About this Recording
8.559193 - COWELL: Homage to Iran / Piano Pieces / Set of Five / Six Casual Developments / Two Songs
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Henry Cowell (1897-1965): Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music • 2

Henry Cowell was one of the remarkable figures in American music. A startlingly innovative composer, an inimitable piano virtuoso, the founder of institutions that propelled American composition to world stature, a brilliant writer, teacher and lecturer, Cowell almost singlehandedly laid the foundations for American compositional life.

Henry Cowell was born in 1897 in Menlo Park, California, to an Irish emigré father and a spunky Midwestern woman, both of them anarchist writers. After his parents divorced, his mother tried to support herself and the boy, but as she became desperately ill, they sank into poverty. Henry, whose formal schooling had ended at the third grade, eked out a living for them, selling wildflowers door to door, herding cows, and cleaning a schoolhouse. Then a Stanford University professor discovered that the bedraggled twelve-yearold had an immense vocabulary, knowledge staggering in its breadth, including a deep command of botany, and gigantic musical gifts, but he could barely spell. Arrangements were made for Cowell to study English at Stanford and music at the University of California, Berkeley, where the brilliant Charles Seeger guided the young man’s unorthodox musical beliefs. Soon Cowell was performing his music in the San Francisco Bay area.

After military service in World War I, Cowell’s career bolted forward. His trademark was the “tonecluster,” or harmony of seconds (adjacent keys on the piano). Although tone-clusters can occasionally be found in keyboard music of earlier centuries, Cowell’s often dominated a whole piece and required performance by the forearm, the flat of the hand, or the side of the fist. Drawn to the spectacle of a pianist performing with his forearms, or, later, plucking, strumming, and stroking the piano strings, sarcastic journalists made him an international sensation. While few of them recognised the musical basis of Cowell’s techniques, even his vociferous opponents acknowledged his integrity. Professional admirers included Schnabel, Berg, and Bartók (who solicited Cowell’s permission to use tone-clusters in his own music). Yet while Cowell’s piano works revealed new vistas of sound, his advanced ideas always coexisted with a traditional melodiousness, stemming from his love of folklore, that render even his most “experimental” music immediately accessible.

The selection of piano pieces included here shows how Cowell continually sought new compositional challenges and never confined himself to one style. The Piece for Piano With Strings (1924), a product of Cowell’s 1923 European tour, was first published in France. The odd title refers to Cowell’s technique of playing directly on the piano’s strings. Detailed performance instructions indicate, for example, strumming and plucking with fingertips for a gentle sound, or with the fingernail for a bolder quality. The thunderous piano sound is produced by tone-clusters so wide that they are played with both forearms. Vestiges (1920) has a kinship with European Expressionism, but welds non-tonal harmonies to a tonal framework. The search for rhythmic freedom produced the tiny Euphoria (ca. 1929), whose music floats off the bar lines. (Although this title is in general use, Cowell’s handwriting suggests that he actually thought of it as “Euphonia.”) The rambunctious What’s This (ca.1915) embodies motoric force gone berserk; one British critic quipped that he could not answer the question in print. Elegie, written around 1941 for the choreographer Hanya Holm, applies Cowellian string techniques in a conservative style. The Banshee (1925), although not originally intended as a programmatic work, has become inextricable from the image of an Irish spirit that wails at the time of a death. While an assistant depresses the right pedal, the pianist works inside the open piano like a witch over a cauldron, strumming and stroking it to conjure up proto-electronic sounds.

Cowell’s life quickly evolved into one of multiple activities. He formulated his ideas in a visionary book New Musical Resources (1916-19, published 1930). In 1925, not content with theorizing, he created the California Society for New Music, which became a support system for composers, first as a concert series, then a periodical, New Music, in which he published new works by senior masters and young hopefuls, and a recording series. In the early 1930s he initiated a visionary music programme at the New School for Social Research, New York, which included a unique offering of non-Western music. A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931-32 gave Cowell the opportunity to extend his knowledge of non-Western music at the phonograph archive of the University of Berlin. Armed with an impressive grasp of other musical cultures, he produced compositions, lectures, and writings manifesting his conviction that the world’s musics form a gigantic resource whose elements can be recombined into unusual amalgams. He campaigned for public awareness of non-Western music through lectures and radio programmes entitled Music of the World’s Peoples, and recordings on the Folkways label.

In the later 1920s Cowell began to write much more chamber, orchestral, and vocal music. Although his experimental nature became less overt, he never lost an indefinable quirkiness that reflects his celebrated wit. Six Casual Developments (1933) for clarinet and piano, which was also arranged for woodwind quintet and for clarinet and chamber orchestra, includes his only attempt at jazz-influenced style. In Two Songs (1936) to poetry of Catherine Riegger, daughter of composer Wallingford Riegger, he combined a tonal melody and harmonization with a haunting foundation of toneclusters, bringing the poetry to life in a manner that is simultaneously traditional and modern.

Unfortunately in 1936 Cowell’s life took a terrible turn: jailed on a morals charge, he received a fifteenyear prison sentence. Paroled after four years in San Quentin, he made his home in New York, and married the folk-song collector Sidney Hawkins Robertson. In 1942 the Governor of California, having learned that even the prosecutor considered Cowell’s conviction unjust, pardoned him. During the remainder of his life he taught at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University, the Peabody Conservatory, and many other institutions.

One of the most dazzling post-war pieces, and one of several in which he applied his ideas of world musical fusion, is Set of Five (1952). In its quasi-baroque Largo, the piano and violin are supported by a rhythmic “continuo” on muted gongs. The Allegro blends violin, piano, and xylophone into a single colour; a contrasting Trio exploits lower-pitched sounds with startling effect. The central movement, resembling a baroque cantabile, has a very un-baroque accompaniment of Indian tablas or tom-toms (the latter in this recording). In the second Presto, an Indian Jalatarang, or a set of five porcelain or metal bowls, provides punctuation (Continuum used soup bowls). Clear formal logic disguises continuous variation that makes both scherzo-like movements into monumental tongue-twisters. The majestic finale encapsulates Cowell’s career, with tone-clusters, harmonics on the piano strings, non-western percussion, tonal harmonies, and unabashed songfulness.

In 1956-57, the Cowells travelled throughout Asia to hear traditional music in its own setting. This journey included an extended stay in Iran, where Cowell helped develop radio programming, and a visit to the Madras Music Festival, the greatest annual showcase for Indian classical music. Among the products were two works mixing Persian and Western idioms and instruments: Persian Set, for chamber orchestra, and Homage to Iran. Although Cowell rooted the works in Persian culture, he composed not as if he were Persian, but as an American visitor striving for music comprehensible to both societies.

Homage to Iran was published as a duo, but was intended to be a trio. In the published version, the pianist mutes the strings with the fingers to simulate the sound of the drum. In the original recording, however, issued with Cowell’s approval in 1963, the first and third movements, and parts of the fourth, were performed by the violinist and a drummer, who appears to be playing an Arabic or Turkic dombak. The instrument intended, however, was the Persian zarb, a goblet-shaped wood drum also known as a tombak. Having performed the piece in its published form, Joel Sachs studied zarb in order to approach Cowell’s original vision. Like Set of Five, Homage to Iran contains a Cowellesque “flight of the bumblebee”.

At his death in 1965 Henry Cowell left an immeasurable legacy, public enthusiasm for non- Western music, generations of notable pupils, among them John Cage and Lou Harrison, voluminous fascinating writings, and a vast body of compositions. His tireless encouragement of young Americans created a climate in which they could cultivate their individualism, unleashing the boundless energy that has made the United States one of the world’s great centres of composition.

Joel Sachs


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