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A Depression Message from a Hobo Diamond Marimbist

Musician Joe Fee, who also happens to be one of our outstanding CarnegieCharge representatives, gives us an insider's take on Harry Partch's work The Wayward, which he'll perform as part of the Harry Partch Institute Ensemble on April 22. The concert is the first in David Lang's collected stories series.

The Wayward Cover Photo

Walking into the Harry Partch studio for rehearsal is always a unique experience no matter how many times I’ve been there. The studio is packed on every side with Partch’s beautiful creations. To the right sits the Eucal Blossom hanging from its eucalyptus branch, and in another corner is the Gourd Tree. A set of wood chimes named The Garden of Eden hangs from the ceiling with the words The Dreamer That Came With the Dawn inscribed on them. For the past two weeks, the instruments have been arranged in preparation for our upcoming production of The Wayward, Partch’s setting of hobo scenes from the Great Depression.

I grab a red and black flannel from the costume bag and put on my hobo hat. As I step behind the Diamond Marimba, images created by filmmaker Jon Roy are projected on a screen above us and we find ourselves stranded in Barstow, California, trying to catch rides from passing cars and reading inscriptions left on a highway railing by the hitchhikers that came before us. I join the Chromelodeon (a reed organ adapted to play Partch’s 43-note scale), Bamboo Marimba, Surrogate Kithara (a smaller version of the larger Kithara harp), and the voices.

Partch’s music is intimately tied to the voice. Besides two vocal soloists, each musician is called upon to sing, yell, or speak certain passages as we interact throughout the piece. Hobos struggle to get rides, newspaper boys compete with each other, and we are almost ready for Mac to make his journey from California to Chicago. Charles Corey, musical director and Kitharist, glides atop a platform as he runs his fingers through the towering 72-stringed harp. The Bass Marimba pounds its rhythms. The Cloud Chamber Bowls sound their ethereal scale and I accompany the Bloboy on the Spoils of War artillery shells. The train is off!

In the last movement of The Wayward, “U.S. Highball” we follow Mac, a hobo who encounters other travelers as he makes his way from California to Chicago. One of the hobos Mac encounters is the poet Gerd Stern who worked with Partch in the 1950s. Mac counts his blessings as he leaves one town for the next, having survived the dangers of the road. He finally reaches Chicago and the rest of us express our joy in song, but where we go from there is anyone’s guess. Such is the power of The Wayward: It’s a piece about being stranded with nowhere to go and constantly moving toward some unknown ideal, about the relentless individuality of those living on the outskirts of society, and, of course, about Harry Partch, who built all of these instruments and composed the music.

We perform The Wayward on April 22, 2014, 70 years to the day that Partch premiered the piece at Carnegie Hall in a concert version. It is very exciting to perform the piece in its dramatic form and it’s a great honor to share the stage with such amazing musicians. I hope everyone enjoys the show.

—Joe Fee, Musician, Harry Partch Institute Ensemble

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