After Henry Cowell was convicted of a felony, the town of Menlo Park didn't really claim the composer as one of its own. Still, a local citizen recollects the composer:
He remembers when there were only three houses per block along Cedar Avenue, where he grew up. In one of the houses down the street lived renowned composer Henry Cowell, who would drop by to play the piano and also play music "on my mother's crystal goblets."
This also reminds me to check Amazon for the new Cowell biography by Joel Sachs.
Mark Swed complains that California music festivals pretty much ignore our region's composers. Since I live within walking distance of both the Music@Menlo festival and the ol' Henry Cowell homestead, I particularly enjoyed this section:
Music@Menlo can be especially annoying in its East Coast and European provincialism. Founded in 2003 by cellist David Finkel and pianist Wu Han (who also head the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center), they seem eager enough for Silicon Valley support just as long as they don't have to acknowledge anything about the important musical history of the area.
Menlo Park happened to be the birthplace of Henry Cowell in 1897. The father of West Coast music, he invented tone clusters and was the first to play directly on the piano strings. He was a pioneer in percussion music and, most important of all, a pioneer in creating an interest in world music. He was a mentor to George Gershwin, John Cage, Lou Harrison and many others. A boy genius, he was the subject of Stanford University psychology studies. Ignoring Cowell, a prolific and neglected composer, and his world in Menlo Park might be likened to not acknowledging Mozart and his world at the Salzburg Festival.
Note that Cowell didn't actually live in the city limits of Menlo Park but slightly west of town. And that he was convicted of child molestation means the city does nothing to recognize him, despite his ultimate pardon.
I did find this 1998 article in the local Menlo Park weekly paper regarding Cowell's conviction and ultimate redemption. And I posted in 2006 about an article on Cowell's prison years and the impact on his friendship with Charles Ives.
Several times Cage visited San Quentin, expressing his affectionate loyalty to Henry Cowell. In 1936 his mentor -- a passionate believer in the future of percussion music -- had been arrested on charges of conducting sexual activities with some boys at the pool behind his Menlo Park cottage. Pleading guilty, he received a one-to-fifteen-year sentence, but was paroled after four.
While imprisoned, Cowell composed Hilarious Curtain Opener and other pieces for the Cornish production of The Marriage at the Eiffel Tower. Other parts of the score were written by Cage and George McKay with libretto by Jean Cocteau.
The latest discovery: The Symphony Orchestra and Its Instruments by the late Henry Cowell. I knew Cowell had taught but I'm surprised that such an unconventional composer would write for such an orthodox project.
But he DID bail Henry Cowell out of prison, so perhaps he is more
tolerant than he acts. He kept shouting obnoxious phrases like “take
your dissonance like a man.”
Ok, presumably Roger, er Hector, didn't just talk with Charles Ives but it's easy to imagine Ives saying that.
In my mind though, it's the music of Cowell rather than Ives that tests tolerance for this type of harmony. Think of it as a spiritual tonic.
An Amazon reviewer suggests pianist Chris Brown performs Cowell's Dynamic Motion by doing "methodical full-body slams." Although we (I) may be living in chaotic times, tonight anyway I'm enjoying this piece. Next up this evening: Link Wray's Rumble followed by his rendition of the Batman Theme (although it's hard to top the Sun Ra version, if in fact it really is Sun Ra).
I'm listening to songs by Henry Cowell, a composer I associate with the unconventional and ultra-modern. And I find it odd that his setting of these songs are not, for the most part, odd. But the CD is good, nonetheless.
Note: his Mother Goose Rhymeswas written while serving time under difficult circumstances in San Quentin.
tried listening to it, want/wanted to, but i couldnt hear more than two
chords, my heart started beating fast and i felt lightheaded
immediately and something inside me cried, i could hear myself sobbing
in my head "no no stop it stop it make it stop, stop it dont listen
stop it" that was very scary
other unsafe cowell works: the banshee, concerto for piano and orchestra, the voice of lir, aeolian harp, anger dance, what's this. cowell streams.
The latest American Music has an article by Leta Miller and Rob Collins titled The Cowell-Ives Relationship: A New Look at Cowell's Prison Years. The thesis of the article is that even though Henry Cowell was imprisoned for a sexual act with a minor, Charles Ives, despite his anger and distress, may have still wanted to continue their friendship. There is a hard-to-decipher note written by Ives to Cowell indicating he didn't know what to say or do about the situation but wished him well for the future.
I don't know what to make of this. What I found more interesting in the short note was Ives describing his own travails (circa 1937; he lived another seventeen years):
As far as music is concerned, I'm through--can't see it, can't hear it well, & can't play it except both hands or both feet.
Not sure why, but Google Reader is showing me every post from Renewable Music, not the just the recent ones. This turns out to be a feature, not a bug as it provides the opportunity to re-read many interesting posts.
Some devices allow themselves to be dated with fair precision, and
first compositional usage can be determined with similar accuracy:
Cowell gets hands inside of the piano, Cage gets nuts and bolts,
Stephen Scott gets bowed and stroked piano wire. Varese gets sirens.
Salzedo gets a near-monopoly on harp effects.This Year's Model
He called up the lead examiner and said: "I can't grade this. I went to
Berkeley with La Monte Young. I saw La Monte Young brush his teeth on
I can well imagine that this was one of the problems that led Ligeti to give up on his operatic setting of The Tempest (he wanted to make an orchestral storm in the overture) and I've heard tell that John Adam has turned to acoustical absence to represent an even that, portrayed naturally, would certain be overwhelmingly present.Representation
The specialized new music press is dominated by necrologues and reports
on music-making by the usual suspects of generations past and all as
packaged in the familiar institutions. New music in Germany, nowadays
I did a quick count on the Sequenza 21 list -- I've heard 68 of the
pieces listed (the Nancarrow Studies counted together as one), and
surprisingly, I've heard most of them in concert, with only a handful
encountered on radio, and only one or two of the pieces were heard only
via recordings.Making lists, checking them twice, redux
from Philip K. Dick, Cantata-140: ... Softly, his tape deck played one of the cloud chamber pieces by the great mid-twentieth century composer, Harry Partch.Alternative Universes (1)
This decade offers some surprising juxtapositions of generations and
styles, and while some works on my list still clearly reflect a
"masterwork" ethic of works of great scale and moment, most of the
pieces on this list challenge that ethic in some substantial way -- a
single movement symphony, stripped-down, souped-up, or spaced-out
orchestras, percussion and extended techniques, and radical miniatures
of condensed expression.Best works of the 1920's
That last quote follows Daniel Wolf's list of best works of the 1920s, including Cowell's The Banshee. That work is probably the composer's most memorable (and maybe most radical) work of the time; it's possible I have underrated it. It does capture some of the essential energies flowing through Cowell.