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.

db
10/26/1998

Originally published on line at Juxtaposion Ezine.

*

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

dB
12/16/2011

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2 comments
  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….

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