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American composer Henry Cowell’s life was action-packed. Born in 1897 to  “philosophical anarchists” who settled in California, after his parents’ divorce he grew up largely in Menlo Park and San Francisco and also spent some of his youth in the mid-west and New York  with his mother who home-schooled him. As a teenager struggling in menial jobs to while she was dying of cancer, he was discovered by a Stanford professor stunned by his enormous vocabulary and large portfolio of short piano pieces and lack of formal education. Ultimately his Stanford supporters arranged for him to study music with Charles Seeger and others in the San Francisco area.

Following military service during World War I, he became an international touring pianist and within a few years gained international notoriety by using hands, fists, and forearms to play his “tone clusters” or strumming and plucking directly upon the piano strings. He also founded and almost singlehandedly ran the journal New Music Quarterly and the label New Music Recordings, urgently-needed outlets for American composers lacking commercial publishers; its main sponsor was Charles Ives.

In 1929 Cowell was the first American composer invited to the USSR, where his concerts were first cancelled by conservative bureaucrats and then restored by Trotsky’s sister. With a Guggenheim fellowship two years later, he studied thousands of recordings of world music at the University of Berlin and was the first to popularize the idea of  “world music.” Sadly, Cowell served four years (1936-40) in San Quentin prison on a morals charge that even the prosecution agreed should never have been brought and for which he was later pardoned. In 1956-57 a remarkable year-long trip throughout Asia allowed him to hear traditional music “live,” and inspired late works that are some of  the first important “fusion” compositions.

His pianistic techniques continue to influence countless younger composers; his fascination with extra-European music was an inspiration to many composers beginning with John Cage and Lou Harrison. Among the many intriguing ideas in Cowell's extraordinary theoretical treatise New Musical Resources, begun when he was about 20 years old and finally published in 1930, are far-reaching concepts of the linking of pitch and rhythm that were the foundation of the masterful player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. The finest music in his immense portfolio is thoroughly melodious, quirky, and among the most user-friendly of the mid-20th century.

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AMERICAN COMPOSERS AT THE PIANO (1947) Naxos Classical Archives

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