partch-day", which also includes screenings of three films about him, a talk by his biographer, Bob Gilmore, and a post-concert Q&A with Dean Drummond which promises an opportunity to view the instruments at close hand. For Partch devotees - of whom there are a surprising number - the Barbican day is a truly momentous event. For everyone else, it's yet more evidence of the enduring personality cult of a man who, although he died in 1974, still seems more enigma than reality.

In recent years, Partch's works have acquired a talismanic significance for a whole range of artists, from Tom Waits to the Kronos Quartet. His instruments were even enrolled for the producer Hal Wilner's tribute album to Charles Mingus, Weird Nightmare, although it's not very clear why. Partch's lifelong concern with recondite tuning systems and his rejection of the post-Renaissance "well-tempered" 12-tone scale in favour of a return to "just" intonation has also been taken up by microtonalists, musical hobbyists and instrument-makers everywhere. The British Harry Partch Society Newsletter - Little Notes Between the Keys - is so full of weird and wonderful Partch arcana that it seems almost impenetrable. So why's everyone so wild about Harry?

One reason has to be the beauty of the instruments themselves, which appear to be as close to sculpture as they are to sound. From photographs, the instruments look like exhibits from an ethnographic museum such as the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford. There are marimbas made from bamboo, Sitka- spruce and Californian redwood, and even one featuring Mazda lightbulbs. There's the Gourd Tree, which looks like a Waiting For Godot stage-set, and uses Chinese temple bells attached to a eucalyptus bough; and the Cloud-Chamber Bowls - Pyrex chemical solution jars cut in half and suspended on a rack. The Kitharas are like ancient lyres, while the Harmonic Canons look like zithers. Partch also made instruments out of hub caps and bottles.

He made them all himself, with a devotion to DIY that is positively heroic, given that he rarely had a settled home or any money. Once the instruments were made, they then had to be housed and maintained, meaning that Partch came to depend on the niggardly support of various educational institutions, which he hated with a vengeance. From Bob Gilmore's fascinating biography, you get the feeling that Partch at least partly willed his own alienation, which was considerable. He craved acceptance, but his music - written according to his own system of notation - could only be performed on the instruments that he made, and by players that he first had to teach. There seems an overwhelming sadness to Partch's life too, which was eccentric, even by the standards of contemporary American composers such as John Cage, who he hated.

"He was not eccentric, let's get that straight," says Betty Freeman, the photographer and Californian patron of the arts who supported Partch from the moment she first met him, until his death. "He'd just given away his car and so I offered to drive him home. I did this every day and then I just found myself doing what he needed for the next 10 years. He moved perhaps 30 times in that period, with all of his instruments. He needed access to a hardware store, and also to a bar or liquor store, because he liked to drink, but he was unhappy wherever he was. Although he hated institutions, he was always tied to them."

Freeman covered the losses of Partch performances, and supported him with an annuity (as she did with Cage). She also helped set up the Harry Partch Foundation, although Partch frustrated its aims by leaving his estate to his assistant, Danlee Mitchell. Mitchell later passed the keeping of the Partch instruments over to Dean Drummond. As a result, Partch's work is now spread between a number of different archives.

Bob Gilmore's biography offers a wealth of detail about Partch's unusual life. He was born in Oakland, California, in 1901, to parents who had served as missionaries in China. His mother sang Chinese songs and lullabies to him; later, Partch would be entranced by the operas in San Francisco's Chinatown, and some of his first compositions were settings of poems by Li Po. Growing up in Arizona and New Mexico, in a landscape as unlike Europe as it was possible to get in America, Partch began playing the mandolin and the pump organ, and although he did a variety of courses in music, he remained essentially self-taught and never completed a degree (something which made his appointments at universities rather provisional).

He supported himself as a proof-reader for newspapers while continuing his researches into musical theory. These first took shape in 1923 when he read Hermann Helmholtz's book, On the Sensations of Sound. This led him to question "whether there was any logical reason for twelve tones in an octave", and to the beginning of his life-long work in "just intonation", the dominant tuning system from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. After researches in the British Museum, meetings with WB Yeats and many, many, drafts, Partch's theories were finally published in 1949 as Genesis of a Music.

For a layman, Partch's theory is obscure, eccentric even, but the music is anything but abstract. His big concept was "the corporeal", and both the instruments, and the works he wrote for them, are full of a sense of the body's tactility. Partch's life was also haunted by a sense of physical incompleteness: he confessed to being traumatised by his circumcision at the age of eight, which his mother organised when his father was away. He believed that an attack of mumps had left him sterile, although a former lover said Partch had "no balls at all".

As a homosexual who always remained reticent about admitting his orientation, Partch wrote feelingly about the brisk approach to sexuality he discovered in his time as a hobo in the Thirties. In The Dreamer That Remains, the film made about his life just before he died (and due to be screened at the Barbican cinema today), Partch came close to making what his friend and fellow composer Lou Harrison called: "a fairly public, and if you will, political `coming out'." Touchingly, Partch also fell in love with the film's director, Stephen Pouliot, although this was unrequited and it had the effect of complicating an already difficult undertaking still further. The trouble with Harry, it seems, is that his love didn't really have anywhere to go, except perhaps, into his exquisitely tender and tactile music.

Harry Partch's Original Invented Instruments, performed by Newband, is at the Barbican tonight, 0171-6388 891. `Harry Partch: a Biography', by Bob Gilmore, is published by the Yale University Press