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Henry Dixon Cowell

Henry Dixon Cowell

Henry Dixon Cowell (1897-1965) was an inventive and productive American composer, pianist, teacher, and author.

Henry Cowell was born March 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, Calif. A precocious pianist and violinist, he began composing by the age of 8. He received his first systematic training under Charles Seeger at the University of California, prior to Army service in World War I.

During the 1930s Cowell, already established in America as a sort of maverick composer, pursued musicological studies in Europe, meanwhile touring as a pianist-composer. He often caused near-riots with audiences when playing works including "tone clusters"—a term and technique he originated that is used by many avant-garde composers. A tone cluster is produced by placing the fist, full hand, or full forearm over a section of the keyboard, while usually the other hand continues to play normally. Occasionally, Cowell rose and sat a moment on the keyboard. He sometimes delved into the innards of the piano, using fingers or plectra to stroke or pluck strings, playing while standing, his other hand on the keyboard, with pedal effects produced by a foot. Meanwhile, he was experimenting with new effects that could be produced on orchestral instruments. However, he was also composing comparatively simple pieces reflective of his Irish parentage and his love of American folklore.

Cowell became one of the most vocal champions of new and of older, neglected American composers. He founded the New Musical Quarterly, contributed to many musical magazines, and edited American Composers on American Music (1933). He and his wife wrote Charles Ives and His Music. He was confounder and often president or board member of the American Composers Alliance, an organization that made unpublished scores by both noted and younger composers available. Cowell even raised money during the 1930s and 1940s to sponsor recordings featuring the works of younger American composers. He later was a director-member of Composers' Recordings, Inc. Meanwhile, teaching in a number of colleges and universities, he influenced many American and some foreign composers, who have since achieved success.

Cowell conjured a special American musical form of his own in which one will find some of his most significant music, aside from his many symphonies. He called it "hymn and fuguing tune." He was also an early experimenter with electronic instruments, such as the theremin, and pioneered in writing "serious" music for bands. His music, too prolific to list here, covers, often in depth, almost every thinkable musical combination. He was frequently disguisedly conservative in his compositions. For example, his invocation of "Americana" in certain works, except for certain subtle creative techniques employed, could sound "apple-pie American." Yet, especially in later years, traveling the world widely (especially Asia), he could dig deeply into the ancient musical lores of, for example, Iran or Japan, and produce an effective work sounding part Persian or part Japanese, part cosmopolitan-modern. He had set out to shock audiences, especially as a performing pianist-composer; later, he composed intricate, but somehow very accessible, music disturbing to practically no one. Cowell died on December 10, 1965, in Shady, New York.

Cowell once stated: "As a creator of music I contribute my religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs in terms of creative sound: that sound which flows through the mind of the composer with a concentrated intensity that baffles description, the sound which is the very life of the composer, and which is the sum and substance of his faith and feeling." Virgil Thomson summed up: "Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technic than any other living composer. … Add to this massive production his long and influential career as pedagog, and Cowell's achievement in music becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be fecund and right is given to few."

Further Reading

Information about Cowell is available in John T. Howard, Our Contemporary Composers: American Music in the Twentieth Century (1941); William W. Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966); Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music (1967); and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth Century Music (1968).

Additional Sources

Lichtenwanger, William, The music of Henry Cowell: a descriptive catalog, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1986.

Manion, Martha L., Writings about Henry Cowell: an annotated bibliography, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1982.

Saylor, Bruce, The writings of Henry Cowell: a descriptive bibliography, Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, Dept. of Music, School of Performing Arts, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1977. □

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Cowell, Henry (Dixon)

