Thursday, December 20, 2012

Henry Cowell: Piano Music

This fascinating and utterly individualistic recording of composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) performing piano pieces was issued originally in 1963 and then in a 1993 CD edition under the Smithsonian/Folkways label and features nineteen works and a 13-minute commentary by the composer.

The pieces are short, ranging from just under a minute to one that is less than four-and-a-half minutes in length.  They feature Cowell's use of "tone clusters," in which the palm, side of the hand, and forearm are used to play tonal groups of from three to twelve adjacent notes for unusual effect, sometimes a cluster is formed and keys pressed and then another key is pressed silently and then the cluster is released, creating a stunning ring-like sound.  He first received attention for this technique on a tour of Europe in 1923, but finished a book on what has been called "dissonant secundal technique" four years before that, when only 22 years old.  This challenged the primacy of intervals in thirds.

Another favored technique is what Cowell called "string piano," in which he strummed, plucked or used objects directly on the soundboard's strings and held down keys silently while strumming and then depressing the key for that ringing sound mentioned above, but with a different tone.

In 1929, Cowell published New Musical Resources, in which he explained his novel theories and his concept of overtones played above the usual pitch in the piano, this being displayed most notably in the aptly-titled "Sinister Resonance" conjoined with "The Aeolian Harp," which employs the ringing from the tone clusters mentioned earlier.  He also explored ways to sustain multiple rhythms simultaneously and it should not be surprising that he worked with Leon Theremin, namesake of that infamous "instrument," on electromechanical sound production.

Cowell also was deeply steeped in modal concepts from Asia and was barely in his teens when he became familiar with religious modal music from an organist in San Francisco.  Raised without any real exposure to "classical" music directly, the composer did have much experience with Irish and American folk music through his parents and the music of Chinese families living around him.  He later studied the music of China, India, Indonesia and Japan, as well as "traditional classical" forms, but only after he had rigorously created his own independent and idiosyncratic approach to composition.

It is especially interesting to hear Cowell, in his unusual patterns of speech, discuss the works on the recording, dating as far back as the first piece, "The Tides of Manaunaun," which he composed at age 14.  Most striking in its daring and dissonance is the self-explanatory "The Banshee," in which the composer stood at the end of the piano and had someone sitting at the keyboard to press the damper pedal while Cowell rubbed lengthwise and then played pizzicato on the strings in two distinct themes.  The wail of the banshee is depicted vividly in his manner of writing and playing the tune.

All the songs on Piano Music date to 1928 or before. but were recorded in the early 1960s.  In the interim, Cowell, who was bisexual, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a staggering 14 years on a "morals" charge involving a relationship with another man.  He wound up serving 4 years at San Quentin, where he immersed himself in musical activity of all sorts, was released in 1940 and pardoned two years later. 

By all accounts, however, the harrowing experience changed him and his music dramatically and his political and music radicalism essentially ended, though thematically Asian concepts and inspirations still animated his work.  By the time he recorded this album in 1963, though, Cowell had become more experimental in his work again, a reflection of social and musical changes perhaps that encouraged him, though the composer died in 1965 at age 68.

Piano Music is a great opportunity to hear a true original performing, and explaining, his works in a way not often presented and the Smithsonian/Folkways project of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies for the Smithsonian Institution (which also produced the important 1959 John Cage/David Tudor recording Indeterminacy) has provided a great service in issuing this great recording.

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