Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

A composer is a person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition, for interpretation and performance, or through direct manipulation of sonic material through electronic media...

, music theorist
Music theory
Music theory is the study of how music works. It examines the language and notation of music. It seeks to identify patterns and structures in composers' techniques across or within genres, styles, or historical periods...

, pianist
A pianist is a musician who plays the piano. A professional pianist can perform solo pieces, play with an ensemble or orchestra, or accompany one or more singers, solo instrumentalists, or other performers.-Choice of genres:...

, teacher, publisher, and impresario
An impresario is a person who organizes and often finances concerts, plays or operas; analogous to a film producer in filmmaking, television production and an angel investor in business...

. His contribution to the world of music was summed up by Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson
Virgil Thomson was an American composer and critic. He was instrumental in the development of the "American Sound" in classical music...

, writing in the early 1950s:

Henry Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer. His experiments begun three decades ago in rhythm, in harmony, and in instrumental sonorities were considered then by many to be wild. Today they are the Bible of the young and still, to the conservatives, "advanced."... No other composer of our time has produced a body of works so radical and so normal, so penetrating and so comprehensive. Add to this massive production his long and influential career as a pedagogue, and Henry Cowell's achievement becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be both fecund and right is given to few.

Early life

Born in rural Menlo Park, California
Menlo Park, California
Menlo Park, California is a city at the eastern edge of San Mateo County, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, in the United States. It is bordered by San Francisco Bay on the north and east; East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, and Stanford to the south; Atherton, North Fair Oaks, and Redwood City...

, to two bohemian
Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic or literary pursuits...

 writers—his father was an Irish immigrant and his mother, a former schoolteacher, had relocated from Iowa—Cowell demonstrated precocious musical talent and began playing the violin at the age of five. After his parents' divorce in 1903, he was raised by his mother, Clarissa Dixon, author of the early feminist novel Janet and Her Dear Phebe. His father, with whom he maintained contact, introduced him to the Irish music
Music of Ireland
Irish Music is the generic term for music that has been created in various genres on the island of Ireland.The indigenous music of the island is termed Irish traditional music. It has remained vibrant through the 20th, and into the 21st century, despite globalizing cultural forces...

 that would be a touchstone for Cowell throughout his career. While receiving no formal musical education (and little schooling of any kind beyond his mother's home tutelage), he began to compose in his mid-teens.
By the summer of 1914, Cowell was writing truly individualistic works, including the insistently repetitive Anger Dance (originally Mad Dance). That fall, the largely self-taught Cowell was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

, as a protégé of Charles Seeger
Charles Seeger
Charles Seeger, Jr. was a noted musicologist, composer, and teacher. He was the father of iconic American folk singer Pete Seeger .-Life:...

. There he studied harmony and other subjects under Seeger and Edward Griffith Stricklen and counterpoint under Wallace Sabin. After two years at Berkeley, Cowell pursued further studies in New York where he encountered Leo Ornstein
Leo Ornstein
Leo Ornstein was a leading American experimental composer and pianist of the early twentieth century...

, the radically "futurist" composer-pianist. Still a teenager, Cowell wrote the piano piece Dynamic Motion (1916), his first important work to explore the possibilities of the tone cluster
Tone cluster
A tone cluster is a musical chord comprising at least three consecutive tones in a scale. Prototypical tone clusters are based on the chromatic scale, and are separated by semitones. For instance, three adjacent piano keys struck simultaneously produce a tone cluster...

 . It requires the performer to use both forearms to play massive secundal
In music or music theory, secundal is the quality of a chord made from seconds, and anything related to things constructed from seconds such as counterpoint. Secundal chords are often referred to more generally as tone clusters, especially when non-diatonic...

Chord (music)
A chord in music is any harmonic set of two–three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously. These need not actually be played together: arpeggios and broken chords may for many practical and theoretical purposes be understood as chords...

 and calls for keys to be held down without sounding to extend and intensify its dissonant
Consonance and dissonance
In music, a consonance is a harmony, chord, or interval considered stable, as opposed to a dissonance , which is considered to be unstable...

 cluster overtone
An overtone is any frequency higher than the fundamental frequency of a sound. The fundamental and the overtones together are called partials. Harmonics are partials whose frequencies are whole number multiples of the fundamental These overlapping terms are variously used when discussing the...


