“U.S. Highball” Album Review

U.S. Highball - Harry Partch (1946 LP)

Album: U.S. Highball

Artist: Harry Partch

Year: 1946

Genre: Experimental Folk

Grade: A

Even though the folk songs of Woody Guthrie and the novels of John Steinbeck gave an audible voice to the Dust Bowl, no one captured the paranoia, desolation and insecurities of the Great Depression quite like Harry Partch — the underrated (and relatively unknown) avant-garde composer who invented his own style of music in the 1940s.

Partch was born in 1901 in Oakland, California and was raised in the Wild West town of Benson, Arizona. His musical influences were cultivated from a wide range of sources, namely the local dialects he grew up around. The inflections and natural intonations of Mexican outlaws, Yaqui natives and his mother’s Mandarin lullabies (his parents were Christian missionaries who fled China during the Boxer rebellion) served as the basis for Partch’s expressive melodies.

Soon enough, Partch developed his own 43-tone scale, invented his own microtonal instruments and denounced the well-tempered musical theories of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Partch blamed for the stagnation of Western music over the previous 300 years. Even if his opinions were controversial, he was one of the only musicians in history to break away from all previous traditions.

Harry Partch's invented instruments
A collection of Harry Partch’s custom-made instruments.

U.S. Highball, released in 1946, is the quintessential Partch recording. A “musical account of a transcontinental hobo trip” from California to Chicago, the song winds its way through a series of singular sounds. The instrumentation has its roots in folk, yet rightfully sounds like nothing before or since. Utilizing Partch’s very own creations (the Chromelodeon, the Adapted Guitar and the Kithara), the music twists and turns and bends and brakes for 26 straight minutes, although the song seems to last much, much longer than that.

Bits of dialogue are sung in pseudo-sprechgesang and interspersed and repeated throughout (“Going east, mister? Going east, mister?”). The end result is exactly the type of “corporeal” effect that Partch desired: music that engulfs you with its physicality and can only be interpreted in one way. The piece is put together in such a way that each and every listener draws the same conclusions — a mythological and intentionally awkward rendering of the all-American transient. U.S Highball is about one thing and one thing only and cannot be misconstrued otherwise.

Even though Harry Partch blazed a new trail, it was a path that no one took other than himself. He had no bearing on contemporary musical trends (other than Paul Simon using the Chromelodeon and Cloud-Chambered Bowls on his 2016 solo album Stranger to Stranger), and despite his status as a folk-adjacent pioneer, Partch’s music shared more in common with the Ancient Greeks than with anyone from the last two millennia.

In the end, the complex difficulties and idiosyncrasies of Partch’s music prevented him from ever changing history. Pieces like 17 Lyrics of Li Po and 2 Settings from Finnegan’s Wake show just how expansive Partch’s stream-of-consciousness experiments could go, yet the composer remains underrated even among fans of avant-garde music. That’s why U.S. Highball — simultaneously his greatest and most accessible work — deserves to be recognized as one of the most innovative and exploratory masterpieces of the 20th century.

If nothing else, it’s one of the best albums of the 1940s. Even the Library of Congress agrees.

“U.S. Highball” Album Review

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