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Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – December 10, 1965) was an American composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario. His contribution to the world of music was summed up by Virgil Thomson, writing in the early 1950s:
Henry Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer. His experiments begun three decades ago in rhythm, in harmony, and in instrumental sonorities were considered then by many to be wild. Today they are the Bible of the young and still, to the conservatives, "advanced."... No other composer of our time has produced a body of works so radical and so normal, so penetrating and so comprehensive. Add to this massive production his long and influential career as a pedagogue, and Henry Cowell's achievement becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be both fecund and right is given to few.
Born in rural Menlo Park, California, to two bohemian writers—his father was an Irish immigrant and his mother, a former schoolteacher, had relocated from Iowa—Cowell demonstrated precocious musical talent and began playing the violin at the age of five. After his parents' divorce in 1903, he was raised by his mother, Clarissa Dixon, author of the early feminist novel Janet and Her Dear Phebe. His father, with whom he maintained contact, introduced him to the Irish music that would be a touchstone for Cowell throughout his career. While receiving no formal musical education (and little schooling of any kind beyond his mother's home tutelage), he began to compose in his mid-teens.
By the summer of 1914, Cowell was writing truly individualistic works, including the insistently repetitive Anger Dance (originally Mad Dance). That fall, the largely self-taught Cowell was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, as a protégé of Charles Seeger. There he studied harmony and other subjects under Seeger and Edward Griffith Stricklen and counterpoint under Wallace Sabin. After two years at Berkeley, Cowell pursued further studies in New York where he encountered Leo Ornstein, the radically "futurist" composer-pianist. Still a teenager, Cowell wrote the piano piece Dynamic Motion (1916), his first important work to explore the possibilities of the tone cluster ( listen (help·info)). It requires the performer to use both forearms to play massive secundal chords and calls for keys to be held down without sounding to extend and intensify its dissonant cluster overtones.
Cowell soon returned to California, where he had become involved with a theosophical community, Halcyon, led by the Irish poet John Varian, who fueled Cowell's interest in Irish folk culture and mythology. In 1917, Cowell wrote the music for Varian's stage production The Building of Banba; the prelude he composed, The Tides of Manaunaun, with its rich, evocative clusters, would become Cowell's most famous and widely performed work. In later years, Cowell would claim that the piece had been composed around 1912 (and Dynamic Motion in 1914), in an evident attempt to make his musical innovations appear even more precocious than they already were.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Cowell toured widely in North America and Europe as a pianist, playing his own experimental works, seminal explorations of atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms, and non-Western modes. It was on one of these tours that in 1923, his friend Richard Buhlig introduced Cowell to young pianist Grete Sultan in Berlin. They worked closely together - an aspect vital to Grete Sultan's personal and artistic development. Cowell later made such an impression with his tone cluster technique that Béla Bartók requested his permission to adopt it. Another novel method advanced by Cowell, in pieces such as Aeolian Harp (ca. 1923), was what he dubbed "string piano"—rather than using the keys to play, the pianist reaches inside the instrument and plucks, sweeps, and otherwise manipulates the strings directly. Cowell's endeavors with string piano techniques were the primary inspiration for John Cage's development of the prepared piano. In early chamber music pieces, such as Quartet Romantic (1915–17) and Quartet Euphometric (1916–19 listen (help·info)), Cowell pioneered a compositional approach he called "rhythm-harmony": "Both quartets are polyphonic, and each melodic strand has its own rhythm," he explained. "Even the canon in the first movement of the Romantic has different note-lengths for each voice."
In 1919, Cowell had begun writing New Musical Resources, which would finally be published after extensive revision in 1930. Focusing on the variety of innovative rhythmic and harmonic concepts he used in his compositions (and others that were still entirely speculative), it would have a powerful effect on the American musical avant-garde for decades after. Conlon Nancarrow, for instance, would refer to it years later as having "the most influence of anything I've ever read in music."
Cowell's interest in harmonic rhythm, as discussed in New Musical Resources, led him in 1930 to commission Léon Theremin to invent the Rhythmicon, or Polyrhythmophone, a transposable keyboard instrument capable of playing notes in periodic rhythms proportional to the overtone series of a chosen fundamental pitch. The world's first electronic rhythm machine, with a photoreceptor-based sound production system proposed by Cowell (not a theremin-like system, as some sources incorrectly state), it could produce up to sixteen different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, complete with optional syncopation. Cowell wrote several original compositions for the instrument, including an orchestrated concerto, and Theremin built two more models. Soon, however, the Rhythmicon would be virtually forgotten, remaining so until the 1960s, when progressive pop music producer Joe Meek experimented with its rhythmic concept.
