Kronos Quartet Dances on the Grave of Harry Partch

Kronos Quartet Dances on the Grave of Harry Partch
The Kronos String Quartet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 23, 1998. Part of the BAM 1998  Next Wave Festival.

"I thought I told you not to do that!"

Yep. Not only didn’t the Ben Johnston transcription of Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball (Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip) translate well, but Kronos knows they really shouldn’t performing it in the first place. This piece just doesn’t work for a string quartet. It belongs – as was originally intended by the composer – on the instruments the piece was written for. Maybe they have good intentions at heart but here’s the real irony: last spring the Newband (caretakers of the Partch instruments) lost their studio space at the State University of NY at Purchase. Fortunately, they are now renting studio space in Sloatsburg, NY. So, while Newband struggles to pay rent, Kronos Quartet rakes in the cash.

Before you react too quickly, read these quotes by people who worked with Partch:

“We just disagree about the idea of transcribing music to an instrumentation of which the composer would have so obviously disapproved, especially when the composer involved went to greater lengths than possibly any other composer in history to care about the instrumental sound surface of his music. And I can tell you with 100% certainty, based on knowing Partch intimately for several years and living closely with his music for even more years, that he would have disapproved strongly.” Dean Drummond, Newband co-director. May 1996.

“To transcribe Partch’s music is to misrepresent the totality of its interrelated components. To do so is a “…mutilation…” of Partch’s original concept. Harry Partch steadfastly maintained this posture throughout his life, and he would turn over in his grave at the thought of his life’s work being compromised in any such manner.” Danlee Mitchell, Harry Partch Archive. October 1995

Credit where credit is due: an artifact of the transcription is a reduction in the number of intoning voices. Even though vocalist David Barron did a fine job intoning both the objective and subjective voice, it was strange to hear only one person singing a part intended for two.

If Kronos wanted to help someone out, they should record the complete cycle of Ben johnston’s string quartets or at least commision a piece for Newband & string quartet. Hrummph!

 “I really like Stravinsky…I loved his haircut: I mean the way it was real thin, and the way he combed it with a thick-tooth comb.” Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vilet

While some of my contemporaries still ramble on about how wonderful Beethoven and Mozart were, squeezing their thighs together and moaning at the thought of how wonderful their music was, I’ve always been a modernist. That whole classical error is way over rated. One of my favorite works by Igor Stravinsky is the Rite of Spring. The pounding rhythms, the exotic harmony, the extreme orchestration – it breaks free of that rigid Euro-centric tradition – tight coats and tight shoes.
There have been piano reductions by the composer for four hands/one piano, arrangements for solo piano (Dickran Atamian, RCA Red Seal ARC 1-3636, 1980) and solo guitar (Larry Coryell, Philips 814 750-2, 1983). This evening, Kronos presented John Geist’s arrangement of the Rite of Spring for piano and string quartet. And it survived the transition very well – Kronos and pianist Margaret Kampmeier received a standing ovation from the crowd. The only snag was the balance between Kronos and Kampmeier, the piano wasn’t loud enough in the mix.

Also performed was Steve Reich’s Different Trains. It sounded just like the cd and it should, most of the performance is on pre-recorded tape.


Originally published on line at Juxtaposion Ezine.


Kind of extreme, but…hey, I was a young man.


  1. Sharan Leventhal said:

    You might be interested….. the Kepler Quartet (of which I am a member) is in the process of recording all the Ben Johnston string quartets for New World. Two discs down, one to go….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Microtonal Projects' BLOG

we promote, research, perform and educate

Musica Kaleidoskopea

a kaleidoscopic view of music

The Canterbury scene(zine) continued....

Random ramblings nearly 30 years further on from a Canterbury scene veteran

David Beardsley

microtonal guitarist and composer

The Hum Blog

a blog for

Luminiferous Aether Drift

This massless business

J.C. Combs

acoustic and electronic arts

Ted Greene Archive

Immortalizing Beauty Through Music

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

New Music Buff

Random perspectives from an informed new music fan.

Night After Night

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

The Watchful Ear

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Field Stations and Outposts of Anaphoria Island

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Make Your Own Taste

Eclectic reviews of ambient, psychedelic, post-rock, folk and progressive rock ... etc.!

Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

David Rothenberg

musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist


Scott Healy's Jazz Composition Blog: Writing, Arranging and Listening

Avant Music News

A source for news on music that is challenging, interesting, different, progressive, introspective, or just plain weird

Do The Math

thoughts about music by David Beardsley


Just another site

Music : NPR

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

destination: OUT

thoughts about music by David Beardsley


thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Renewable Music

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Miniatures Blog

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Mixed Meters

thoughts about music by David Beardsley


thoughts about music by David Beardsley

Bob Gluck's Blog

Just another site

Today Is The Question: Ted Panken on Music, Politics and the Arts

My thoughts and writings on jazz and the world around it.


a sinister resonance


Kyle Gann on music after the fact

%d bloggers like this: