COWELL: Quartet / Violin Suite / Songs / Piano Pieces / Polyphonica / Irish Suite (Cheryl Seltzer/ Cheryl Seltzer/ Continuum/ Ellen Lang/ Jayn Rosenfeld/ Joel Sachs/ Joel Sachs/ Maria Kitsopoulos/ Marsha Heller/ Mia Wu) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559192)
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Henry Cowell (1897-1965): Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music 1
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 opponents acknowledgedhis integrity. Professional admirers included Schnabel,Berg, and Bartok (who solicited Cowell's permission touse tone-clusters in his own music). Yet while Cowell'spiano works revealed new vistas of sound, his advancedideas always coexisted with a traditional melodiousness,stemming from his love of folklore, that renders even hismost "experimental" music immediately accessible. Thepiano pieces recorded here suggest both the breadth ofCowell's pianistic style, and his devotion to his Irishheritage.
Deep Color (1938), one of his last "radical" pianopieces, represents the deep purple of Irish valleys. In TheFairy Answer (ca. 1929) direct playing on the stringsevokes an ancient tale related by Cowell: "There is inKildare a glen where, ...if one plays music at one end,the fairies themselves will answer with their own musicat the other." Although it might sound like an echo, "thefairy music... is never just the same as the music towhich it responds". Tiger (1928-9) may be Cowell'smost dissonant work; like Deep Color, it uses immensetone-clusters, though to entirely different ends. Tigerwas first published in the USSR in 1929, when he wasthe first American composer to visit the young country.
Cowell, guided by an unfailing faith in his instinctsabout sound, cultivated a multiplicity of compositionalapproaches. Many piano pieces, for example, areconventionally played but make other novel demands.
Fabric (1920) is a polyrhythmic study employing anunusual notation system described in New MusicalResources, the forward-looking treatise that Cowelldrafted when about twenty years old. In the Suite forViolin and Piano (1925) he fused the tone-cluster withthe language of the baroque suite.
Until the mid-1930s, Cowell divided his timebetween the east and west coasts, toured Europe andAmerica, and worked indefatigably for Americancomposers. In 1925 he created the California Society forNew Music; in 1927 he founded New Music, a quarterlypublication of new compositions from the United States,Latin America, and Europe that was virtually the onlyoutlet for American modernism. In 1928, Cowell,Var?¿se, and others formed the Pan American Associationof Composers to foster inter-American relations throughconcerts here and abroad. Then a GuggenheimFellowship brought Cowell to Germany to study non-Western music at the University of Berlin's phenomenalarchive of recorded world music. His deep belief in theunity of world musical cultures became the threadconnecting his diverse activities.
Gradually Cowell turned from writing piano musicto ensemble music. Polyphonica (1930), a study indissonant counterpoint, was first performed in NewYork in 1932, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky. (It isscored for twelve players, as heard here, or fororchestra.) Another fascinating piece of this period is theIrish Suite, an arrangement of three "string piano" piecesas a concerto, which Cowell first played in Boston withSlonimsky's orchestra in 1929. Although Cowell oftendenied that his pieces were illustrative, he related theIrish legends to which the titles allude:"The Banshee is an Irish family ghost who comesand wails at the time of a death in the family. TheLeprechaun is a gnome who is a cobbler for fairy shoes,and even when not seen, he may be heard tapping themtogether, and sawing his fairy leather." Concerning TheFairy Bells: "If you walk out into the Irish mountains,and get lost in the fog there, you will be guided by a faroffsound; and although you may think it is sheep bells,you will find that there are no sheep in the mountainsthere, -- so what could it be but the fairies?"Unfortunately, performance instructions for the solopart of The Leprechaun have disappeared, and much ofthe solo part is indicated only as rhythms that organizeda wealth of unusual pianistic techniques. For whatprobably was the first performance in almost sixty years,Cheryl Seltzer reconstructed the piano part, usingdescriptions of Cowell's techniques and implements(darning egg, pencils, metallic objects) from his 1929programme note, press accounts, and recollections ofNicolas Slonimsky.
Cowell's frequent lecture-recitals were noted for hiswry wit, which is heard in the Three Anti-ModernistSongs, composed in 1938 to newspaper poemsrepublished in Slonimsky's Music Since 1900. Thesedelightful parodies came at a most difficult time forCowell, however. Because of hysteria about sexualoffences in California, a morals infraction brought him afifteen-year term in San Quentin prison. Characteristicallyoptimistic, he used his time to develop an extensivemusic education programme for the inmates. Afterserving four years, he was paroled in 1940 to thesupervision of Percy Grainger, the celebrated Australianpianist-composer, who lived just outside New YorkCity. Two years later, he married an old friend, the folksongcollector Sidney Hawkins Robertson. When he wasoffered a wartime job, Sidney Cowell undertook to winhim a pardon, which succeeded when the prosecutor toldthe California governor that an injustice had beencommitted. Now able to travel freely, Cowell worked atthe Office of War Information, creating musicprogrammes to be beamed overseas. He was uniquelysuited for the job. He had spent much of the previoustwenty years studying and lecturing on non-Westernmusic. His pioneering work, which became widelydisseminated through radio programmes and recordingsof his Music of the World's Peoples series, did much toincrease public appreciation of the diversity of worldmusic. His influence can be felt today in the powerfulposition of cross-cultural composition.
The Cowells lived in Manhattan and in the CatskillMountains about two hours north of New York City.
Among their frequent collaborations, their biography ofCharles Ives remains a classic. After the war, heresumed teaching at the New School, wh