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8.559192 - COWELL: Quartet / Violin Suite / Songs / Piano Pieces / Polyphonica / Irish Suite
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Henry Cowell (1897-1965): Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music • 1

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 renders even his most “experimental” music immediately accessible. The piano pieces recorded here suggest both the breadth of Cowell’s pianistic style, and his devotion to his Irish heritage.

Deep Color (1938), one of his last “radical” piano pieces, represents the deep purple of Irish valleys. In The Fairy Answer (ca. 1929) direct playing on the strings evokes an ancient tale related by Cowell: “There is in Kildare a glen where, ...if one plays music at one end, the fairies themselves will answer with their own music at the other.” Although it might sound like an echo, “the fairy music... is never just the same as the music to which it responds”. Tiger (1928-9) may be Cowell’s most dissonant work; like Deep Color, it uses immense tone-clusters, though to entirely different ends. Tiger was first published in the USSR in 1929, when he was the first American composer to visit the young country.

Cowell, guided by an unfailing faith in his instincts about sound, cultivated a multiplicity of compositional approaches. Many piano pieces, for example, are conventionally played but make other novel demands. Fabric (1920) is a polyrhythmic study employing an unusual notation system described in New Musical Resources, the forward-looking treatise that Cowell drafted when about twenty years old. In the Suite for Violin and Piano (1925) he fused the tone-cluster with the language of the baroque suite.

Until the mid-1930s, Cowell divided his time between the east and west coasts, toured Europe and America, and worked indefatigably for American composers. In 1925 he created the California Society for New Music; in 1927 he founded New Music, a quarterly publication of new compositions from the United States, Latin America, and Europe that was virtually the only outlet for American modernism. In 1928, Cowell, Varèse, and others formed the Pan American Association of Composers to foster inter-American relations through concerts here and abroad. Then a Guggenheim Fellowship brought Cowell to Germany to study non- Western music at the University of Berlin’s phenomenal archive of recorded world music. His deep belief in the unity of world musical cultures became the thread connecting his diverse activities.

Gradually Cowell turned from writing piano music to ensemble music. Polyphonica (1930), a study in dissonant counterpoint, was first performed in New York in 1932, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky. (It is scored for twelve players, as heard here, or for orchestra.) Another fascinating piece of this period is the Irish Suite, an arrangement of three “string piano” pieces as a concerto, which Cowell first played in Boston with Slonimsky’s orchestra in 1929. Although Cowell often denied that his pieces were illustrative, he related the Irish legends to which the titles allude:

“The Banshee is an Irish family ghost who comes and wails at the time of a death in the family. The Leprechaun is a gnome who is a cobbler for fairy shoes, and even when not seen, he may be heard tapping them together, and sawing his fairy leather.” Concerning The Fairy Bells: “If you walk out into the Irish mountains, and get lost in the fog there, you will be guided by a faroff sound; and although you may think it is sheep bells, you will find that there are no sheep in the mountains there, — so what could it be but the fairies?”

Unfortunately, performance instructions for the solo part of The Leprechaun have disappeared, and much of the solo part is indicated only as rhythms that organized a wealth of unusual pianistic techniques. For what probably was the first performance in almost sixty years, Cheryl Seltzer reconstructed the piano part, using descriptions of Cowell’s techniques and implements (darning egg, pencils, metallic objects) from his 1929 programme note, press accounts, and recollections of Nicolas Slonimsky.

Cowell’s frequent lecture-recitals were noted for his wry wit, which is heard in the Three Anti-Modernist Songs, composed in 1938 to newspaper poems republished in Slonimsky’s Music Since 1900. These delightful parodies came at a most difficult time for Cowell, however. Because of hysteria about sexual offences in California, a morals infraction brought him a fifteen-year term in San Quentin prison. Characteristically optimistic, he used his time to develop an extensive music education programme for the inmates. After serving four years, he was paroled in 1940 to the supervision of Percy Grainger, the celebrated Australian pianist-composer, who lived just outside New York City. Two years later, he married an old friend, the folksong collector Sidney Hawkins Robertson. When he was offered a wartime job, Sidney Cowell undertook to win him a pardon, which succeeded when the prosecutor told the California governor that an injustice had been committed. Now able to travel freely, Cowell worked at the Office of War Information, creating music programmes to be beamed overseas. He was uniquely suited for the job. He had spent much of the previous twenty years studying and lecturing on non-Western music. His pioneering work, which became widely disseminated through radio programmes and recordings of his Music of the World’s Peoples series, did much to increase public appreciation of the diversity of world music. His influence can be felt today in the powerful position of cross-cultural composition.

The Cowells lived in Manhattan and in the Catskill Mountains about two hours north of New York City. Among their frequent collaborations, their biography of Charles Ives remains a classic. After the war, he resumed teaching at the New School, where he had initiated the music programme in the 1920s, and later joined the faculties of Columbia University and The Peabody Conservatory. His many students over the years included John Cage and Lou Harrison, whose unusual methods of sound production can be traced in part to Cowell.

While Cowell’s later works seem more conservative, his undying instinct for fresh thinking can be heard in the Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, written for the harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe in 1954. As in the much earlier Suite for Violin and Piano, Cowell availed himself of a baroque aesthetic, approaching it with his quiet wit and melodious heart.

Although Cowell’s health deteriorated in the last decade of his life, he and his wife made a round-theworld journey so that he could finally hear Asian music in its natural setting. He died in December 1965, working on his twenty-first symphony on his deathbed.

Joel Sachs

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