Cowell soon returned to California, where he had become involved with a theosophical
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

 community, Halcyon
Halcyon, California
Halcyon, California is an unincorporated community of approximately 125 acres in San Luis Obispo County, California, located just beyond the southern border of the city of Arroyo Grande...

, led by the Irish poet John Varian, who fueled Cowell's interest in Irish folk culture
Culture of Ireland
This article is about the modern culture of Ireland and the Irish people. It includes customs and traditions, language, music, art, literature, folklore, cuisine and sport associated with Ireland and Irish people today. However, the culture of the people living in Ireland is not homogeneous...

 and mythology
Irish mythology
The mythology of pre-Christian Ireland did not entirely survive the conversion to Christianity, but much of it was preserved, shorn of its religious meanings, in medieval Irish literature, which represents the most extensive and best preserved of all the branch and the Historical Cycle. There are...

. In 1917, Cowell wrote the music for Varian's stage production The Building of Banba; the prelude he composed, The Tides of Manaunaun
The Tides of Manaunaun
The Tides of Manaunaun is a short piano piece by American composer Henry Cowell . It was composed in 1917, originally serving as a prelude to a theatrical production, The Building of Banba...

, with its rich, evocative clusters, would become Cowell's most famous and widely performed work. In later years, Cowell would claim that the piece had been composed around 1912 (and Dynamic Motion in 1914), in an evident attempt to make his musical innovations appear even more precocious than they already were.

Musical pioneer

Beginning in the early 1920s, Cowell toured widely in North America and Europe as a pianist, playing his own experimental works, seminal explorations of atonality
Atonality in its broadest sense describes music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality in this sense usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale...

, polytonality
The musical use of more than one key simultaneously is polytonality . Bitonality is the use of only two different keys at the same time...

, polyrhythm
Polyrhythm is the simultaneous sounding of two or more independent rhythms.Polyrhythm in general is a nonspecific term for the simultaneous occurrence of two or more conflicting rhythms, of which cross-rhythm is a specific and definable subset.—Novotney Polyrhythms can be distinguished from...

s, and non-Western modes
Musical mode
In the theory of Western music since the ninth century, mode generally refers to a type of scale. This usage, still the most common in recent years, reflects a tradition dating to the middle ages, itself inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music.The word encompasses several additional...

. He made such an impression with his tone cluster technique that Béla Bartók
Béla Bartók
Béla Viktor János Bartók was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century and is regarded, along with Liszt, as Hungary's greatest composer...

 requested his permission to adopt it. Another novel method advanced by Cowell, in pieces such as Aeolian Harp (ca. 1923), was what he dubbed "string piano
String piano
String piano is a term coined by American composer-theorist Henry Cowell to collectively describe those pianistic extended techniques in which sound is produced by direct manipulation of the strings, instead of or in addition to striking the piano's keys...

"—rather than using the keys to play, the pianist reaches inside the instrument and plucks, sweeps, and otherwise manipulates the strings directly. Cowell's endeavors with string piano techniques were the primary inspiration for John Cage
John Cage
John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde...

's development of the prepared piano
Prepared piano
A prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers....

. In early chamber music pieces, such as Quartet Romantic (1915–17) and Quartet Euphometric (1916–19 ), Cowell pioneered a compositional approach he called "rhythm-harmony": "Both quartets are polyphonic
In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords ....

, and each melodic strand has its own rhythm," he explained. "Even the canon
Canon (music)
In music, a canon is a contrapuntal composition that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration . The initial melody is called the leader , while the imitative melody, which is played in a different voice, is called the follower...

 in the first movement of the Romantic has different note-lengths for each voice."
In 1919, Cowell had begun writing New Musical Resources, which would finally be published after extensive revision in 1930. Focusing on the variety of innovative rhythm
Rhythm may be generally defined as a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions." This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or...

ic and harmonic concepts he used in his compositions (and others that were still entirely speculative), it would have a powerful effect on the American musical avant-garde
Experimental music
Experimental music refers, in the English-language literature, to a compositional tradition which arose in the mid-20th century, applied particularly in North America to music composed in such a way that its outcome is unforeseeable. Its most famous and influential exponent was John Cage...

 for decades after. Conlon Nancarrow
Conlon Nancarrow
Conlon Nancarrow was a United States-born composer who lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life. He became a Mexican citizen in 1955.Nancarrow is best remembered for the pieces he wrote for the player piano...

, for instance, would refer to it years later as having "the most influence of anything I've ever read in music."

