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  • Writer's picturelopezhanshaw

Building a Partch Adapted Viola - Part 1

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

My earlier blog article about chords is destined to lack a sequel for a while longer. Very inconveniently, my understanding of chords as a phenomenon has changed quite a bit, even shortly after the first one was published. My analysis deals with transfer of contrast (i.e. “transphonologization”) and artificial musical memory. Until next time, make of that what you will.

Of more immediate concern is a set of recording projects that I’m brewing for the coming year. These will involve all of my microtonal guitars (31edo, Kite 41edo layout, and forthcoming 24edo), and various retuned toy zithers, strumsticks, etc. But I really wanted to include bowed strings, and I don’t have the budget to hire players for this particular project—and at this point in my life, on principle, I am avoiding asking musicians to do things for free.

The violin family is not my primary focus as a performer, so my intonation on those instruments is awful. But there’s one instrument that can help me achieve microtonal precision: Harry Partch’s Adapted Viola. This features a long scale, so that close pitches are separated by more forgiving distances; and the fingerboard is marked, which provides succour to my inner guitarist. Partch created his out of a “discarded cello fingerboard” and a viola body, with a neck so elongated as to provide a 20-inch scale. A cello itself has a longer scale, so it might be easier for me just to acquire a cello and mark up the fingerboard. But frankly, that’s neither as portable nor as interesting as a Partch instrument.

As fortune would have it, my local instrument repair and resale shop was moving locations, and so I was able to procure two damaged violas for $40. They didn’t have a spare cello neck or fingerboard around, so I went to a different repair shop—and lo, after they called various employees to make sure no one was saving it for something, they sold me a falling-apart Engelhardt student cello for $50. It had been kicking around for an unknown number of years, because everyone at the store thought it belonged to someone else at the store. So, I was the lucky winner of the Abandoned Instrument Lottery.

Note: If you want to try this yourself, you can get materials for a similar price, even if you aren’t lucky enough to have luthier friends. Currently, the cheapest violas on Ebay are $38, and rough-finished replacement cello necks with fingerboards are around $50 to $80. Partch, having spent time as a hobo, would have approved of the use of the cheapest available instruments. Just know that you may have to modify the bridge of a $38 viola, or otherwise slightly clean up factory imperfections that measurably impede performance. No big deal, compared to what we’re about to do.

Ensemble Scordatura commissioned a replica of the Adapted Viola several years ago, down to the precise dimensions as provided by Bob Gilmore and Danlee Mitchell. More power to them—theirs is beautiful. But I am approaching this from a more rough-and-tumble perspective, so my rendition of this instrument will only follow the broad outlines as described in Genesis of a Music: A donated viola body; modified cello fingerboard; roughly 20-inch scale length (translating to a roughly 16-inch-long neck, including the pegbox); and cello pegs in the viola pegbox.

A simple solution might be just sticking an entire cello neck onto a viola body, but I have decided against that for two reasons: 1) in my case, the resulting scale length would be a little too short, because my Engelhardt seems to be ¾ size; and 2) the cello pegbox looks silly on the viola body. Also, 3) I’m just vain enough to think that I can manage some slightly more complex woodworking.

So, the plan is as follows:

First, I’ll need to remove the fingerboard from the Engelhardt neck. (The neck was attached to the cello body by seemingly a single splinter when I got it, so it came off without issue.) Then, I’ll need to remove the neck from the donor viola, and the old fingerboard from the neck.

Second, I’ll need to attend to repairs on the viola body. Right now, it looks like I’ll only have to close the seam between the back and the rib at the bottom of the instrument:

But my more experienced luthier friend has advised me that it may be wise to reinforce the body with a dowel running from the neck block to the end block, much as a banjo is reinforced. This seems like a reasonable precaution against added string tension, but on the other hand, no source mentions doing this to the original Adapted Viola or a modern copy, so this step could be considered optional. Being an especially cautious person (in limited respects), I’ll probably do it.

The most interesting and invasive steps are next: I’ll reshape the cello neck to roughly match the profile of the viola neck, and saw a V-shaped tenon in the viola neck, matched with a V-shaped mortise in the cello neck. The two will be glued together, then the cello neck further refined to create a seamless surface across the joint. Then the cello fingerboard will need to be reshaped, cut to length, and attached to the neck. The heel of the cello neck will need to be trimmed drastically to fit into the joint formerly occupied by the viola neck, and the neck and body glued together. The last bit of business would then be drilling and reaming larger holes in the pegbox to fit the cello pegs.

Anyone looking for a quicker modification would be better served by either finding a longer donor cello neck or accepting a shorter final scale (or placing the bridge rather drastically lower on the body). In principle, you should be able to modify the heel only and just put the whole thing on. (And cut the fingerboard shorter, and build or acquire a taller bridge to accommodate the thicker fingerboard.) My project is slightly more involved, but it will produce something that looks and plays a bit closer to the original, and it will be lots of fun.

Next update will feature gory photos of dismembered instruments! See you then.

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