Re: Muzsikás and Bela Bartok

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 9 07:15:51 MDT 2000

Late one night in the early 1960s, I turned on Henry Cowell's weekly
ethnomusicology radio show on WBAI, (the local affiliate of the radical
Pacifica network) and heard some of the most electrifying music I have
heard in my life. To this day, the sounds echo in my mind. Cowell, who was
playing Bela Bartok's field recordings of Roma violin music, explained that
this is the REAL THING, as opposed to what you hear in a restaurant. So I
guess my search in life has been for the REAL THING, either in music, art,
literature or politics.

Cowell approached folk music in the same manner as Bartok or Muzsikás. He
was a progressive who saw such music as the soul of a nation, and hinting
at emancipatory politics. Cowell was a member of the Composers Collective
in the 1920s that also included Charles Seeger (Pete's father), Aaron
Copland (friend of the CPUSA) and celebrated agitprop composer Marc
Blitzstein, whose banned "The Cradle Will Rock" was the subject of Tim
Robbins' recent film.


The New York Times, March 9, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

Modern Times Catch Up to a Past Maverick


EVERY AMERICAN COMPOSER of this century has had to contend with the great
European musical tradition. Some have been beholden to it, others
intimidated by it; still others have made a big fuss about renouncing it.

Henry Cowell, who would have turned 100 on Tuesday, was oblivious to it.

Born in California to anarchist parents, Cowell was weaned on the jigs his
Irish relatives sang, and the Chinese, Japanese and Indian music he heard
in his San Francisco neighborhood. Early on, he developed a wildly
experimental streak. By 15, he was composing audacious piano pieces spiked
with "tone clusters," a term he coined for sounds produced by slapping the
keys with palms, fists and forearms.

Among the nearly 1,000 works Cowell composed are 20 symphonies. Not one
follows the European model, "those surging symphonies with blood-red
climaxes where suddenly you understand what life is," in the words of the
music historian Wayne Shirley. Cowell's music never strives for greatness.
In fact, he may be most influential composer of this century who never
wrote a masterpiece. . .

"Cowell is finally being recognized as a bellwether," said the musicologist
H. Wiley Hitchcock, who, like Mr. Shirley, will participate in the
symposium. Mr. Hitchcock calls Cowell the "prodigal prophet," an apt title
when you consider this maverick's astonishing innovations: his pioneering
development of unorthodox piano techniques and instrumental sonorities; his
use of free dissonant counterpoint and new rhythmic notations; his
application of "elastic" forms and chance procedures; his bold deployment
of repetitive minimalistic patterns.

Cowell's breakthroughs prefigured by decades the work of more celebrated
modernists like Edgard Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Philip Glass. John
Cage, the century's most radical challenger of the European tradition, was
another Cowell student. "Cage once seemed like some wild person who had
emerged from nowhere," Mr. Shirley said recently. "Now we know he emerged
from Cowell."

In addition, Cowell was a pioneer in exploring world music. His
appropriation of features from Madras, Java and China was never glib or
patronizing. As Mr. Sachs has said, "No one ever told Cowell that Western
music was considered superior."

Richard Teitelbaum, a composer and historian at Bard College, who will also
participate in the festival, suggested that no other composer has so
completely embodied the two major trends of 20th-century composition: the
"futuristic experimenting" and the "reaching out" to other cultures. "The
first is vertical, a thrusting forward," Mr. Teitelbaum said. "The second
is horizontal, an expansive overview."

So why were Cowell's contributions largely forgotten by the time of his
death in 1965? And why is there a resurgence of interest now? The second
question may be the easier one to answer.

"We are living in a self-consciously multicultural time," said Carol J.
Oja, the director of the Institute for American Studies and a coordinator
of the festival. "Cowell can speak to young composers who are fascinated by
other traditions and are crossing all sorts of boundaries. His
open-mindedness, his nonjudgmental interest in all music is something we
have come to value. Such thinking was not at all in the mainstream during
his life."

Answering the other question -- why Cowell's reputation faded -- requires
an examination of that life.

