Lost in translation

To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Kronos Quartet released three “singles” to represent the kinds of works the ensemble champions.

Kronos’ singles feature half-hour length works which the quartet says deserve to be heard on their own. Historically, they have been the weakest recordings in the group’s discography.

U.S. Highball by Harry Partch falls in a category of idiomatic works translated to the string quartet format — a category which includes, for instance, Colon Nancarrow’s pieces for player piano and Television’s “Marquee Moon”.

Partch’s works, however, present some staggering cross-platform challenges. Not only did Partch devise a microtonal pitch system — that is, a scale containing far, far more than 12 pitches between an octave — he built his own instruments to play it.

How successful would arranging a proprietary system of performance be to an open, standard format? For this review, it’s impossible to tell. In other words, I’ve never listened to the original piece.

And that’s not surprising.

Although a contemporary of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Partch is no less influencial but only to a few. As the liner notes states, Partch’s subject matter for U.S. Highball, subtitled “A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip”, is underground compared to the populism of Copland’s Appalchain Spring or Bernstein’s On the Town.

While Partch was an innovator where forging his own pitch system is concerned, the legacy for perpetuating such an achievement has been less successful. It’s tough to play a custom-made instrument when there’s little documentation to explain how it works.

Enter Kronos. The most it can hope to do is perpetuate Partch’s music through its own means of expression — the string quartet.

And try it does. Regardless of what long-time naysayers of Kronos think of the quartet’s technique, it sure scores stellar in the gumption category, something not lost in the spirited performance of Partch pupil Ben Johnston’s arrangements.

Unfortunately, Partch’s musical language is too idiomatic to work in other forms. Despite Kronos’ best efforts, something just gets lost in translation.

Baritone David Barron throws in his requisite 100 percent into the performance, but his thoroughly trained technique is an uneven match to the text’s streetwise tone. By comparrison, Johnston’s performance on another Partch piece arranged for Kronos, Barstow, captures that essential grittiness.

If nothing else, U.S. Highball serves to further name recognition of Harry Partch. But even without listening to the original work, it’s evident Partch’s music exists in its own creative space. Kudos to Kronos, though, for taking the shot.