Composer, teacher and publisher, Henry Cowell was a central figure in the American avant-garde of the 1920s/1930s. He promoted contemporary music that was open to experimentation, influencing John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. His many compositions were themselves inspired by world music, employing dissonance and polyrhythm. He perfected the rythmicon with Leon Theremin.
Henry Cowell, whose Irish parents emigrated to California, began composing in his teens and studied at the University of California at Berkeley from 1914 to 1916, under the tutelage of Charles Seeger. He continued his studies in New York with Leo Ornstein, who, attracted by the ideas of the Italian Futurists, introduced him to the practice of piano cluster, a practice that Henry Cowell later popularized. In 1916, he composed the piano piece Dynamic Motion, in which the performer uses fists and forearms to produce clusters of dissonant chords. In 1917, The Tides of Manaunaun, one of his best-known pieces, also exploits this technique.
From 1923 to 1933, Henry Cowell made several trips to Europe, and gave the first performance of Aeolian Harp (1923), a work in which the piano strings are struck or rubbed directly by hand, without using the keyboard. He composed a number of piano pieces, including The Banshee (1925) and Tiger (1930), using these techniques, which inspired John Cage to create his prepared piano. In 1921, Henry Cowell took part in the creation of The International Composers’ Guild, along with Edgar Varèse, expatriate to the United States, Carlos Salzedo and many other composers, with the aim of pooling their forces to make themselves heard and organize concerts. In 1927, he founded the New Music Edition, publishing scores by Charles Ives, Schönberg, Webern, Ruth Crawford Seeger… Henry Cowell was then one of the central figures in a circle of composers sometimes grouped together under the label of ultra-modernists, including Charles Ives, Colin McPhee, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles…
Some of Henry Cowell’s polyrhythmic piano compositions were unplayable, even by a seasoned virtuoso. In 1930, he came to work with Leon Theremin to create the Polyryhtmophone or Rhythmicon, a keyboard instrument capable of simultaneously producing and setting sixteen periodic rhythms – the first electronic drum machine.
Henry Cowell composed several pieces for Rhythmicon, including Rhythmicana (1931) and Music for Violin and Rhythmicon (1932). The Rhythmicon was rediscovered by film composers in the 50s and 60s, notably Joe Meek. The instrument was also used on Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother and Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon. Henry Cowell also used indeterminacy for his 1935 string quartet Mosaic, in which the performers themselves chose the order in which to play the proposed musical sequences. He also used this process for 26 Simultaneous Mosaics in 1963.
Since 1916 Henry Cowell had been working, initially with Charles Seeger, on New Musical Resources, a book first published in 1930, which set out the guidelines for new music. Iconoclasts Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch found elements for their own research. After reading the book, which he bought in 1939, Conlon Nancarrow turned to the player piano to perform his complex, extremely fast polyrhythmic compositions.
In the early ’30s, Henry Cowell gave courses in “Music of the Peoples of the World” in California and New York, with students including George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage. He taught his knowledge of Balinese gamelans, North and South Indian music, African music… Henry Cowell’s teaching career came to an abrupt halt in 1936. He was arrested and tried for indecency, having been too intimate with a 17-year-old boy. Convicted, he spent four years in prison, where he continued to compose, notably Oriental-tones Pulse (1939) and Return (1939). On his release, despite his low morale, he resumed his teaching activities, starting in 1941 at the New School of Social Research.
Henry Cowell’s compositions became much less experimental, for example the moving Hymn and Fuguing Tune (1943-44) or Thesis (Symphony No. 15) (1960). However, he retained an adventurous spirit, continuing to incorporate non-Western sources with some success, notably for the pieces Homage To Iran (1957) and Ongaku (1957).
Henry Cowell edited the Music of the World’s Peoples collection for Folkways Records from 1951 to 1961, and hosted a radio program of the same name. In 1963, he recorded some twenty piano pieces for Folkways. That same year, 1963, Dick Higgins, one of the activists of the Fluxus movement, reissued New Musical Resources. Henry Cowell composed several hundred works over the course of his career, including some twenty symphonies and around 180 songs based on poems.
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