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Harry PARTCH (1901 - 1974)
arr. Ben Johnston
"U.S. Highball" - A Musical Account of Slim's Transcontinental Hobo Trip (1943)
Kronos Quartet (David Harrington vn, John Sherba vn, Hank Dutt va, Jennifer Culp vc)
David Barron voice
Rec. Skywalker Sound, Nicasio CA, 25-26 August 2000
NONESUCH 7559-79697-2 [28'47]


Partch in 1946

I have an admission to make: I have already seen a review of this CD in a prominent British magazine. Mind you, it’s not likely to influence my opinion, because the reviewer somehow contrived to come to a very curious conclusion. He maintained that the Kronos, who have been coupling US Highball with Steve Reich’s Different Trains in their concerts, have thereby "[revealed] Partch as more clearly of the American musical tradition, rather than always the odd man out". I was shocked, I can tell you, but nowhere near as much as Harry Partch would have been! Why?

It’s a very interesting story. The answer is buried in those innocent-looking italics. Partch relates to the "American musical tradition" - or any other Western European-based musical tradition - in much the same way as a human hand to a hot brick. Indeed, the whole point about Partch is that he made a somewhat drastic move of washing his hands of the entire shooting-match, a move he consolidated by consigning all the music he had already written to the tender mercies of a pot-bellied stove.

What was the source of his dissatisfaction? Everything! Performing practices and traditions, the cult of the virtuoso, musical theory and education, the role of music, the subservience of words to music - you name it and Partch was "aginn" it. It seems that, most of all, he despised the mystique that had been built, like an ivory tower, around the hallowed feet of Music-with-a-capital-M. This growing unease was further fuelled by his discovery of a book, not - as you might expect - about music, but about physics. From the learned pages of Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone emerged Partch’s realisation that the 12-tone equal-tempered scale, the very foundation upon which the fabric of modern Western musical culture was based, was rotten to the core.

That must have come as a bit of a blow. Armed with that revelation, it didn’t take him long to crystallise the reasons behind his growing disquiet. For example, of all the arts, music was the only one whose practitioners and theoreticians not only never questioned or explored the science of their art. On the contrary musicians, and even musicologists, at best considered such things beneath them, or at worst regarded such activities as somehow heretical That pot-bellied stove became the symbol of a decision which had truly staggering implications, and set him on a path of almost unimaginable difficulty: Partch’s only options were either to forget music altogether, or to create from scratch an entire "Music" of his own - research, develop and document the theoretical foundation, design notations, compose, build instruments, teach himself and then others to play them, organise and engage in performance, and make his own recordings.

Partch with his personally designed instruments

The basis of his musical fabric was Monophony, just intonation on a scale of 43 tones to the "octave" - most definitely not an arbitrary choice. His philosophy was that of Corporeality, a term that’s hard to define precisely, but has to do with music being an integral part of a physical, inclusive dramatic experience. In fact, Partch observed, somewhat wryly, that the nearest anyone had previously approached this ideal was, of all people, Wagner. However, having got the philosophy right, Wagner, roughly speaking, completely "blew it" in the implementation phase. In Partch’s view, Wagner effectively strangled his real achievement - the nascent corporeality - at birth, through grandiose over-inflation and a grossly reverential approach to performance.

The magnitude of Partch’s real achievement, though, is matched only by the magnitude of the general music-loving public’s ignorance of it. Just try it on a friend - I can almost guarantee the answer: "Hang on - Harry who?" Bear in mind that I haven’t even scratched at questions like "what is ‘just intonation’?" and "what are its implications?" For the answers to these and others you will have to wait for my forthcoming MusicWeb article on Harry Partch.

If you are too fired by curiosity to hang around while I get my act together, try searching the web, or getting hold of one or both of two bits of essential book-reading. Partch’s own Genesis of a Music (Da Capo Press, New York, ISBN 0-306-80106) is a comprehensive account of virtually all aspects of his life’s work, and in fact part of his life’s work! It’s both mind-bending and (in parts) mind-bendingly hard going, but well worth the effort. Rather less effort is required for Bob Gilmore’s eminently readable, involving, and occasionally heart-breaking Harry Partch - A Biography (Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-06521-3).