Cowell pursued a radical compositional approach through the mid-1930s, with solo piano pieces remaining at the heart of his output—important works from this era include The Banshee (1925), requiring numerous playing methods such as pizzicato and longitudinal sweeping and scraping of the strings ( listen (help·info)), and the manic, cluster-filled Tiger (1930), inspired by William Blake's famous poem. Much of Cowell's public reputation continued to be based on his trademark pianistic technique: a critic for the San Francisco News, writing in 1932, referred to Cowell's "famous 'tone clusters,' probably the most startling and original contribution any American has yet contributed to the field of music." A prolific composer of songs (he would write over 180 during his career), Cowell returned in 1930–31 to Aeolian Harp, adapting it as the accompaniment to a vocal setting of a poem by his father, How Old Is Song? He built on his substantial oeuvre of chamber music, with pieces such as the Adagio for Cello and Thunder Stick (1924) that explored unusual instrumentation and others that were even more progressive: Six Casual Developments (1933), for clarinet and piano, sounds like something Jimmy Giuffre would compose thirty years later. His Ostinato Pianissimo (1934) placed him in the vanguard of those writing original scores for percussion ensemble. He created forceful large-ensemble pieces during this period as well, such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928)—with its three movements, "Polyharmony," "Tone Cluster," and "Counter Rhythm" ( listen (help·info))—and the Sinfonietta (1928), whose scherzo Anton Webern conducted in Vienna. In the early 1930s, Cowell began to delve seriously into aleatoric procedures, creating opportunities for performers to determine primary elements of a score's realization. One of his major chamber pieces, the Mosaic Quartet (String Quartet No. 3) (1935), is scored as a collection of five movements with no preordained sequence.
Cowell was the central figure in a circle of avant-garde composers that included his good friends Carl Ruggles and Dane Rudhyar, as well as Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, French expatriate Edgard Varèse, and Ruth Crawford, whom he convinced Charles Seeger to take on as a student (Crawford and Seeger would eventually marry). Cowell and his circle were sometimes referred to as "ultra-modernists," a label whose definition is flexible and origin unclear (it has also been applied to a few composers outside the immediate circle, such as George Antheil, and to some of its disciples, such as Nancarrow); Virgil Thomson styled them the "rhythmic research fellows." In 1925, Cowell organized the New Music Society, one of whose primary activities was the staging of concerts of their works along with those of artistic allies such as Wallingford Riegger and Arnold Schoenberg, who would later ask Cowell to play for his composition class during one of his European tours. In 1927 Cowell founded the periodical New Music, which would publish many significant new scores under his editorship, both by the ultra-modernists and many others, including Ernst Bacon, Otto Luening, Paul Bowles, and Aaron Copland. Before the publication of the first issue, he solicited contributions from a then-obscure composer who would become one of his closest friends, Charles Ives. Major scores by Ives, including the Comedy from the Fourth Symphony, Fourth of July, 34 Songs, and 19 Songs, would receive their first publication in New Music; in turn, Ives would provide financial support to a number of Cowell's projects (including, years later, New Music itself). Many of the scores published in Cowell's journal were made even more widely available as performances of them were issued by the record label he established in 1934, New Music Recordings.
The ultra-modernist movement had expanded its reach in 1928, when Cowell led a group that included Ruggles, Varèse, his fellow expatriate Carlos Salzedo, American composer Emerson Whithorne, and Mexican composer Carlos Chávez in founding the Pan-American Association of Composers, dedicated to promoting composers from around the Western Hemisphere and creating a community among them that would transcend national lines. Its inaugural concert, held in New York City in March 1929, featured exclusively Latin American music, including works by Chávez, Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla, and the French-born Cuban Amadeo Roldán. Its next concert, in April 1930, focused on the U.S. ultra-modernists, with works by Cowell, Crawford, Ives, Rudhyar, and others such as Antheil, Henry Brant, and Vivian Fine. Over the next four years, Nicolas Slonimsky conducted concerts sponsored by the association in New York, across Europe, and, in 1933, Cuba. Cowell himself had performed there in 1930 and met with Caturla, whom he was publishing in New Music. Cowell would continue to work on both his behalf and Roldán's, whose Rítmica No. 5 (1930) was the first free-standing piece of Western classical music written specifically for percussion ensemble. During this era, Cowell also spread the ultra-modernists' experimental creed as a highly regarded teacher of composition and theory—among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison, who said he thought of Cowell as "the mentor of mentors," and John Cage, who proclaimed Cowell "the open sesame for new music in America."
