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Self-taught as a theorist, living on the margins of society and ignored by most musical institutions, Harry Partch sought musical inspiration and materials outside the European tradition and came to be recognized as one of the most innovative, iconoclastic, and genuinely American composers of our century. Partch’s lifelong effort — begun in the 1920s — was to create a monophonic music that returned to what he believed was the primal, ritualistic, corporeal state that music had long ago abandoned: a music arising from human speech and the natural acoustic musical intervals generated by sounding bodies.
Partch grew up hearing music from many cultures. Born in 1901 in Oakland, California, Partch spent his childhood in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Along with his early introduction to the local Mexican and Yaqui Indian music in southeastern Arizona, Partch’s parents, former Presbyterian missionaries in China, shared with him Chinese folksongs and lullabies. Partch learned to play mail-order musical instruments, and by age 14 he was composing prolifically for piano.
In 1920 Partch briefly enrolled in the University of Southern California’s School of Music. After a couple of years, not feeling that he was learning from his teachers, Partch left USC and moved to San Francisco, where he frequented Mandarin theaters. Giving up on both private music teachers and music schools, he began to read more about music in public libraries and to compose without academic restrictions. Around 1923 Partch began his rejection of European concert music and its system of twelve-tone equal temperament. Partch’s rejection of the twelve-tone system and adoption of the principles of just intonation led him to use a scale with 43 tones to the octave, which in turn forced him to invent new musical instruments. Partch’s decisive break with European musical tradition came in 1930, when he burned 14 years worth of his own music.
Partch’s works from the 1930s and 1940s used his own instruments in small-scale, intimate bardic settings of Chinese poems, biblical verses, scenes and songs from Shakespeare, and American hobo texts. [U. S. Highball was composed in 1943.] As he invented original percussion and string instruments, Partch turned in the 1950s and 1960s to large-scale theatrical and dramatic compositions that extended his concept of corporeality. Though Partch was met with enthusiasm from audiences and support from university faculty and students during his various associations with academic institutions, music departments generally remained hostile and unsupportive. As such, Partch’s composing, writing, instrument building, and music promotion happened in conjunction with or relied upon sales of subscriptions for his recordings, various temporary employments, transience, and the assistance of friends and supporters.
Ben Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia in 1926 and attended the College of William and Mary in Richmond, Virginia. After Navy service in World War II, he received his master’s degree in music from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. His self-professed “fascination with sound from a scientific point of view” was manifested in accelerating interest in acoustics. After reading a book by Partch, Johnston struck up a correspondence and eventually moved to California to study with him. Johnston worked with Partch for six months in 1950 and performed for Partch’s recordings. Through Partch, Johnston met Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland and received a second master’s there. Johnston went on to a position in the dance program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and for five years he also acted as Chairman of the University’s Festival of Contemporary Arts. While there, Johnston helped to obtain sponsorship for some of Partch’s later productions at the University.
This 1998 arrangement of U. S. Highball: A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Madison Civic Center, the South Bank Centre, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
This project has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.
— Note courtesy of Kronos Quartet