Premieres in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Iconoclastic American composer Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball and other works received their New York premiere, launching the avant-garde career of an innovative composer who invented his own notation and instruments tuned to a distinctive, forty-three-pitch scale.

Summary of Event

U.S. Highball (wr. 1943, rev. 1955), by composer Harry Partch, premiered at the Carnegie Chamber Music Hall on April 22, 1944. This premiere, accompanied by some of Partch’s other works of the 1940’s, represented the culmination of work performed under the auspices of a Guggenheim Fellowship. It provided him with the chance to expound his musical theories to a wide audience. [kw]U.S. Highball Premieres in New York (Apr. 22, 1944) [kw]New York, U.S. Highball Premieres in (Apr. 22, 1944) U.S. Highball (Partch) Wayward, The (Partch) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] U.S. Highball (Partch) Wayward, The (Partch) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] [g]North America;Apr. 22, 1944: U.S. Highball Premieres in New York[01150] [g]United States;Apr. 22, 1944: U.S. Highball Premieres in New York[01150] [c]Music;Apr. 22, 1944: U.S. Highball Premieres in New York[01150] Partch, Harry

The program at the premiere also included Barstow Barstow (Partch) (1941, rev. 1954, 1967; a set of musical settings of graffiti left in a desert town by hitchhikers), The Letter Letter, The (Partch) (1943; a setting for voice and adapted guitar of a letter from one of his hobo friends), and San Francisco San Francisco (Partch) (1943; settings of the cries of two newsboys in the fog). A musical account of a 1941 hobo trip from San Francisco to Chicago, U.S. Highball was the longest work on the program (“highball” is railroad slang for going somewhere in a hurry). All the works performed that night were scored for a reciting voice (Partch’s) and for a set of instruments that he had invented. Collectively, the four pieces are known as The Wayward.

The performance met with mixed reviews: The New York Times opined that the works’ value was mostly literary, with the instruments merely adding atmosphere. Composer Lou Harrison, writing in Modern Music, argued that the sounds were often interesting but the manner in which the instruments were used was too repetitive and the actual music was negligible. An unsigned review in The New Yorker—printed in the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” column rather than its “Musical Events” section and written in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek style—was quite laudatory. The concert served to launch Partch on a career as an innovative avant-garde composer who was completely isolated from the mainstream musical currents of the twentieth century.

Harry Partch, born in Oakland, California, in 1901, had grown up along the Mexican border to parents who had been missionaries in China. He claimed Christian hymns, Chinese lullabies, and Yaqui Indian music among his formative influences. Brief stays in the music school at the University of Southern California in 1920 and 1922 alienated Partch from both the concert system and the musical scales and intonation of European art music. As a result, he was almost entirely self-taught in his discipline. After his father’s death in 1919 and his mother’s death the following year, Partch supported himself in a variety of occupations. He worked mainly as a proofreader but also as a sailor and agricultural laborer; for a time, he was even a hobo.

Partch’s discovery of the work of Hermann von Helmholtz Helmholtz, Hermann von , a nineteenth century German scientist who had studied acoustics, revealed to him that the tempered scale (the division of the octave into twelve equal semitones) was a relatively recent invention. Partch also learned that a much purer intonation could be produced using scales based on ratios of a vibrating string that were discovered in the sixth century b.c.e. by Pythagoras. Partch set about inventing musical instruments that would reproduce this pure intonation; in later life, he claimed that he was a “philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.”

Partch’s system depended upon the ratios of a vibrating string. From the string, he obtained the pitches to which he tuned a special reed organ he had built that he called the “chromelodeon.” He tuned the chromelodeon Chromelodeon not to the tempered chromatic scale of twelve pitches but to his own scale of forty-three pitches. From the chromelodeon, he tuned the other instruments he had devised, chiefly plucked-string instruments or tuned percussion instruments.

Partch’s basic plucked-string instrument, the “kithara,” Kithara was based on an instrument depicted on ancient Greek vases and was built of redwood and fir, with seventy-two strings. His “harmonic canon” Harmonic canon was a twin instrument that resembled the inside of a piano but with movable bridges. Both instruments were played by plucking their strings with a pick.

