Henry Cowell rose to prominence in the 1920s as an avant-gardist of American music. He was a bold, original trailblazer who broadened the potential of instrumental sonorities through the use of tone clusters.
Henry Cowell came from a modest background. He did odd jobs to save up and buy a piano, on which he experimented with new sounds by striking the keyboard with his wrists and forearms. He called these chords tone clusters and used them in his early compositions. While there is nothing new in the idea, it was Cowell who systematised this type of chord and made it an integral part of twentieth-century harmonic language.
Other composers followed his lead. He performed all sorts of experiments with the piano to change its customary timbre and the way it is usually played. For example, he placed various objects on the strings, or plucked the strings like a violinist playing pizzicato or glissandos under the piano lid. He was born in California. He eclectic mind influenced his taste for oriental scales and rhythms. He went to Berlin to study ethnomusicology with Erich von Hornbostel and work on ethnic musical materials.
He became interested in extremely complex rhythmic combinations that man cannot play unaided, and built a keyboard-cum-percussion instrument known as the rhythmicon with the help of Russian electrical engineer, Leon Theremin. This instrument could produce 16 different rhythms simultaneously at 16 different levels of the harmonic series. Cowell was also a pioneer in musical form, which he envisaged as elastic and random, as in his third string quartet, Mosaic.
He was a free spirit, innovative and self-taught, but this did not stop him undertaking formal studies with Strickland, Wallace Sabin, Frank Damrosch and Charles Seeger, or also composing for traditional forms.
He taught in the top American universities and gave lectures to disseminate and defend new music. Gershwin and Cage were among his students. He received a number of honorary awards. He was a friend of Berg and Bartok.
As a musician, he was at once avant-garde and traditional: he was able to separate the two facets of his personality.
His vast repertoire includes orchestral works, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo instrumentalists (e.g. piano, harmonica, accordion, percussion, Japanese koto), vocal music and an unfinished opera.
Six landmark dates in the life of Henry Cowell:
- 1914: His sound innovations were demonstrated at a concert on 5 March at the San Francisco Musical Society
- 1918: Worked as an arranger for the US Army Band during his military service (after starting out as a cook)
- 1918: First American composer to visit the USSR and have his works published there
- 1927: Founded the New Music Quarterly society to publish his contemporaries' works
- 1931: Was awarded a scholarship by the Guggenheim Foundation to study ethnomusicology in Berlin
- 1932: Gave a lecture-concert to present his rhythmicon in San Francisco
Six key works by Henry Cowell:
- 1924: Ensemble for string quintet and thundersticks
- 1931: Rhythmicana for rhythmicon and orchestra
- 1934: Mosaic for string quartet
- 1940: Tales of our Countryside for piano and orchestra
- 1957-58: Madras Symphony for small orchestra and three Indian instruments
- 1963: The Creator for chorus and orchestra
Biography compiled from Radio France Musical Documentation (January 2014)