4 New Musical Resources
Radical innovation in the music of Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
"I want to live in the whole world of music." Henry Cowell
According to Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell was his first brilliant student. Certainly, by the time that Harry Cowell took his seventeen-year-old son along to meet Seeger at Berkeley - probably in the autumn of 1914 - Henry had composed his Opus 18. Seeger was duly impressed.
The circumstances of Cowell's life and education in the years prior to this meeting had been unusual, to say the least. His formal schooling had lasted for only a few months, while his informal teaching had consisted of endless conversations with his mother, and profuse reading. As the family's sole income-earner he had worked as a janitor, gardener, and collector of wild flowers.
The music produced during these early years - increasing greatly in quantity following the purchase of an upright piano in 1912 - shows a corresponding freedom form academic constraint. To Cowell, anything was valid source material for a new composition, and this is reflected in many of his titles: "The Night Sound" (10), "Waltz in Rippling Waters" (15), "Polish Dance" (31), "Savage Suite" (40) and "Mist Music" (65 and 66) (all of which date from 1910-13 are typical. A few pieces point towards the future: the third movement of "Adventures in Harmony" (59) (Jun. 1913) employs primitive tone-clusters; in "Sounds from the Conservatory" (60) (Jun. 1913) two tonally different pieces are performed simultaneously. and in "Anger Dance" (104/6) (May 1914) the composer's frustration with an unsympathetic doctor is translated into the multi-repetition of short musical phrases in an early premonition of the minimalist processes which over fifty years later produced Philip Glass' "Music in Similar Motion".
The experience of these years is best summarized in "Resume in Ten Movements (120) (Sept. 1914), whose movements both chart a chronological path through musical history and provide emphatic evidence of Cowell's innate eclecticism. Among the items are a "Classic Sonata", Norwegian, English, Irish and Oriental "Folk Music", and a "Romantic" sonata. The "Futurist" coda-cadenza includes the use of piano harmonics: the silently-held pitches are notated in a manner (using diamond-shaped noteheads) now familiar, but which must have been rather uncommon in California in 1914.
Once Cowell had started his studies at Berkeley, Seeger convinced him of the importance of two separate - and yet linked - points: that Cowell needed to examine systematically his own use of new and experimental compositional techniques; and, conversely, that he should compose a repertory of works which would further explore these innovations. The theoretical half of this equation was met by a remarkable book, New Musical Resources, written between 1916 and 1919 though revised before its original publication in 1930. p. 134-135
Tone-clusters are essentially chords built from major and minor seconds. At the simplest level, a C major triad with added second, sixth and seventh could be said to consist of two tone-clusters, as could a pentatonic, black-note or white-note, chord. More usually, though, the tone-cluster will consist of a larger number of adjacent pitches, either diatonic (white-note), pentatonic (black-note), or chromatic (white and black notes).
Cowell devised a special notation to indicate the use of clusters. Further refinements include anatomical indications ("Play with the flat of hand"; "Play with both forearms together "), the use of a specific notation (x or +) to indicate the use of the fist, and the appearance of silently held clusters (see example 4.24). p.155