If you don’t believe in miracles, or even if you do, you must read Gilmore’s book. The story that unfolds is of a life of continual struggle. Committed to chasing what any sane person would consider an impossible dream, Partch faced more setbacks than anyone should have to endure in ten lifetimes. Yet, against all the odds, Partch achieved his goal - a Twentieth Century miracle to rival anything in history or legend. By any reasonable standards, this should have secured Partch a place of honour in the annals of musical history. Instead, Partch is still unknown to all but a comparative handful. Again, why?

Well, Partch remains obscure precisely because his music is entirely his own, separated by its intonational incompatibility from the rest of the world of music. He had to invent his own instruments because existing instruments couldn’t play the notes he wanted them to play. Well aware of the implications, he resigned himself to the expectation that his instruments and music would die with him. I think he would have been so proud of the efforts of his "disciples", stalwarts like Dean Drummond and Newband who have moved mountains to not only preserve his precious creations, but actually take them out into the world put them to their intended use. Seeing and hearing Newband play Partch’s own music on Partch’s own instruments at the 1998 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is something that I won’t forget in a hurry, I can tell you! One swallow doesn’t make a summer, though. To escape obscurity, Partch needs wider advocacy. The wholesale reproduction of the instruments, allied to the training of legions of players, just isn’t going to happen - not even to publicise a miracle.

There may be no major inroad, but there is a little alleyway. Certain widely-used conventional instruments are capable, without modification, of inhabiting Partch’s justly-intoned, microtonal world. Think of instruments of continuously variable pitch, instruments which are not "locked" onto 12-tone equal temperament - instruments like the trombone, the human voice, and the violin family. The two latter in particular often perform untrammelled by the presence of "fixed-pitch" instruments. On such occasions, because the ear alone dictates the intonation, we actually hear justly-intoned music! So, to play a melody by Partch, all you need in addition is the ability to find the 43 tones. It goes without saying that that is a wee bit harder than merely perceiving them - even Harry Partch had to use lots of small studs to "mark the spots" on instruments like his Adapted Guitar and Adapted Viola!

I said "violin family" and "human voice", didn’t I? Enter the Kronos Quartet, stage left, and David Barron, stage right, with arranger Ben Johnston hovering in the wings! Let’s face it: at this juncture we can hardly expect conventional musicians to just "pick up Partch" as if he were a morning paper. However, the musicians of the Kronos, who have built up a huge and enviable reputation for musical derring-do, can hardly be described as "conventional". If anyone can "pick up Partch", they can - provided, that is, someone can first render Partch’s notation comprehensible. As it happens, they’ve been this way already, having previously recorded arrangements of shorter pieces by Partch: Barstow (on Nonesuch 79372) as well as Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (on Nonesuch 79457, also on DVD, Arthaus Musik 100 050).

All of which brings us to US Highball, the Kronos’s first all-Partch disc, even if at around 29 minutes it is a "CD single". Its text comes from jottings Partch made in a little notebook as he worked his way from California to Chicago late in 1941. Why, in the midst of depression, would he have done that? The penetratingly perceptive booklet note by Bob Gilmore explains the work and its provenance in fascinating detail, but basically Partch felt isolated, and having been invited by someone interested in his work, he set off almost on a whim: "[After] more than six years of California depression, I jumped at the chance of seeing some Midwest depression."

Considering his journey took only about a fortnight, Partch assimilated the hobo subculture to a remarkable degree, and expressed it eloquently and - be warned! - idiomatically, through both his words and his music. Originally, Partch scored the music for Adapted Guitar, so that he could perform it himself, entirely independently. A year or two later, having acquired a couple of cohorts, he added Kithara and Chromelodeon to the instrumentation. Finally, in the mid-fifties he more fully re-worked it, in the light of his developing art, for a much larger ensemble of nine instruments whose players also shared the vocal line. Clearly, Partch cared a lot for this work, which he developed in these stages from a simple personal expression to a more universal statement about the good old "human condition".

