Map of Barstow - Ludlow area, 1934

Seven Ways to Barstow

A God-awful thing, to be stuck out there on a guard rail, waiting in the desert sun (or shivering in the cold night air) for a lift to Four Corners or Needles. Nonetheless, if there is a quintessential Partch piece, it may well be Barstow, the stories of eight lonely souls in that very predicament. Despite Barstow's relative familiarity, not everyone is aware of the evolution of this ingeniously American group of "song-settings". Wouldn't it be interesting to hear a number of different versions and renditions of at least a part of the work?

Of course it would.

So we present seven takes on section "Number One". There are different Partch arrangements, different performances, and one rip-off.  The examples are presented in order by date of recording; the text will give the details on which version of Harry's (or other) it is. If you'd like to go deeper into the narrative aspect of catching a ride, be sure to see Why Barstow? Have a good time, and take plenty of extra water, because it gets hotter than Hell out there...

[Version: 1941 - Recorded: 1942] The first example is actually a second, 'lost' version of Barstow; the first was for solo Adapted Guitar and voice, perfect for Partch's wanderings. This instrumentation adds the Chromelodeon, Partch's microtonally-tuned reed organ. The score was lost over the years, but Partch made an acetate recording in 1942 in Madison, Wisconsin, from which this audio clip is taken. Of interest are both the contrapuntal nature of the Chromelodeon part and the relaxed nature of the vocal delivery.

[Version: 1943 - Recorded: 1945] Recorded only three years after the preceding example, this version has undergone a rescoring by the addition of the Kithara part, and a reduction in the Chromelodeon part. Since the score has survived, this is 'officially' considered the second version of Barstow that Partch prepared. I'm not sure if the traditional 'red light' was on, but there is an urgency in the vocal rendition not present in his other recordings.

[Version: 1954 - Recorded: 1958] The third example is also the third revision of the piece. In the years since the previous recording, Partch developed new instruments, two of which are incorporated here: the Diamond Marimba (built in 1948) and the Surrogate Kithara (built in 1953, ostensibly to lessen the difficulty of some of  the Kithara passages). The recording was made in Evanston, Illinois along with several other pieces, but Partch found this recording unsatisfactory and never released it. It is, however, the only recording of the third revision.

[Version: 1968 - Recorded: 1968] The final version that Partch prepared is presented twice. This first example comes from the Columbia recording (The World of Harry Partch - MS 7207) that Partch supervised, with Danlee Mitchell as music director. Once again a change of instrumentation: gone is the Adapted Guitar, and the Bamboo Marimba (built 1955) has been added. This instrumentation, with it's spiky percussive timbres, lends a prickly texture to the stories. It has the distinction of being the first classical recording to utilize the 'F' word...

[Version: 1968 - Recorded: 1982] Our only "duplication", included for comparison's sake. During the 15 years that the Partch Ensemble was active in San Diego, Barstow was a staple of the touring programs. The concept of furthering Partch's notion of the corporeal performance generated a production using five musicians, one for each instrument and one vocalist for the 'Objective' voice. The vocal duties were shared throughout the group, so the players switched instruments, as well as sang and acted. This is a rough, live recording from a concert at Mills College, Oakland, CA, in 1982.

[Version: Johnston, 1996 - Recorded: 1996] I've alluded to this elsewhere: I do not believe that this transcription should have been done. Ben Johnston, after being commissioned by the Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, took on the task of translating the 1943 version for string quartet, eliminating most of the Kithara part in the process. I include it here for completeness, and let you be the judge. I can well imagine what Partch would have to say about it - "Pure poop", or something a bit stronger . . .

[Version: 1940-41 - Recorded: 1995] Our last example is a most intriguing item: a resurrection of the very first version that Partch completed, but never recorded. John Schneider spent the better part of 13 years laboring on this reconstruction, including the commissioning of a custom Adapted Guitar. I have some qualms about the performance, but I can't fault anyone for this kind of dedication. And from that perspective, it's rather remarkable achievement.