Cowell's interest in harmonic rhythm
Harmonic rhythm
In music theory, harmonic rhythm, also known as harmonic tempo is the rate at which the chords change. According to Joseph Swain it "is simply that perception of rhythm that depends on changes in aspects of harmony." According to Walter Piston , "the rhythmic life contributed to music by means of...

, as discussed in New Musical Resources, led him in 1930 to commission Léon Theremin
Léon Theremin
Léon Theremin was a Russian and Soviet inventor. He is most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. He is also the inventor of interlace, a technique of improving the picture quality of a video signal, widely used in video and television technology...

 to invent the Rhythmicon
The Rhythmicon—also known as the Polyrhythmophone—was the world's first electronic drum machine .-Development:...

, or Polyrhythmophone, a transposable
Transposition (music)
In music transposition refers to the process, or operation, of moving a collection of notes up or down in pitch by a constant interval.For example, one might transpose an entire piece of music into another key...

 keyboard instrument capable of playing notes in periodic rhythms proportional to the overtone series
Harmonic series (music)
Pitched musical instruments are often based on an approximate harmonic oscillator such as a string or a column of air, which oscillates at numerous frequencies simultaneously. At these resonant frequencies, waves travel in both directions along the string or air column, reinforcing and canceling...

 of a chosen fundamental
Fundamental frequency
The fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental and abbreviated f0, is defined as the lowest frequency of a periodic waveform. In terms of a superposition of sinusoids The fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental and abbreviated f0, is defined as the...

Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

. The world's first electronic rhythm machine
Drum machine
A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of drums or other percussion instruments. They are used in a variety of musical genres, not just purely electronic music...

, with a photoreceptor-based sound production system proposed by Cowell (not a theremin
The theremin , originally known as the aetherphone/etherophone, thereminophone or termenvox/thereminvox is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without discernible physical contact from the player. It is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device...

-like system, as some sources incorrectly state), it could produce up to sixteen different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, complete with optional syncopation
In music, syncopation includes a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected in that they deviate from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong and weak but also powerful beats in a meter . These include a stress on a normally unstressed beat or a rest where one would normally be...

. Cowell wrote several original compositions for the instrument, including an orchestrated concerto, and Theremin built two more models. Soon, however, the Rhythmicon would be virtually forgotten, remaining so until the 1960s, when progressive pop music producer Joe Meek
Joe Meek
Robert George "Joe" Meek was a pioneering English record producer and songwriter....

 experimented with its rhythmic concept.
Cowell pursued a radical compositional approach through the mid-1930s, with solo piano pieces remaining at the heart of his output—important works from this era include The Banshee (1925), requiring numerous playing methods such as pizzicato
Pizzicato is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of stringed instrument....

 and longitudinal sweeping and scraping of the strings , and the manic, cluster-filled Tiger (1930), inspired by William Blake
William Blake
William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age...

's famous poem
The Tyger
"The Tyger" is a poem by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794 . It is one of Blake's best-known and most analyzed poems...

. Much of Cowell's public reputation continued to be based on his trademark pianistic technique: a critic for the San Francisco News, writing in 1932, referred to Cowell's "famous 'tone clusters,' probably the most startling and original contribution any American has yet contributed to the field of music." A prolific composer of songs (he would write over 180 during his career), Cowell returned in 1930–31 to Aeolian Harp, adapting it as the accompaniment to a vocal setting of a poem by his father, How Old Is Song? He built on his substantial oeuvre of chamber music, with pieces such as the Adagio for Cello and Thunder Stick (1924) that explored unusual instrumentation and others that were even more progressive: Six Casual Developments (1933), for clarinet and piano, sounds like something Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
James Peter Giuffre was an American jazz clarinet and saxophone player, composer and arranger. He is notable for his development of forms of jazz which allowed for free interplay between the musicians, anticipating forms of free improvisation.-Biography:Born in Dallas, Texas, of Italian ancestry,...

 would compose thirty years later. His Ostinato Pianissimo (1934) placed him in the vanguard of those writing original scores for percussion ensemble. He created forceful large-ensemble pieces during this period as well, such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928)—with its three movements, "Polyharmony," "Tone Cluster," and "Counter Rhythm" —and the Sinfonietta (1928), whose scherzo
A scherzo is a piece of music, often a movement from a larger piece such as a symphony or a sonata. The scherzo's precise definition has varied over the years, but it often refers to a movement which replaces the minuet as the third movement in a four-movement work, such as a symphony, sonata, or...

