Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Henry Cowell

Photo of Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell | Photo © Sidney Cowell

Henry Cowell was an American iconoclast: a maverick composer who created his own most original musical language in response to a particular, uniquely “American” experience. A list of such radical American composers begins with Cowell’s personal hero and role model, Charles Ives and continues with Cowell’s own students John Cage and Lou Harrison; such a list would include such compositional renegades as Roy Harris, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnik. The list goes on; I shall not.

With the exception of Charlie Ives, what all of these composers have in common is that they are either natives of California (Cowell, Cage, Partch, Riley, Subotnik) or spent a formative period of their musical lives in California (Harrison, Harris, and Oliveros). 

Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

Cowell was born on March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California: as the bird flies about 25 miles south of San Francisco. His Irish immigrant father and Iowa-born mother were both writers, and authentic proto-hippies in their attitudes towards life and childrearing. 

Young Henry Cowell at the piano
Henry Cowell as a young dude

Cowell began playing the violin at age 5, began composing at 10, and bought himself his first piano when he was 13. According to the composer and Cowell biographer Bruce Saylor, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“He studied with various local piano teachers and composed constantly, unencumbered by systematic training in composition or, indeed, any formal schooling. Encouraged by his parents’ educational philosophy of complete freedom and by the traditional California attitude of independent thinking, he readily accepted as valid musical material the many sounds around him. Important and lasting influences were the sounds of nature and the noises of man, his mother’s Midwestern folk tunes and the oriental [Asian] musical cultures of the San Francisco Bay Area.” 

Again: “and the oriental – Asian – musical cultures of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

These “musical cultures” – these seminal influences – included Javanese gamelan; Chinese opera (later in life Cowell said that he had heard Chinese opera before he knew of the existence of Italian opera); Japanese Noh drama (among the Asian instruments Cowell learned to play was the Japanese bamboo flute called the shakuhachi; his work The Universal Flute of 1940 is the first composition for that instrument by an American); and the casual music-making and street singing heard everywhere in the disparagingly-named “Chinatowns” that dot the Bay Area. It wasn’t just the melodic and harmonic language of these various types of music that worked their way into Cowell’s soul; it was also a non-Western European sense of musical time, rhythm, and melodic pattern that characterized so much of his music to the end of his life.

Cowell’s wide range of musical influences combined to make him a composer of tremendous spontaneity and eclecticism, in whose music aspects of Western and non-Western music merge into a whole a gazillion times greater than its parts!…continue reading about the music of Henry Cowell, and see Dr. Bob’s prescribed work and recording, only on Patreon!