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Book Review

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell by Sachs

A Man Made of Music

Joel Sachs
Oxford University Press. 2012
600 pp., incl. index
ISBN-10: 0195108957
ISBN-13: 978-0195108958
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Detailed life, less on music.

By the late Nineteenth Century, the United States had a crop of respected composers, almost all of which operated out of New York City and New England, Boston in particular. Almost all of them emulated German composers over a rather restricted range of idiom. Edward MacDowell was called the "American Schumann" and Horatio Parker the "American Wagner." Contrast this with the situation now. Although New York and Boston remain compositional powerhouses, lively, extremely diverse stuff goes on in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest, and in smaller cities and towns all over the country, especially in places hosting some academic institution, like Denton, Texas, Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Rochester, New York. Furthermore, despite this diversity and wide scattering, composers are at least generally aware of major compositional trends within the country, if not about specific work, and you never know where a major composer will turn up or the language he will use.

How did this network get built? You can make a great case for Henry Dixon Cowell as its principal architect. Cowell did at least as much – probably more – than anyone to bring various composers together, and not just North American ones. His interests ranged over the world of music – Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Bali, Japan. Nothing seemed to lie outside his attention.

At present, this is probably Cowell's most important legacy, and it's a shame, because he was also a considerable composer with over 1,000 works in his catalogue as well as a brilliant theorist. One could argue for him as avant-garde throughout his long career (he died in 1965), even though at least some of the time he wrote pieces outside the conventional avant-garde. Above all, he thought his own thoughts. To some extent, he suffered the fate of the super-productive. Without having seriously delved into his catalogue, writers have made the mistake of assuming low quality or massive unevenness. For years, they echoed Copland's line that Cowell was an inventor, rather than a composer, not realizing that Copland had an ax to grind.

As the saying goes, the victors write history. The standard story of Twentieth-Century American music, found in one history and textbook after another, runs as follows. After the German imitators and the isolated and largely unknown Charles Ives, the students of Nadia Boulanger created a Modern American school. Later, adherents of Arnold Schoenberg rose to prominence, mostly after World War II. Then the floodgates opened, and the avant-garde came rushing in. In other words, the Stravinsky-Boulanger-centered history won. A more recent and realistic view, advanced by such music historians as Walter Simmons, asserts that American music during the classic Modern era was far more variegated. For example, we had a bunch of Neo-Romantics, "jazzers," "proletarians," orientalists, and, crucially, so-called Ultra-Modernists, as well as people who fit only in their own box. Of the Ultra-Modernists, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Edgard Varèse remain the best-known. However, they tend to be treated as sports, whereas many other composers artistically allied themselves with them, rather than with the Boulangerie, and in their time made significant waves and opened up new, influential paths. They included Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudyar, Wallingford Riegger, John J. Becker, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Marc Blitzstein (at one point), as well as Cowell and many others. The Ultra-Modernists competed with the Boulangerie, the main antagonism Copland vs. Varèse for "leadership" of the American school.

Friendly (though not necessarily open) by nature, Cowell tried to avoid fights and smooth things over. As head of the League of Composers (the Ultra-Modernists, essentially), he programmed works by those in the opposite camp, the International Composers Guild, led by Copland. He reached out across the entire country. His New Music Press, far more open than the Guild's Cos Cob, printed scores and disseminated new music through recordings, with quality, rather than style, the main criterion. He helped bring Ives to notice, printing scores, scaring up performances, and issuing recordings. He helped Ruggles and Varèse in similar ways. He negotiated among fractious personalities, including the strongly right-wing and anti-Semitic Ruggles and Varèse and leftists like himself and the Seegers. He refused to promote himself through any of his organizations. His aversion to confrontation led to his removal from authority in a coup engineered by Varése and his chief ally, harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo, far more autocratic and opportunistic in their dealings. In a few years, they managed to kill their own League of Composers. They began another organization, the Pan American Association of Composers, recruiting Cowell as window dressing, and ran that one into the ground as well.

Cowell, more than a mere visionary genius, had a remarkable breadth of view, in many ways due to his early upbringing in California. Largely isolated from European Hochkultur in the Bay area of the time, he grew up around Irish folk songs (his father had emigrated from Ireland), Appalachian tunes, and Chinese music in San Francisco's Chinatown. His domineering mother, a professional writer, educated him according to her eccentric lights, by teaching him stuff he wanted to learn. Formally, he never had more than a third-grade education but knew quite a bit of botany, history, anthropology, various sciences, and music. He never had a firm grasp of math or even arithmetic. He began to compose at an early age and quickly discovered new musical resources, all the while trying to translate the sounds he heard in his head. He discovered extended piano technique, playing with his elbows for what he called "tone clusters" and strumming the strings. John Cage's "prepared piano" many years later descends from what Cowell was doing in the early part of the Twentieth Century. He developed a theory of tonality and of rhythm based on the ratios of the overtone series, the latter of which influenced the player-piano compositions of Conlon Nancarrow – again, decades later. However, Cowell seemed to invent not for its own sake, but out of expressive need. Many of his early experimental piano pieces come from his attraction to Irish Celtic myth and express a wild mysticism.