 Anton Webern
Anton Webern
Anton Webern was an Austrian composer and conductor. He was a member of the Second Viennese School. As a student and significant follower of Arnold Schoenberg, he became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique; in addition, his innovations regarding schematic organization of...

 conducted in Vienna. In the early 1930s, Cowell began to delve seriously into aleatoric
Aleatoric music
Aleatoric music is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work's realization is left to the determination of its performer...

 procedures, creating opportunities for performers to determine primary elements of a score's realization. One of his major chamber pieces, the Mosaic Quartet (String Quartet No. 3) (1935), is scored as a collection of five movements with no preordained sequence.

Ultra-modernist and world music leader

Cowell was the central figure in a circle of avant-garde composers that included his good friends Carl Ruggles
Carl Ruggles
Charles "Carl" Sprague Ruggles was an American composer of the American Five group. He wrote finely crafted pieces using "dissonant counterpoint", a term coined by Charles Seeger to describe Ruggles' music...

 and Dane Rudhyar
Dane Rudhyar
Dane Rudhyar , born Daniel Chennevière, was an author, modernist composer and humanistic astrologer. He was the pioneer of modern transpersonal astrology.-Biography:...

, as well as Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee
Colin McPhee
Colin McPhee was a Canadian composer and musicologist. He is primarily known for being the first Western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali, and for the quality of that work...

, French expatriate Edgard Varèse
Edgard Varèse
Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, , whose name was also spelled Edgar Varèse , was an innovative French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States....

, and Ruth Crawford, whom he convinced Charles Seeger to take on as a student (Crawford and Seeger would eventually marry). Cowell and his circle were sometimes referred to as "ultra-modernists," a label whose definition is flexible and origin unclear (it has also been applied to a few composers outside the immediate circle, such as George Antheil
George Antheil
George Antheil was an American avant-garde composer, pianist, author and inventor. A self-described "Bad Boy of Music", his modernist compositions amazed and appalled listeners in Europe and the US during the 1920s with their cacophonous celebration of mechanical devices.Returning permanently to...

, and to some of its disciples, such as Nancarrow); Virgil Thomson styled them the "rhythmic research fellows." In 1925, Cowell organized the New Music Society, one of whose primary activities was the staging of concerts of their works along with those of artistic allies such as Wallingford Riegger
Wallingford Riegger
Wallingford Constantine Riegger was a prolific American music composer, well known for orchestral and modern dance music, and film scores...

 and Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer, associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School...

, who would later ask Cowell to play for his composition class during one of his European tours. In 1927 Cowell founded the periodical New Music, which would publish many significant new scores under his editorship, both by the ultra-modernists and many others, including Ernst Bacon, Otto Luening
Otto Luening
Otto Clarence Luening was a German-American composer and conductor, and an early pioneer of tape music and electronic music....

, Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles
Paul Frederic Bowles was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator.Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making various trips to Paris...

, and Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later in his career a conductor of his own and other American music. He was instrumental in forging a distinctly American style of composition, and is often referred to as "the Dean of American Composers"...

. Before the publication of the first issue, he solicited contributions from a then-obscure composer who would become one of his closest friends, Charles Ives
Charles Ives
Charles Edward Ives was an American modernist composer. He is one of the first American composers of international renown, though Ives' music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. Over time, Ives came to be regarded as an "American Original"...

. Major scores by Ives, including the Comedy from the Fourth Symphony, Fourth of July, 34 Songs, and 19 Songs, would receive their first publication in New Music; in turn, Ives would provide financial support to a number of Cowell's projects (including, years later, New Music itself). Many of the scores published in Cowell's journal were made even more widely available as performances of them were issued by the record label he established in 1934, New Music Recordings.
The ultra-modernist movement had expanded its reach in 1928, when Cowell led a group that included Ruggles, Varèse, his fellow expatriate Carlos Salzedo, American composer Emerson Whithorne, and Mexican composer Carlos Chávez
Carlos Chávez
Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez was a Mexican composer, conductor, music theorist, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra. He was influenced by native Mexican cultures. Of his six Symphonies, his Symphony No...

 in founding the Pan-American Association of Composers, dedicated to promoting composers from around the Western Hemisphere and creating a community among them that would transcend national lines. Its inaugural concert, held in New York City in March 1929, featured exclusively Latin American music, including works by Chávez, Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer, described as "the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music". Villa-Lobos has become the best-known and most significant Latin American composer to date. He wrote numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works...

, Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla
Alejandro García Caturla
Alejandro García Caturla was a Cuban composer of art music and creolized Cuban themes.He was born in Remedios. At sixteen he became a second violin of the new Orquesta Sinfonica de La Habana in 1922, where Amadeo Roldán was concert-master . He also began composing at a young age, whilst studying...

, and the French-born Cuban Amadeo Roldán
Amadeo Roldán
Amadeo Roldán y Gardes was a Cuban composer and violinist. Roldán was born in Paris to a Cuban mulatta and a Spanish father...

. Its next concert, in April 1930, focused on the U.S. ultra-modernists, with works by Cowell, Crawford, Ives, Rudhyar, and others such as Antheil, Henry Brant
Henry Brant
Henry Dreyfuss Brant was a Canadian-born American composer. An expert orchestrator with a flair for experimentation, many of Brant's works featured spatialization techniques.- Biography :...

, and Vivian Fine
Vivian Fine
Vivian Fine was an American composer.Over her 70 year career, Vivian Fine became one of America’s most important composers. She wrote virtually without a break for 68 years, producing over 140 works...

. Over the next four years, Nicolas Slonimsky
Nicolas Slonimsky
Nicolas Slonimsky was a Russian born American composer, conductor, musician, music critic, lexicographer and author. He described himself as a "diaskeuast" ; "a reviser or interpolator."- Life :...

 conducted concerts sponsored by the association in New York, across Europe, and, in 1933, Cuba. Cowell himself had performed there in 1930 and met with Caturla, whom he was publishing in New Music. Cowell would continue to work on both his behalf and Roldán's, whose Rítmica No. 5 (1930) was the first free-standing piece of Western classical music written specifically for percussion ensemble. During this era, Cowell also spread the ultra-modernists' experimental creed as a highly regarded teacher of composition and theory—among his many students were George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist. Gershwin's compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known...

, Lou Harrison
Lou Harrison
Lou Silver Harrison was an American composer. He was a student of Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, and K. P. H. Notoprojo Lou Silver Harrison (May 14, 1917 – February 2, 2003) was an American composer. He was a student of Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, and K. P. H. Notoprojo Lou Silver Harrison...

, who said he thought of Cowell as "the mentor of mentors," and John Cage, who proclaimed Cowell "the open sesame for new music in America."

Encouragement of the music of Caturla and Roldán, with their proudly African-based rhythms, and of Chávez, whose work often involved instruments and themes of Mexico's indigenous peoples, was natural for Cowell. Growing up on the West Coast, he had been exposed to a great deal of what is now known as "world music
World music
World music is a term with widely varying definitions, often encompassing music which is primarily identified as another genre. This is evidenced by world music definitions such as "all of the music in the world" or "somebody else's local music"...

"; along with Irish airs and dances, he encountered music from China, Japan, and Tahiti. These early experiences helped form his unusually eclectic musical outlook, exemplified by his famous statement "I want to live in the whole world of music." He went on to investigate Indian classical music
Indian classical music
The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in the Hindu tradition. Indian classical music has also been significantly influenced by, or syncretised with, Indian folk music and Persian music. The Samaveda, one of the four Vedas, describes music...

 and, in the late 1920s, began teaching a course, "Music of the World's Peoples," at the New School for Social Research in New York and elsewhere—Harrison's tutelage under Cowell would begin when he enrolled in a version of the course in San Francisco
San Francisco, California
San Francisco , officially the City and County of San Francisco, is the financial, cultural, and transportation center of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of 7.15 million people which includes San Jose and Oakland...

. In 1931 a Guggenheim fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowships are American grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Each year, the foundation makes...

 enabled Cowell to go to Berlin to study comparative musicology (the predecessor to ethnomusicology
Ethnomusicology is defined as "the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts."Coined by the musician Jaap Kunst from the Greek words ἔθνος ethnos and μουσική mousike , it is often considered the anthropology or ethnography of music...

) with Erich von Hornbostel
Erich von Hornbostel
Erich Moritz von Hornbostel was an Austrian ethnomusicologist and scholar of music. He is remembered for his pioneering work in the field of ethnomusicology, and for the Sachs–Hornbostel system of musical instrument classification which he co-authored with Curt Sachs.-Life:Hornbostel was born in...

