Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – December 10, 1965) was an American composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario. Born in rural Menlo Park, CA, 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 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. Cowell soon returned to California, where he had become involved with the Halcyon community, 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 early chamber music pieces, such as Quartet Romantic (1915–17) and Quartet Euphometric (1916–19), Cowell pioneered a compositional approach he called “rhythm-harmony. “ 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. He 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 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. 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. 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, 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 prolific composer of songs who would write over 180 during his career), Cowell in 1930–31 provided an accompaniment to a vocal setting of a poem by his father, How Old Is Song? He also built on his substantial work of chamber music, with pieces such as the Adagio for Cello and Thunder Stick (1924); Six Casual Developments (1933), for clarinet and piano; and Ostinato Pianissimo (1934). And 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,” and the Sinfonietta (1928). 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 became 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. Cowell and his circle were sometimes referred to as “ultra-modernists.” 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. 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. 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, and John Cage.
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. 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. 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).
During the late 1930s, Cowell 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. 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.
During World War II, Cowell worked at the Office of War Information, creating radio programs for broadcast overseas. After this, Cowell’s compositional output became strikingly more conservative, 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. No longer an artistic radical, Cowell nonetheless retained a progressive bent and continued to be a leader in the incorporation of non-Western musical idioms, as in the Japanese-inflected Ongaku (1957), Symphony No. 13, “Madras” (1956–58), 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).
Cowell resumed teaching. Burt Bacharach, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, and Irwin Swack were among his postwar students. He also 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), hosting a radio program of the same name, and Primitive Music of the World (1962). In 1963 he recorded 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). Cowell was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1951. He died in 1965 in Shady, New York, after a series of illnesses.
The following works by Henry Cowell are included in my collection:
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3 (1954).
Ongaku for Orchestra (1957).
Symphony No. 11, Seven Rituals of Music (1954).
Symphony No. 15, Thesis (1961).