Partch’s tuned percussion instruments were mostly marimbas of various shapes and pitches made from bamboo, oak, or Brazil wood. Some were made from such odd materials as light bulbs and liquor bottles. Quite curious, visually as well as aurally, were the “cloud chamber bowls,” Cloud chamber bowls which were constructed from Pyrex glass bottles suspended by ropes from a rack; the centers of the bottles had been cut out for cloud-chamber radiation experiments. Also visually intriguing were the “gourd tree,” a large eucalyptus branch festooned with Indian dharma bells with gourd resonators, and the “spoils of war,” Spoils of war (musical instrument) a mixture of instruments that included seven brass casings of artillery shells. Partch also constructed adapted guitars and an adapted viola, which he modified by lengthening the necks of the instruments to accommodate his forty-three-note scale.

Partch’s final tasks were to devise a musical notation for his new scales, for which he used ratios and colors, and then to teach people to play these new instruments. The premiere version of U.S. Highball utilized the kithara (played by Partch while he declaimed the text), the chromelodeon, and his modified guitar. In 1955, he added additional voices and instruments, including cloud chamber bowls, marimbas, harmonic canons, and the spoils of war.

Partch later referred to the structure of U.S. Highball as a “hobo allegro form” (an allusion to “sonata-allegro form”). He explained that the piece was meant to evoke several stages of a train trip. It begins with a fast trip from San Francisco to Rock Springs, Wyoming, followed by a slow movement of dishwashing while his imagined protagonist is stuck in Green River, Wyoming, and another rapid trip—punctuated by reprises of the first section—from Rock Springs to Chicago. The spoken text consists of meditations by the protagonist, Mac, as well as the narrator’s rendering of graffiti, official signs, humorously distorted state names, and snatches of overheard conversations of hobos and railroad police.

Several other composers had previously experimented with the production of unusual sounds. In the early twentieth century, the Italian Futurists, headed by Luigi Russolo, developed a battery of noisemaking instruments to create a new music for the machine age, but the Futurists’ instruments were merely used to accompany otherwise conventional music. The American Henry Cowell had developed unusual ways of playing the piano, such as using his fist or forearm on the piano keys to produce “tone clusters” or directly plucking the strings inside the piano, and the French American Edgard Varèse included such noisemakers as fire sirens and lion roars in some of his compositions. Harry Partch, though, outdid them all in developing his new instruments, tunings, and musical notation.

At the same time he was working on The Wayward, Partch was writing a formal statement of his musical theory. As the work grew, it developed into a statement of both theory and practice, a guide for any musicians who wished to emulate him. He completed it near the end of the decade, and it was published as Genesis of a Music Genesis of a Music (Partch) by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1949.

Partch’s Guggenheim Fellowship was renewed twice. Afterward, he was able to secure a number of temporary university appointments, not as a faculty member but as a research associate. He could thus work on developing new instruments and improving old ones, and the university environment provided him with student actors, singers, dancers, and musicians willing to try something new and to work for little or no money. Over time, he changed his compositional orientation: He stopped writing bardic works such as U.S. Highball or The Letter and began writing dramatic works.

As early as 1934, Partch had discussed a musical setting of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) with one of its translators, the poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats, however, died in 1939, long before Partch had completed his setting. The first version of Partch’s Oedipus Oedipus (Partch) was given its premiere in 1952 at Mills College in Oakland, California, and received nationwide reviews. Partch had to rewrite the text, however, since the agent for Yeats’s estate forbade the use of the poet’s work in the recording of the production.

As a release from composing this tragedy, Partch wrote Plectra and Percussion Dances Plectra and Percussion Dances (Partch) (1952) for an imaginary “satyr-play,” after the ancient Greek custom of producing a bawdy theatrical romp after an intensely cathartic tragedy. Included in these dances were a satire on concerts (“Ring Around the Moon”) and musical settings of portions of Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932) that included “Happy Birthday to You” arranged as an Afro-Chinese Minuet.