. He studied Carnatic theory
Carnatic music
Carnatic music is a system of music commonly associated with the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, with its area roughly confined to four modern states of India: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu...

 and gamelan
A gamelan is a musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali or Java, featuring a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may also be included....

, as well, with leading instructors from South India (P. Sambamoorthy), Java (Raden Mas Jodjhana), and Bali (Ramaleislan).


Cowell, who was bisexual
Bisexuality is sexual behavior or an orientation involving physical or romantic attraction to both males and females, especially with regard to men and women. It is one of the three main classifications of sexual orientation, along with a heterosexual and a homosexual orientation, all a part of the...

, was convicted in 1936 of "impairing the morals of a minor". He had been led to believe by the district attorney that, if he pleaded guilty to a limited offense, he would be sentenced to only a brief confinement in a sanatorium. He naively accepted that advice, but he was instead given the maximum sentence of up to 15 years incarceration in prison. He would spend the next four years in San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin State Prison is a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison for men in unincorporated San Quentin, Marin County, California, United States. Opened in July 1852, it is the oldest prison in the state. California's only death row for male inmates, the largest...

. There he taught fellow inmates, directed the prison band, and continued to write music at his customary prolific pace, producing around sixty compositions, including two major pieces for percussion ensemble: the Oriental-toned Pulse (1939) and the memorably sepulchral Return (1939). He also continued his experiments in aleatory music: for all three movements of the Amerind Suite (1939), he wrote five versions, each more difficult than the last. Interpreters of the piece are invited to simultaneously perform two or even three versions of the same movement on multiple pianos. In the Ritournelle (Larghetto and Trio) (1939) for the dance piece Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, performing in Seattle, he explored what he called "elastic" form. The twenty-four measures of the Larghetto and the eight of the Trio are each modular; though Cowell offers some suggestions, any hypothetically may be included or not and played once or repeatedly, allowing the piece to stretch or contract at the performers' will—the practical goal being to give a choreographer freedom to adjust the length and character of a dance piece without the usual constraints imposed by a prewritten musical composition.

Cowell had contributed to the Eiffel Tower project at the behest of Cage, who was not alone in lending support to his friend and former teacher. Cowell's cause had been taken up by composers and musicians around the country, although a few, including Ives, broke contact with him. Cowell was eventually paroled in 1940, with Percy Grainger
Percy Grainger
George Percy Aldridge Grainger , known as Percy Grainger, was an Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist. In the course of a long and innovative career he played a prominent role in the revival of interest in British folk music in the early years of the 20th century. He also made many...

 acting as his guarantor; he relocated to the East Coast and the following year married Sidney Hawkins Robertson
Sidney Robertson Cowell
Sidney Robertson Cowell was an American ethnographer and the wife of the composer Henry Cowell. She was born at San Francisco, California....

 (1903–1995, married name Sidney Robertson Cowell), a prominent folk-music scholar who had been instrumental in winning his freedom. Cowell was granted a pardon in 1942.

Late career

Despite the pardon—which allowed him to work at the Office of War Information, creating radio programs for broadcast overseas—arrest, incarceration, and attendant notoriety had a devastating effect on Cowell. Conlon Nancarrow
Conlon Nancarrow
Conlon Nancarrow was a United States-born composer who lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life. He became a Mexican citizen in 1955.Nancarrow is best remembered for the pieces he wrote for the player piano...

, on meeting him for the first time in 1947, reported, "The impression I got was that he was a terrified person, with a feeling that 'they're going to get him.'" The experience took a lasting toll on his music: Cowell's compositional output became strikingly more conservative soon after his release from San Quentin, with simpler rhythms and a more traditional harmonic language. Many of his later works are based on American folk music
Old-time music
Old-time music is a genre of North American folk music, with roots in the folk music of many countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland and countries in Africa. It developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, buck dance, and clogging. The genre also...

, such as the series of eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes (1943–64); folk music had certainly played a role in a number of Cowell's prewar compositions, but the provocative transformations that had been his signature were now largely abandoned. And, as Nancarrow observed, there were other consequences to Cowell's imprisonment: "Of course, after that, politically, he kept his mouth completely shut. He had been radical politically, too, before."