Furthermore, he never kept rigorously to one path. In the Thirties, as with most leftists, he sought ways to connect with a broad audience and did this largely through folk song. Again, it was folk song in his own manner, rather than Copland's or Virgil Thomson's. Like Stravinsky, he appropriated older forms and systems for update. Perhaps his most successful pieces in this regard are his Symphony #4, the Ballade, and, most spectacularly, the long series of "hymns and fuguing tunes" based on the American Southern Harmony and New England Singing Master traditions. From his earliest days, he also knew Asian musicians and learned a Japanese flute. Later, he came into contact with Colin McPhee who turned him onto music of the Pacific rim. Nevertheless, neither the music nor his receptiveness to it was exactly new. On cultural exchanges and tours for the State Department, he met musicians like Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Ravi Shankar, and Toru Takemitsu, and promoted their music in the West, sometimes at the expense of his own.

As you can probably guess, Cowell's music is at least interesting, but author Joel Sachs, conductor and music historian, mentions it without going into depth. He wanted to talk about it, but realized it would take a book twice as long as the present. Oxford, who ended waiting at least a decade for him to finish, told him they weren't about to issue a second volume. Fortunately, Cowell led an interesting, meaningful life beyond his composing. Probably the one fact that most people know about Cowell is his imprisonment on a morals charge in San Quentin, at the time, one of the worst jails in the country outside of Alabama. The bisexual Cowell was accused by a young man of oral sex, at the time a crime in California even between heterosexual couples. Incidentally, the penalty applied to both parties, at least in theory. It's unclear, however, whether such an event ever took place, since the young man was also a blackmailer. Cowell, probably never imagining that the charges would get very far, refused to put up a decent defense and got hit with fifteen years, after a smear campaign in the Hearst San Francisco Examiner, by a judge running for re-election. Cowell, as I've said, was bisexual. He had at least two serious love affairs with women that ended tragically. However, it severed some friendships, at least temporarily. Varèse cut him off, but Varèse was a notorious S.O.B. Charles and Harmony Ives felt betrayed, and Henry had looked on them as a substitute family, his own never having been all that close, especially his father. After denial of parole Cowell served about four years. His accuser never even got arrested.

In addition to his full-time prison duties in a jute mill, he managed to write music and, after he got transferred to the prison Education Department, two long treatises on melody and on rhythm. Both, for some reason, remain unpublished. He concentrated on writing music for the prison band and chorus. He also taught classes in theory, music history, and music appreciation. He taught over 2,000 inmates in the less than four years he served. Cowell's friends (including his psychiatrist) mobilized to get him out and then pardoned. Cowell was of two minds about the pardon, since accepting it meant an admission of guilt, but he needed it to work for Information Services during World War II. The permanent injuries done him included a neurotic reluctance to speak of the incident at all, a greater reserve, and a heart condition that ultimately led to his death. On the other hand, it brought him into contact with Ms. Sidney Robertson, a folk-music researcher, who lent her considerable energies to getting him out of jail. He married her shortly thereafter.

He enlisted her in his projects. Together, they collaborated on Charles Ives and His Music, the first important study of this composer. She had helped him heal somewhat the rift between the two. Henry dealt with the music and Sidney the life, by far the more difficult task, since Ives was so sick and weak that he couldn't sustain a conversation for very long. He would also get excited, which dangerously stressed his heart. Furthermore, Sidney edited Henry's rather compressed prose to make his thought intelligible to the general reader. Undoubtedly, he took advantage of her, pressing her into one or another of his projects or even asking her to ghostwrite an article for him, all at the expense of her own work. She finally put her foot down when he asked her to ghostwrite an article on Palestrina, a composer about whom neither she nor Henry knew very much.

Cowell's life during the Fifties and Sixties more or less turned around. Eventually, he earned enough money to live on. He was the honoree of cultural tours (which in turn inspired more music, like Persian Set, Homage to Iran, and a koto concerto) and music festivals. A series of strokes slowed him down and eventually brought him down in 1965. However, he remained remarkably active and engaged almost to the end, despite his health problems.

Joel Sachs has done a magnificent job sorting out contradictory stories and uncovering stuff that Henry wanted hidden. He had to wade through tons of paper, since Henry's mother, various friends, and Sidney had saved just about everything. He is especially good about clarifying Cowell's trial and the incidents that led up to it. He also gives a rich portrait of the composer's personality and the intellectual currents in which he moved. At over 500 pages of text, it's not really a light read, but it is a substantial one. The scholarly apparatus – bibliography, notes, and index – is first-rate and actually helpful. Academics as well would get something out of this book.

Again, I'm a little disappointed that Sachs hasn't tackled the music, especially since he knows it and has even led two CDs (Naxos 8.559192 and 8.559193) of Cowell's music with the new-music group Continuum. Maybe in another decade.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Schwartz.