Chapter IX The Fifth Season, 1931-1932
New Music Society: Demonstration of the Rhythmicon
Mason ended his article with a reference to a forthcoming concert of the new Music Society: "On Saturday night Cowell invites folks to attend the concert of the new Music Society when a composition for two pianos, each tuned a quarter of a tone apart, will be played." The concert had been scheduled, however, more to demonstrate the rhythmicon than the quarter-tone music to which Mason referred. The rhythmicon, a mechanical instrument built by Leon Theremin to Cowell's specifications, produced counterrhythms too complex to be played on regular instruments.
According to Sidney Cowell, Cowell had been interested in the possibility of such an instrument for many years and had discussed the project with his friend Russell Varian as early as 1915-16. Although Varian actually made some sketches, it was Theremin who built the instrument for Cowell. Originally designed to illustrate complex rhythms, the instrument was further developed to produce sounds tuned to the overtone series (e.g., rhythms of 2 against 1 would sound an octave, 3 against 2 a perfect fifth). Even though Theremin, at that time (in the 1920s and '30s) was receiving offers as high as $10,000 from Hollywood studios for work with with his earlier instrument, the Theremin, he only charged Cowell $200 for the rhythmicon, because according to Mrs. Cowell, "he always enjoyed Cowell and was glad to help him."
Cowell had planned to exhibit the rhythmicon in Europe and in a letter to Ives from Berlin in October 1931 said, "I have been composing and have finished the second movement of my work for the Rhythmicon with orchestra for Nicolas to use in Paris in February." Cowell wrote again on November 14 that he had completed three movements of the work and, three days later, that he was working on the last movement "and am very happy in the work__it is really a delight to be working on something presenting so many new musical problems, and still having as a whole, such simple outlines." But Slonimsky did not perform the rhythmicon work in February at the Paris concerts, possibly because of reservations on Ives's part, as indicated in his letter to Slonimsky in January. In it he refers to financing the building of a second instrument, and its future seemed to hinge on a demonstration about to take place at the New School:
I had a long talk with Henry the day after you left. I told him what I told you about the "Rhythmicon" situation as I had got to thinking about it after our meeting__and we went into it from all angles. It relieved my mind to know especially that the new one would really be nearer to an instrument, than a machine. There will be a "lever" that can readily change the "tempo" with pedals and also the "tones" etc. It wasn't so much the question of having another made__I think it ought to__it will be improved, transported, and studied on__but the main question is whether it is yet time to present it at Paris_and if so how is the best way to do it. Henry feels as I do about that__and after the demonstration at the New School for Social Research next Tuesday we can know better how to do it. I sent the remitted check to Mr. Theremin yesterday__and he's started the building. It will be yours and Henry's__I just want to help__and sit under its "shadow"on a nice day.
In a footnote, Slonimsky says that Cowell's special piece Rhythmicana (presumably the one Cowell referred to in his letters to Ives) was completed too late to be used at the Paris concerts. Mrs. Cowell recalls a further reason why the demonstration did not take place in Europe: the fragility of the instrument and the difficulty of transporting it.
The rhythmicon was demonstrated, however, at the New School in New York on January 19. The importance of the invention is underscored by two reviews of the program__one in Musical America and one in Modern Music. Theremin showed both the rhythmicon and the Theremin, but interest, according to the Musical America article, centered on the former because the latter had been heard numerous times. After the demonstration, the reviewer concluded that the "melodic possibilities of the instrument seem small, though its theoretical interest is high. The sound is like that of a reed organ." He questioned the advisability of adding tones to the rhythmic beats because "this more or less defeats its own end, as the ear, being more accustomed to listen for melody than rhythm, is apt to ignore the latter. Marc Blitzstein, on the other hand, writing in Modern Music, thought it a good idea to give each rhythm a pitch, but his complaint dealt with the limitation in which "one is constrained to represent a single rhythm always upon the same repeated note and without deviation from the regular beat . . ."
When the instrument was demonstrated in San Francisco at the concert on May 15, the program described the method of sound and rhythm production as "a new principle of television . . .caused by the influence of light on a photo-electric cell" (Plate XXIX). Although the concert also included quarter-tone piano music by Mildred Couper, a composer from Santa Barbara, it was the rhythmicon which caused the greatest stir. Cowell wrote to Ives the next day, saying that the rhythmicon had been accepted in San Francisco better than in the East as a "real artistic instrument." Later in the month, he told Ives again that "the rhythmicon has been accepted with almost wild acclaim here in several places, as opening up a field for both music and investigation. There has been, in the west, none of the sort of misunderstanding we feared, which is encouraging."
In the former letter, Cowell had enclosed a copy of an unidentified review of the concert. He probably did not send the one by Alfred Metzger in The Chronicle which was highly uncomplimentary. Metzger found the combination of Carol Weston's violin solos with rhythmicon accompaniment "unusual and interesting to say the least," but described the sounds of the rhythmicon as "a cross between a grunt and a snort in the low 'tones' and like an Indian war whoop in the high tones."
Cowell, at this time, was engaged in a series of six lectures on contemporary music at the Y.W.C.A. in San Francisco. Marjory M. Fisher, of the San Francisco News, obviously impressed with the talks, went far beyond merely reviewing the series. Instead, she summarized Cowell's own work and his attitudes toward American music and its composers. She began in her article of June 1 by calling Cowell's music "typically American and his famous 'tone clusters' probably the most startling and original contribution any American has yet contributed to the field of music." She then pointed out that in the lecture on May 31, Cowell modestly disclaimed any right to discuss his own works; rather he placed Ives and Ruggles "at the top of the list of composers whose works are indigenous to America, because they have evolved individual formalisms which denote a minimum of foreign influence." p. 189-190
Plate XXIX Program for the New Music Society Concert, May 15, 1932.
The New Music Society presents quarter-tone music on two pianos and a demonstration of the new musical instrument RHYTHMICON at the Auditorium of the Y.W.C.A. 620 Sutter Street, San Francisco Sunday evening, May 15, at 8:15 PROGRAM Xanadu - Mildred Couper (written as incidental music for Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions, for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart.) Performed by the composer and Malcolm Thurburn. Xanadu (repeated) Demonstration by Henry Cowell of his new instrument the COWELL-THEREMIN RHTYHMICON
The rhythmicon is a new musical instrument for the production of rhythms of all types by the holding of keys on the keyboard. As long as the key is held, the corresponding rhythm will be sustained. Rhythmic harmo- nies produced by sounding several rhythms together are made easy and practical to perform. The rhythm is related to sound scientifically, so that a sonal harmony cor- responding to the rhythm in vibration ratio is always heard. The sound and rhythm are both produced by a new principle of tele- vision, and are caused by the influence of light on a photo-electric cell. p.191
The final article dealt with Cowell as a promoter of American music__"This writer nominates Henry Cowell for the title of the world's outstanding promoter of American music"_-and listed his achievements, including his establishment of the New Music Society and being "editor of its two publications, head of the Pan American Association of Composers in New York, musical editor of the American Annual, and recipient of the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship." "Henry Cowell," Fisher proclaimed, "is a man of ideas and of action" and she put forth two of Cowell's newest ideas__a plan for recordings by the Pan American Association and a 'high-brow' radio station devoted exclusively to the best and highest form of music." p.192