It’s extraordinary to discover that Harry Partch‘s U.S.Highball dates from the same era of American classics such as Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Bernstein’s On The Town. Partch’s work is a kind of cousin to Jack Kerouac’s much-lauded On The Road novel, subtitled as a musical account of Slim’s transcontinental Hobo trip.
Originally Slim represented Partch himself, who undertook this life-changing journey from California to meet an acquaintance in Chicago, but now Slim stands for the escapee in all of us. He traverses the railroad from Carmel California with only $3.50 for the ride, moving through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and more, finding time to chat to fellow hobos, ruminate on his lack of money and hygiene, or to make nonsense rhymes on the place names as the boredom becomes extreme.
When translated to music all this makes for an engaging listen, with Ben Johnston’s arrangement of the string quartet accompaniment a success. Partch’s microtonal style must have been very difficult to bring off for vocalist David Barron and the Kronos Quartet, and it occasionally grates on the ears, but this is the sort of music tailor made for these performers.
The sounds are very pictorial, and the frustration of the stop-start nature of the journey comes across. Only when the author is approaching Chicago does an optimism flood through, and as if in response the music becomes rhythmically tighter and faster in tempo. Partch, on his way to “the place where all railroads meet”, suddenly realises that when he gets there all the mundanities of life are taken off hold again, so the last leg of the ride becomes a double-edged sword.
David Barron gives an extraordinary performance of versatility, exaggerating a lot of his vowel sounds when giving the place names and erupting whenever the train jerks in the script. His impersonations of the characters met by Partch on his journey are often funny.
This vividly evocative piece is a perfect companion to Steve Reich’s Different Trains, written some thirty years later, and in fact the Kronos have been known to dovetail these works in concert. With U.S.Highball available here on CD single format, I would strongly recommend you investigate.