Continuing to modernize ancient Greek theatrical concepts, Partch developed an idea of a total theater that would include dance, mime, declaimed text, and music as equal components. This idea received its best fruition in The Bewitched, Bewitched, The (Partch) commissioned by the University of Illinois for its contemporary arts festival in 1957; the piece was filmed for television and performed in New York two years later. A few traditional instruments, especially clarinet, cello, and the Japanese plucked-string koto, were used in addition to Partch’s gallery of invented instruments; the traditional instruments were given a colored notation to indicate special lowering or raising of individual pitches.

In securing a satisfactory production, Partch was at odds with choreographers and stage directors who thought that his music ought to be subordinated to the theatrical productions. Partch wanted his instruments on the stage and their performers to be part of the action. His concept of music-as-theater, rather than music supplementing theater, was one of Partch’s most consistent and important contributions to the evolution of avante-garde musical performance.


Partch’s work attracted a cult following, striking chords with segments of the populace not generally attracted to classical music. Moreover, his works had a tendency to foreshadow trends in American counterculture generally. U.S. Highball and the other hobo-inspired pieces of The Wayward—all written in the early 1940’s—would find strong echoes in the Beat poetry of the 1950’s. The Bewitched—written in the midst of the 1950’s—included individual sections with such titles as “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room” and “The Lost Musicians Mix Magic” that were to resound a decade later among the Age of Aquarius writers of the 1960’s. The static quality of some of Partch’s later work, moreover, prefigured both minimalist music and New Age music. Thus, Partch was consistently ahead of his time textually as well as musically.

After the 1968 New York premiere of The Bewitched, Winthrop Sergeant, music critic for The New Yorker, wrote a perceptive review in which he commented on the difficulty of transporting Partch’s fragile instruments and ended with the comment that “his art is absolutely unique . . . it will probably die with its creator, never to be heard again.” Transfer of the recordings of the 1950’s to compact discs, however, has brought out the sound of Partch’s instruments to the full. Some musicians, moreover, have continued to learn how to play Partch’s instruments in order to perform his works. Thus, the legacy of one of America’s most original and innovative composers can still be said to continue. His audience, as he would have preferred, includes substantial numbers of listeners without formal training (or prejudices) in art music but open to new musical sonorities and effects. U.S. Highball (Partch) Wayward, The (Partch) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowen, Meirion. “Harry Partch.” Music and Musicians 17 (May, 1968): 20-25. A highly sympathetic depiction of Partch’s life and music for a British audience, with a fine capsule account of Genesis of a Music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, David, ed. Harry Partch: An Anthology of Critical Perspectives. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000. Collects scholarly essays on all aspects of Partch’s work, from analyses of pieces to essays on specific instruments of his invention. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewen, David. “Harry Partch.” In Composers of Tomorrow. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971. Partch is the last composer in this gallery of composers, written for a lay audience, that begins with Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg and includes Milton Babbitt and Yannis Xenakis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Kitharist.” The New Yorker 20 (May 27, 1944): 21-22. The most sympathetic and encouraging of the nationally circulated reviews of the New York premiere of U.S. Highball.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGeary, Thomas. The Music of Harry Partch: A Descriptive Catalog. Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1991. More than a catalog of Partch’s works, this book contains a detailed chronology of his life, facsimiles of his manuscripts, and an extensive bibliography about the composer from 1930 to 1974.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Partch, Harry. Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos. Edited by Thomas McGeary. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. An extensive collection of Partch’s writings, mostly unpublished, including his hobo journal from June, 1935, to February, 1936, with musical notations of speech and the texts of U.S. Highball.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Genesis of a Music. Rev. ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974. Partch’s account of the development of his musical scales and instruments, with the background of six of his major works and a selective bibliography. The photographs of the instruments are supplemented by detailed accounts of their construction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schafer, Murray. “U.S. Highball.” Canadian Music Journal 3 (Winter, 1955): 55-58. Because of the rarity of performances, Partch’s music became known chiefly through recordings. This article by one of Canada’s leading composers gives a highly sympathetic account of Partch’s subsequent musical development.

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