No longer an artistic radical, Cowell nonetheless retained a progressive bent and continued to be a leader (along with Harrison and McPhee) in the incorporation of non-Western musical idioms, as in the Japanese-inflected Ongaku (1957), Symphony No. 13, "Madras" (1956–58) (which had its premiere in the eponymous city), and Homage to Iran (1959). His most compelling, poignant songs date from this era, including Music I Heard (to a poem by Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken
Conrad Potter Aiken was an American novelist and poet, whose work includes poetry, short stories, novels, a play and an autobiography.-Early years:...

; 1961) and Firelight and Lamp (to a poem by Gene Baro; 1962). Despite the break in their friendship, Cowell, in collaboration with his wife, wrote the first major study of Ives's music and provided crucial support to Harrison as his former pupil championed the Ives rediscovery. Cowell resumed teaching—Burt Bacharach
Burt Bacharach
Burt F. Bacharach is an American pianist, composer and music producer. He is known for his popular hit songs and compositions from the mid-1950s through the 1980s, with lyrics written by Hal David. Many of their hits were produced specifically for, and performed by, Dionne Warwick...

, J. H. Kwabena Nketia
J. H. Kwabena Nketia
Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia is a Ghanaian ethnomusicologist and composer....

, and Irwin Swack
Irwin Swack
Irwin Swack was an American composer of contemporary classical music.He held degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music , the Juilliard School, Northwestern University , and Columbia University...

 were among his postwar students—and served as a consultant to Folkways Records
Folkways Records
Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.-History:...

 for over a decade beginning in the early 1950s, writing liner notes and editing such collections as Music of the World's Peoples (1951–61) (he also hosted a radio program of the same name) and Primitive Music of the World (1962). In 1963 he recorded searching, vivid performances of twenty of his seminal piano pieces for a Folkways album. Perhaps liberated by the passage of time and his own seniority, in his final years Cowell again produced a number of impressively individualistic works, such as Thesis (Symphony No. 15; 1960) and 26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963).

Cowell was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters
The American Academy of Arts and Letters
The American Academy of Arts and Letters is a 250-member honor society; its goal is to "foster, assist, and sustain excellence" in American literature, music, and art. Located in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan in New York, it shares Audubon Terrace, its Beaux Arts campus on...

 in 1951. He died in 1965 in Shady, New York
Shady, New York
Shady is a hamlet in Ulster County, New York, United States. It is part of the town of Woodstock and lies on New York State Route 212.-Notable residents:*Henry Cowell, composer...

, after a series of illnesses.


  • Bartok, Peter, Moses Asch, Marian Distler, and Sidney Cowell; revised by Sorrel Hays (1993 [1963]). Liner notes to Henry Cowell: Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways 40801).
  • Boziwick, George (2000). "Henry Cowell at the New York Public Library: A Whole World Of Music," Notes [Music Library Association], 57.1 (available online).
  • Cage, John (1959). "History of Experimental Music in the United States" (available online), in Silence (1971 [1961]), pp. 67–75. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6028-6
  • Cowell, Henry (1993 [1963]). "Henry Cowell's Comments: The composer describes each of the selections in the order in which they appear." Track 20 of Henry Cowell: Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways 40801).
  • Gann, Kyle (1995). The Music of Conlon Nancarrow. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-02807-8
  • Harrison, Lou (1997). "Learning from Henry," in The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium, ed. Nicholls; pp. 161–167.
  • Hicks, Michael (2002). Henry Cowell, Bohemian. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02751-5
  • Kirkpatrick, John, et al. (1997 [1988]). 20th-Century American Masters: Ives, Thomson, Sessions, Cowell, Gershwin, Copland, Carter, Barber, Cage, Bernstein. New York and London: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31588-6
  • Lichtenwanger, William (1986). The Music of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Catalogue. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College Institute for Studies in American Music. ISBN 0-914678-26-4
  • Mead, Rita H. (1981). Henry Cowell's New Music, 1925–1936. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press (excerpted online). ISBN 0-8357-1170-6
  • Nicholls, David (1991 [1990]). American Experimental Music 1890–1940. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42464-X
  • Nicholls, David, ed. (1997). The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Press. ISBN 90-5755-003-2
  • Nicholls, David, ed. (1998). The Cambridge History of American Music. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45429-8
  • Oja, Carol J. (1998). Liner notes to Henry Cowell: Mosaic (Mode 72/73).
  • Oja, Carol J. (2000.) Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505849-6
  • Sollberger, Harvey (1992 [1974]). Liner notes to Percussion Music: Works by Varèse, Colgrass, Saperstein, Cowell, Wuorinen (Nonesuch 9 79150-2).
  • Sublette, Ned (2004). Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1-55652-516-8
  • Thomson, Virgil (2002). Virgil Thomson: A Reader—Selected Writings 1924–1984. Edited by Richard Kostelanetz. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93795-7