Johnston, a former student - or should I say "cohort"? - of Partch’s, based his arrangement on the second version, whose scoring is the most commensurate with the number of "voices" available in the target ensemble. It’s a bigger job than conventional arrangement, not only because of the need to translate the notation, but also because the original instrumentation is anything but conventional. There is a "comfort" factor, because most listeners will in any case have no idea what the originals sound like. I look forward to the day when that’s not true any more!

Now the hard part. The actual "review" has to be pretty well perfunctory. When I think about it, I’m somewhat short of common reference points. It’s a bit like trying to describe a three-dimensional cube to a two-dimensional being! Let’s try the mundane approach and see where it leads. Presentation: admirable. The apt illustration adorns an open slip-case, and the booklet cover reproduces a hobo symbol meaning "Get out fast!" [left]. The booklet itself is satisfyingly comprehensive. In addition to Bob Gilmore’s valuable essay, the full text is given along with a handy glossary of hobo terms. I did, however, notice a gap in the text for the final track! The recording: this is excellent, close-miked and clear but nicely ambient. The players of the quartet appear to be deployed in pairs either side of the vocalist. The instrumental performance: well up to the Kronos’s usual standard, bristling with vitality and alive to every twist and turn of the music. The vocal performance: Barron is superb, though it would be disingenuous of me to say that it’s the best I’ve heard since Partch’s own, because as far as I’m aware there are no others! Nevertheless Barron plays his part - or I should say "parts" - beautifully, slipping as Partch required between singing and intoned speech to project with real conviction the sarcasm and bitterness, loneliness and danger, sociability and excitement, seriousness and silliness that Partch encompasses in his words.

Together, Barron and the Kronos give an admirable impression of Partch’s world of just-microtonality: stepping outside the normal parameters and conventions of "music as we know it" must present a formidable technical challenge, even if you have done it before. I should mention one thing for the benefit of someone trying Partch for the first time: you’ll hear a lot of glissandi and portamenti, which might strike you as odd in music that purports to be "microtonal" and therefore ostensibly interested in finely-resolved pitches. The short answer is that Partch was also keen on the expressive potential of the "curvature" of sound.

Actually, it’s a shame that this isn’t a DVD, because it sounds like there’s a considerable visual element: there’s a palpable feeling that US Highball isn’t just being played and "sung", it is being acted out. As an introduction to a seminal Partch work, it is exemplary.

However, I have misgivings akin to those of Ben Johnston, as reported in Gilmore’s writing. These have nothing to do with the performances or recording, which I commend unreservedly. They have everything to do with the arrangement, even though that itself strikes me as a brilliantly-wrought translation of Partch’s original. Like Johnston, in spite of the great service to Partch’s cause represented by this enterprise, I do wonder whether it should have been done at all.

We come full circle, back to that reviewer I mentioned at the outset. In the last paragraph of his essay, Bob Gilmore refers to the Kronos’s concert coupling of US Highball with Different Trains, drawing from the parallel the suggestion that the Kronos love "recontextualising", inviting us to "rethink established meanings, and to make the known new again." He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, trying to suggest that through Different Trains we can "see" US Highball and therefore Partch as "more clearly of the American musical tradition".

This sort of spurious conclusion can too easily be drawn, given the present combination of factors. Firstly, you cannot see the visual part of Partch’s integrated philosophy at work. Secondly, there is the very act of arranging Partch’s music for conventional instruments. Thirdly, your ear quickly accustoms to the initially strange sounds because, even though the music is microtonal, it is also justly-intoned. There is thus a very real danger of creating an overall illusion of conventionality. This point is important. Like Corporealism, it’s also hard to express clearly, so maybe I should draw you an analogy: if you dress up a humanoid Martian in a pin-stripe suit, folk are likely to mistake it for an accountant! Make no mistake, Partch is most definitely a "Martian", no matter what you dress him in!

Paul Serotsky

See also A Just Cause by Paul



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