Cowell, Henry (Dixon) (b Menlo Park, Calif., 1897; d Shady, NY, 1965). Amer. composer and pianist, one of those remarkable pioneering figures who belong naturally to the avant-garde. Began to play vn. at age 3 and to compose at 11. In 1912 devised pf. technique known as clusters (tone-clusters) in which adjacent notes are played simultaneously with the forearm or flat of the hand. Also altered sound of pf. by placing objects on the strs. Demonstrated this ‘prepared pf.’ in S. Francisco, 5 Mar. 1914. Had 100 comps. to his credit when he began formal training in 1914 at Univ. of Calif. with Charles Seeger, who encouraged him to codify the unorthodox rules he was making for himself. This resulted in his book New Musical Resources (1919). In the 1920s his recitals attracted notoriety among the public not only because of clusters but because he pioneered other unusual uses of the piano such as plucking the strings or muting them with cardboard or metal. Made 5 tours of Europe between 1923 and 1933, earning friendship of Bartók, Berg, and Schnabel, and studied in Berlin with Schoenberg. In 1922, 17 of his cluster pieces were pubd. Cowell also invented new methods of notation to indicate his intentions and was co- inventor with Theremin in 1931 of early elec. instrument called the rhythmicon, which could reproduce exactly the complicated rhythmic combinations in his work. Cowell was also one of the first composers—in the 1930s—to bring an element of indeterminacy into his works, suggesting that parts of them could be assembled by the performers in any order and repeated at will, with some measures to be improvised.

Deeply interested in mus. of other cultures, introducing Eastern instr. in combination with conventional Western ones, e.g. Indian jalatarang and tablas. Studied Persian folk mus. and in his Ongaku reproduced Japanese quarter-notes and third-notes. At the other extreme, explored early Amer. mus. culture in a series of works called Hymn-and-Fuguing-Tunes. It is not surprising that such an original man should have been friend, companion, and biographer of Charles Ives or that he should have devoted so much time and energy to lecturing, teaching, writing, publishing, and generally promoting new Amer. mus. Most of his teaching was done as dir. of mus. at the New School for Social Research, NY 1928–63, and at Columbia Univ. 1949–65. Among his pupils were Gershwin and Cage. In 1936 was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment in San Quentin for homosexual offences, but was paroled in 1940 and given a full pardon in 1942 when the evidence against him was found to be false. His list of comps. is very long. Among them are: OPERA: O'Higgins of Chile (1949, unfinished). ORCH.: 21 syms., incl. No.3 (Gaelic, 1942), No.11 (Seven Rituals of Music, 1953), No.13 (Madras, 1957–8), No.16 (Icelandic, 1963); Synchrony (1931); American Melting Pot (1939); Shoonthree (1941); Hymn-and-Fuguing Tunes Nos. 2, 3, 5, 10, and 16; 2 Concs. for Koto and orch. (2nd, 1964); Ongaku (1957); Variations for Orch. (1956), conc. for perc. Also chamber mus. (5 str. qts.), songs, pf. solos, band works, choral, and org. pieces.

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Cowell, Henry Dixon

Henry Dixon Cowell (kou´əl), 1897–1965, American composer and pianist, b. Menlo Park, Calif., largely self-educated, studied musicology in Berlin (1931–32). Cowell experimented with new musical resources; in his piano compositions he introduced the tone cluster, played with the arm or the fist, and wrote compositions, e.g., The Banshee from the mid-1920s, played directly on the strings of the piano. He founded (1927) New Music Edition, a quarterly publishing music by contemporary American and European composers. In 1931, with the help of Leon Theremin, he invented the rhythmicon, a device that produces various rhythms and cross-rhythms mechanically, for which he wrote a concerto (1932). An interest in counterpoint produced the five Hymns and Fuguing Tunes (1941–45). Extremely prolific, Cowell wrote 20 symphonies as well as piano pieces, band music, and vocal and chamber music, and edited American Composers on American Music (1933). He also wrote on numerous musical subjects and was an influential teacher whose many students included John Cage, George Gershwin, and Alan Hovhaness. In the late 1950s he and his ethnomusicologist wife traveled throughout the Middle East, India, and Japan collecting musical materials, which he later incorporated into compositions.

See his New Musical Resources (1930, repr. 1969) and D. Higgins, ed., Essential Cowell: Selected Writings on Music (2002); biography by J. Sachs (2000, repr. 2012).

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Cowell, Henry Dixon

Cowell, Henry Dixon (1887–1965) US composer, influenced by non-Western music. He created “tone clusters” (dissonances produced by striking piano keys with the fist or forearm), used in such pieces as Advertisement (1914). Other piano pieces are played directly on the strings by plucking or striking, for example Aeolian Harp (1923). His output includes over 20 symphonies, many concertos and operas.

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