Encouragement of the music of Caturla and Roldán, with their proudly African-based rhythms, and of Chávez, whose work often involved instruments and themes of Mexico's indigenous peoples, was natural for Cowell. Growing up on the West Coast, he had been exposed to a great deal of what is now known as "world music"; along with Irish airs and dances, he encountered music from China, Japan, and Tahiti. These early experiences helped form his unusually eclectic musical outlook, exemplified by his famous statement "I want to live in the whole world of music." He went on to investigate Indian classical music and, in the late 1920s, began teaching a course, "Music of the World's Peoples," at the New School for Social Research in New York and elsewhere—Harrison's tutelage under Cowell would begin when he enrolled in a version of the course in San Francisco. In 1931 a Guggenheim fellowship enabled Cowell to go to Berlin to study comparative musicology (the predecessor to ethnomusicology) with Erich von Hornbostel. He studied Carnatic theory and gamelan, as well, with leading instructors from South India (P. Sambamoorthy), Java (Raden Mas Jodjhana), and Bali (Ramaleislan).
Cowell, who did not consider himself to be homosexual, was arrested and convicted in 1936 on a "morals" charge involving a 17-year old male. Sentenced to a decade-and-a-half incarceration, he would spend the next four years in San Quentin State Prison. There he taught fellow inmates, directed the prison band, and continued to write music at his customary prolific pace, producing around sixty compositions, including two major pieces for percussion ensemble: the Oriental-toned Pulse (1939) and the memorably sepulchral Return (1939). He also continued his experiments in aleatory music: for all three movements of the Amerind Suite (1939), he wrote five versions, each more difficult than the last. Interpreters of the piece are invited to simultaneously perform two or even three versions of the same movement on multiple pianos. In the Ritournelle (Larghetto and Trio) (1939) for the dance piece Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, performing in Seattle, he explored what he called "elastic" form. The twenty-four measures of the Larghetto and the eight of the Trio are each modular; though Cowell offers some suggestions, any hypothetically may be included or not and played once or repeatedly, allowing the piece to stretch or contract at the performers' will—the practical goal being to give a choreographer freedom to adjust the length and character of a dance piece without the usual constraints imposed by a prewritten musical composition.
Cowell had contributed to the Eiffel Tower project at the behest of Cage, who was not alone in lending support to his friend and former teacher. Cowell's cause had been taken up by composers and musicians around the country, although a few, including Ives, broke contact with him. Cowell was eventually paroled in 1940; he relocated to the East Coast and the following year married Sidney Hawkins Robertson (1903–1995, married name Sidney Robertson Cowell), a prominent folk-music scholar who had been instrumental in winning his freedom. Cowell was granted a pardon in 1942.
Despite the pardon—which allowed him to work at the Office of War Information, creating radio programs for broadcast overseas—arrest, incarceration, and attendant notoriety had a devastating effect on Cowell. Conlon Nancarrow, on meeting him for the first time in 1947, reported, "The impression I got was that he was a terrified person, with a feeling that 'they're going to get him.'" The experience took a lasting toll on his music: Cowell's compositional output became strikingly more conservative soon after his release from San Quentin, with simpler rhythms and a more traditional harmonic language. Many of his later works are based on American folk music, such as the series of eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes (1943–64); folk music had certainly played a role in a number of Cowell's prewar compositions, but the provocative transformations that had been his signature were now largely abandoned. And, as Nancarrow observed, there were other consequences to Cowell's imprisonment: "Of course, after that, politically, he kept his mouth completely shut. He had been radical politically, too, before."
No longer an artistic radical, Cowell nonetheless retained a progressive bent and continued to be a leader (along with Harrison and McPhee) in the incorporation of non-Western musical idioms, as in the Japanese-inflected Ongaku (1957), Symphony No. 13, "Madras" (1956–58) (which had its premiere in the eponymous city), and Homage to Iran (1959). His most compelling, poignant songs date from this era, including Music I Heard (to a poem by Conrad Aiken; 1961) and Firelight and Lamp (to a poem by Gene Baro; 1962). Despite the break in his friendship with Ives, Cowell, in collaboration with his wife, wrote the first major study of Ives's music and provided crucial support to Harrison as his former pupil championed the Ives rediscovery. Cowell resumed teaching—Burt Bacharach, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, and Irwin Swack were among his postwar students—and served as a consultant to Folkways Records for over a decade beginning in the early 1950s, writing liner notes and editing such collections as Music of the World's Peoples (1951–61) (he also hosted a radio program of the same name) and Primitive Music of the World (1962). In 1963 he recorded searching, vivid performances of twenty of his seminal piano pieces for a Folkways album. Perhaps liberated by the passage of time and his own seniority, in his final years Cowell again produced a number of impressively individualistic works, such as Thesis (Symphony No. 15; 1960) and 26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963).
Note: Correct dating and orthography of titles throughout is based on the standard musicography, The Music of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Catalogue, by William Lichtenwanger (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College Institute for Studies in American Music, 1986).