Cowell's parents were a curious couple. His father, Harry, was a dynamic
Irishman who hustled jobs as a writer and printer. Cowell's mother,
Clarissa Dixon, was a poet and author born in Illinois. When Cowell was
born in Menlo Park, his mother was 46 and his father 31. They clearly
believed that their only child was destined for greatness, a sentiment
attested to in the Cowell papers at the New York Public Library, which is
presenting an exhibition of them; they include boxes of meticulously
preserved documents from his early years.

Love of their child was not enough to keep Cowell's parents together. They
split up when he was 6. After the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906,
his mother took him to stay with relatives in Des Moines, Iowa, and
enrolled him in a public school. Afflicted with a nervous disorder, he was
ridiculed by the other boys. And he found the curriculum stultifying. After
the third grade, he was essentially educated at home.

The following years brought an impoverished stay in New York, where his
mother had hoped to succeed as a writer, and a humbling return to Menlo
Park, where Cowell became his mother's sole support, working as a janitor
and herding cows. But there he also met Lewis M. Terman, a groundbreaking
researcher in the study of intelligence, who tested the tousled-haired
adolescent and proclaimed him a genius.

Terman eventually arranged for the 17-year-old Cowell to take lessons at
Berkeley with the composer and musical philosopher Charles Seeger, who
enhanced his rough skills with theory and counterpoint while encouraging
his fantastical experiments. "How lucky Cowell was to have found Seeger,"
Ms. Oja said. "Just think what could have happened."

When Cowell ventured to New York at 19 for his one try at formal
conservatory training, he fought constantly with his teacher, the
German-born composer and conductor Frank Damrosch. Asked to harmonize
chorale tunes in the style of Bach, Cowell once slipped Damrosch a
harmonization by Bach himself. When the unsuspecting professor found
mistakes in the work, Cowell demanded his money back and headed home to
California. There he replenished himself by hanging out with a cultish
group of mystics.

After a stint in the army, Cowell developed a thriving career. In the early
20's, he embarked on a controversial and sensational series of tours,
playing his own piano works in America and Europe. After a concert in
Budapest, he received a letter from Bartok seeking permission to use tone
clusters in his own pieces. In 1931, while studying world music in Berlin,
Cowell often played tennis with Schoenberg, who invited the American to
perform for his composition classes.

Then in 1936, when he was 39, his life fell apart. Cowell was arrested and
charged with performing oral sodomy on a 17-year-old male. Sweet-tempered
and naively honest, Cowell had allowed neighborhood boys to swim in the
pond behind his home. Apparently things happened. In his defense, Cowell
stated that the boys, the youngest of whom was 16, had been the
instigators, and that in no instance did anyone do anything through
coercion. The Hearst tabloids seized on the story. Saying he did not want
to submit the youths to a trial, Cowell pleaded guilty and was sentenced to
prison at San Quentin.

He was shaken but not bitter. In prison, he taught music to some 1,500
inmates, organized an orchestra, composed 50 pieces and wrote a book on
melody. Released on parole in 1940, Cowell, with the support of his
colleague Percy Grainger, established himself as a composer, teacher and
organizer of modern-music events in New York. In 1942, he was granted a
full pardon.

But he never shed the humiliation. Some colleagues cut off ties completely.
Charles Ives, who had been like a father to him, agreed to see him again
only after Cowell had married in 1941.

Partly as a result, perhaps, Cowell's compositional style shifted. During
the 40's and 50's, he composed his most consonant pieces: chamber music,
songs, hymns and symphonies. To composers of that time, all trying to outdo
one another in complexity, Cowell's strangely genial music must have seemed

In a sense it was -- intentionally. But it was also beguiling, euphonious
and quirky. The scherzolike movements of his symphonies bustle with impish
rhythms, like fractured Irish jigs. The wrong-note counterpoint in his
chamber music is by turns jaggedly witty and hauntingly spiritual.

Cowell can seem like some medieval modalist zapped to 1940's Appalachia.
The goal of the New York festival, Ms. Oja said, is to help "connect this
eccentric and brilliant figure" to the present. Many composers have
therefore been invited to participate. Even those who do not realize it are
in Cowell's debt. For many years this quiet genius was, as Cage once wrote,
"the open sesame for new music in America

Louis Proyect
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