Further reading

  • Carwithen, Edward R. (1991). Henry Cowell: Composer and Educator. Ph.D. dissertation. Gainesville: University of Florida,.
  • Cowell, Henry, and Sidney Cowell (1981 [1955]). Charles Ives and His Music. New York: Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-76125-4
  • Cowell, Henry (1996 [1930]). New Musical Resources. Annotated, with an accompanying essay, by David Nicholls. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-49974-7
  • Cowell, Henry (2002). Essential Cowell: Selected Writings on Music, edited, with an introduction, by Dick Higgins, preface by Kyle Gann. Kingston, N.Y.: McPherson. ISBN 0-929701-63-1
  • Galván, Gary (2006). “Cowell in Cartoon: A Pugilistic Pianist’s Impact on Pop Culture.” Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, January 11–14, 2006, Conference Proceedings. ISSN 1541-5899
  • Galván, Gary (2007). Henry Cowell in the Fleisher Collection. Ph.D. dissertation. Gainesville: University of Florida.
  • Johnson, Steven. (1993). "Henry Cowell, John Varian, and Halcyon." American Music 11, no. 1 (Spring): 1-27.
  • Saylor, Bruce (1977). The Writings of Henry Cowell: A Descriptive Bibliography. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College Institute for Studies in American Music. ISBN 0-914678-07-8
  • Spilker, John D. (2010). "Substituting a New Order": Dissonant Counterpoint, Henry Cowell, and the Network of Ultra-Modern Composers. Ph.D. dissertation, Tallahassee: Florida State University
    Florida State University
    The Florida State University is a space-grant and sea-grant public university located in Tallahassee, Florida, United States. It is a comprehensive doctoral research university with medical programs and significant research activity as determined by the Carnegie Foundation...


Recordings by Cowell

  • Henry Cowell: Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways 40801)—performances of twenty of his compositions for solo piano, including Dynamic Motion, The Tides of Manaunaun, Aeolian Harp, The Banshee, and Tiger, and a commentary track (album pictured in article)

Selected other recordings of his works

  • American Piano Concertos: Henry Cowell (col legno 20064)—large-ensemble pieces, including Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and Sinfonietta, as well as The Tides of Manaunaun and other pieces for solo piano; performed by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern—director, Stefan Litwin—piano
  • The Bad Boys!: George Antheil, Henry Cowell, Leo Ornstein (hatHUT 6144)—solo piano pieces, including Anger Dance, The Tides of Manaunaun, and Tiger; performed by Steffen Schleiermacher
  • Dancing with Henry (mode 101)—solo and chamber pieces, including two versions of Ritournelle (Larghetto); performed by California Parallèle Ensemble, Nicole Paiement–conductor and director, Josephine Gandolfi—piano
  • Henry Cowell (First Edition 0003)—orchestral pieces, including Ongaku and Thesis (Symphony No. 15); performed by Louisville Orchestra, Robert S. Whitney and Jorge Mester—conductors
  • Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Vol. 1 (Naxos 8.559192) and Vol. 2 (Naxos 8.559193)—solo, chamber, vocal, and large-ensemble pieces; performed by Continuum, Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs—directors
  • Henry Cowell: Mosaic (mode 72/73)—solo and chamber pieces, including Quartet Romantic, Quartet Euphometric, Mosaic Quartet (String Quartet No. 3), Return, and three versions of 26 Simultaneous Mosaics; performed by Colorado String Quartet and Musicians Accord
  • Henry Cowell: Persian Set (Koch 3-7220-2 HI)—orchestral and large-ensemble pieces, including Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2; performed by Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, Richard Auldon Clark—conductor
  • New Music: Piano Compositions by Henry Cowell (New Albion 103)—solo piano pieces, including Dynamic Motion, The Tides of Manaunaun, Aeolian Harp, and Tiger; performed by Chris Brown, Sorrel Hays, and others
  • Songs of Henry Cowell (Albany–Troy 240)—including How Old Is Song?, Music I Heard, and Firelight and Lamp; performed by Mary Ann Hart—mezzo-soprano, Robert Osborne—bass-baritone, Jeanne Golan—pianist




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