COWELL: Homage to Iran / Piano Pieces / Set of Five / Six Casual Developments / Two Songs (Cheryl Seltzer/ Continuum/ David Krakauer/ Gordon Gottlieb/ Joel Sachs/ Marilyn Dubow/ Mark Steinberg/ Raymond Murcell) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559193)
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Henry Cowell (1897-1965): Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music 2
Henry Cowell was one of the remarkable figures inAmerican music. A startlingly innovative composer, aninimitable piano virtuoso, the founder of institutions thatpropelled American composition to world stature, abrilliant writer, teacher and lecturer, Cowell almostsinglehandedly laid the foundations for Americancompositional life.
Henry Cowell was born in 1897 in Menlo Park,California, to an Irish emigre father and a spunkyMidwestern woman, both of them anarchist writers.
After his parents divorced, his mother tried to supportherself and the boy, but as she became desperately ill,they sank into poverty. Henry, whose formal schoolinghad ended at the third grade, eked out a living for them,selling wildflowers door to door, herding cows, andcleaning a schoolhouse. Then a Stanford Universityprofessor discovered that the bedraggled twelve-yearoldhad an immense vocabulary, knowledge staggeringin its breadth, including a deep command of botany, andgigantic musical gifts, but he could barely spell.
Arrangements were made for Cowell to study English atStanford and music at the University of California,Berkeley, where the brilliant Charles Seeger guided theyoung man's unorthodox musical beliefs. Soon Cowellwas performing his music in the San Francisco Bay area.
After military service in World War I, Cowell'scareer bolted forward. His trademark was the \tonecluster,"or harmony of seconds (adjacent keys on thepiano). Although tone-clusters can occasionally befound in keyboard music of earlier centuries, Cowell'soften dominated a whole piece and requiredperformance by the forearm, the flat of the hand, or theside of the fist. Drawn to the spectacle of a pianistperforming with his forearms, or, later, plucking,strumming, and stroking the piano strings, sarcasticjournalists made him an international sensation. Whilefew of them recognised the musical basis of Cowell'stechniques, even his vociferous opponentsacknowledged his integrity. Professional admirersincluded Schnabel, Berg, and Bartok (who solicitedCowell's permission to use tone-clusters in his ownmusic). Yet while Cowell's piano works revealed newvistas of sound, his advanced ideas always coexistedwith a traditional melodiousness, stemming from hislove of folklore, that render even his most "experimental"music immediately accessible.
The selection of piano pieces included here showshow Cowell continually sought new compositionalchallenges and never confined himself to one style. ThePiece for Piano With Strings (1924), a product ofCowell's 1923 European tour, was first published inFrance. The odd title refers to Cowell's technique ofplaying directly on the piano's strings. Detailedperformance instructions indicate, for example,strumming and plucking with fingertips for a gentlesound, or with the fingernail for a bolder quality. Thethunderous piano sound is produced by tone-clusters sowide that they are played with both forearms. Vestiges(1920) has a kinship with European Expressionism, butwelds non-tonal harmonies to a tonal framework. Thesearch for rhythmic freedom produced the tiny Euphoria(ca. 1929), whose music floats off the bar lines.
(Although this title is in general use, Cowell'shandwriting suggests that he actually thought of it as"Euphonia.") The rambunctious What's This (ca.1915)embodies motoric force gone berserk; one British criticquipped that he could not answer the question in print.
Elegie, written around 1941 for the choreographerHanya Holm, applies Cowellian string techniques in aconservative style. The Banshee (1925), although notoriginally intended as a programmatic work, has becomeinextricable from the image of an Irish spirit that wails atthe time of a death. While an assistant depresses theright pedal, the pianist works inside the open piano like awitch over a cauldron, strumming and stroking it toconjure up proto-electronic sounds.
Cowell's life quickly evolved into one of multipleactivities. He formulated his ideas in a visionary bookNew Musical Resources (1916-19, published 1930). In1925, not content with theorizing, he created theCalifornia Society for New Music, which became asupport system for composers, first as a concert series,then a periodical, New Music, in which he publishednew works by senior masters and young hopefuls, and arecording series. In the early 1930s he initiated avisionary music programme at the New School forSocial Research, New York, which included a uniqueoffering of non-Western music. A GuggenheimFellowship in 1931-32 gave Cowell the opportunity toextend his knowledge of non-Western music at thephonograph archive of the University of Berlin. Armedwith an impressive grasp of other musical cultures, heproduced compositions, lectures, and writingsmanifesting his conviction that the world's musics forma gigantic resource whose elements can be recombinedinto unusual amalgams. He campaigned for publicawareness of non-Western music through lectures andradio programmes entitled Music of the World'sPeoples, and recordings on the Folkways label.
In the later 1920s Cowell began to write much morechamber, orchestral, and vocal music. Although hisexperimental nature became less overt, he never lost anindefinable quirkiness that reflects his celebrated wit.
Six Casual Developments (1933) for clarinet and piano,which was also arranged for woodwind quintet and forclarinet and chamber orchestra, includes his onlyattempt at jazz-influenced style. In Two Songs (1936) topoetry of Catherine Riegger, daughter of composerWallingford Riegger, he combined a tonal melody andharmonization with a haunting foundation of toneclusters,bringing the poetry to life in a manner that issimultaneously traditional and modern.
Unfortunately in 1936 Cowell's life took a terribleturn: jailed on a morals charge, he received a fifteenyearprison sentence. Paroled after four years in SanQuentin, he made his home in New York, and marriedthe folk-song collector Sidney Hawkins Robertson. In1942 the Governor of California, having learned thateven the prosecutor considered Cowell's convictionunjust, pardoned him. During the remainder of his lifehe taught at the New School for Social Research,Columbia University, the Peabody Conservatory, andmany other institutions.
One of the most dazzling post-war pieces, and oneof several in which he applied his ideas of world musicalfusion, is Set of Five (1952). In its quasi-baroque Largo,the piano and violin are supported by a rhythmic"continuo" on muted gongs. The Allegro blends violin,piano, and xylophone into a single colour; a contrastingTrio exploits lower-pitched sounds with startling effect.
The central movement, resembling a baroque cantabile,has a very un-baroque accompaniment of Indian tablasor tom-toms (the latter in this recording). In the secondPresto, an Indian Jalatarang, or a set of five porcelain ormetal bowls, provides punctuation (Continuum usedsoup bowls). Clear formal logic disguises continuousvariation that makes both scherzo-like movements intomonumental tongue-twisters. The majestic finaleencapsulates Cowell's career, with tone-clusters,harmonics on the piano strings, non-western percussion,tonal harmonies, and unabashed songfulness.
In 1956-57, the Cowells travelled throughout Asiato hear traditional music in its own setting. This journeyincluded an extended stay in Iran, where Cowell helpeddevelop radio programming, and a visit to the MadrasMusic Festival, the greatest annual showcase for Indianclassical music. Among the products were two worksmixing Persian and Western idioms and instruments:Persian Set, for chamber orchestra, and Homage to Iran.
Although Cowell rooted the works in Persian culture, hecomposed not as if he were Persian, but as an Americanvisitor striving for musi