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Introducing the Mavericks: Henry Cowell—Free Spirit

In the first of an illuminating series that focuses on key composers featured in American Mavericks, Andrew ByrneManager of Festivals and Special Projects at Carnegie Hallintroduces Californian Henry Cowell, who was described by John Cage as "the open sesame for new music in America."

About Henry Cowell

"Composer Lou Harrison often emphasized the ingenuity of his teacher and colleague Henry Cowell by referencing his driving habits. When confronted with a steep hill on a typical drive through San Francisco, Cowell's Model T sometimes could not make the grade. So he'd simply turn the car around, put it in its trusty reverse gear, and slowly back up the hill instead. Far be it from Henry Cowell to be inhibited by convention."—Charles Amirkhanian

Described by John Cage as "the open sesame for new music in America," Henry Cowell is one of the most original stars in the American Mavericks firmament—a free spirit whose activities as a composer, performer, theorist, writer, and impresario transformed American music. Born in Menlo, California, in 1897, to parents who called themselves "philosophical anarchists," Cowell was given the most wide-ranging and improvised of educations. He explored the piano himself, while also integrating a variety of influences, from San Francisco's Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods to Irish folk music.

From the beginning, Cowell approached music with his ears wide open. His early music for piano—with its use unconventional techniques like tone clusters (in The Tides of Manaunaun) and plucking the strings inside the piano (in The Banshee)—amazed and unsettled many listeners, establishing him as an international figure of notoriety. Cowell toured Europe in the 1920s, playing for Arnold Schoenberg's composition class, meeting Béla Bartók, and causing a sensation wherever he went. Upon returning to the United States, he became a tireless advocate for contemporary music and for composers: founding the journal New Music, composing intensively, outlining his unorthodox theories and techniques in New Musical Resources (a hugely influential work on succeeding generations of avant-garde composers), and teaching the next generation of composers, including John Cage and Lou Harrison.

The composer's own musical output is huge (his catalog of compositions includes more than 996 works!) and is impossible to categorize, with pieces running the gamut from diatonic to chromatic, from serious to humorous, from folk to art, and from conservative to radical. What unites all Cowell's music is a continuing spirit of exploration.

Cowell stands as a unique and influential figure in American music. His innovative and unorthodox ideas in New Musical Resources exerted a powerful influence on the following generations; such achievements as Conlon Nancarrow's dizzily complex player-piano pieces or the exotic sounds of John Cage's prepared piano are indebted to Cowell's ideas. In addition, Cowell's openness of mind—his willingness to look East as well as West for musical inspiration—became a model for young American composers. As Cowell himself said, he wished "to live in the whole world of music."

Suggested Playlist

"Synchrony begins with about a minute of music for trumpet alone. It is not so much music as flight and soaring and wheeling translated into music. What the trumpet plays is the source material for everything else that happens in this 12-minute piece. From time to time, we are reminded that Cowell had heard Debussy and Stravinsky, but the overwhelming impression is that of a new voice in the land." —Excerpt from San Francisco Symphony's program notes by Michael Steinberg

The Tides of Manaunaun

The Banshee

Dig Deeper

At the Other Minds Audio Archive, listen to Henry Cowell talk about his life and play examples of his music from his entire career as a composer.

Stream Cowell's piano music—including The Tides of Manaunaun and The Banshee—at

American Mavericks
Break the Rules

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