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Leon Botstein and ASO perform all-Cowell program on Jan 29

Henry Cowell was an American original – as composer, pianist, theorist, author, and teacher. He helped to create a modernist American music not derivative of Europe, a music that tapped homegrown sounds even as it embraced influences from Asia. Yet during Cowell’s lifetime and after, his compositions have lived in the shadows, for reasons that often have little to do with the music. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will help shine a light on this pioneering composer’s creations with “An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell” on Friday, January 29 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall (all tickets are just $25 each). The program includes local premieres of two of Cowell’s works.

Cowell’s influence is in the DNA of the 20th-century avant-garde, with his experiments in rhythm and texture the seed for works by such composers as Bela Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow and Elliott Carter. Cowell was the first biographer of Charles Ives and a mentor to composers as diverse as George Gershwin and John Cage, who called Cowell “the open sesame of new music in America.”

“Although Cowell’s place in the history books is secure, he and his music are not `in the air’,” Leon Botstein says. “He was probably the most courageous American composer of the 20th century, with his daring techniques and desire to build bridges between Western music and what we now call `world music.’ He was an original thinker – an iconoclast. But Cowell is the sort of figure Americans talk about liking but don’t, actually. We celebrate the idea of American originals, but when we meet them, we tend to put them in jail.”

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was born in Menlo Park, California, to a family of philosophical anarchists. He began composing at age 10 and went on to study at the University of California-Berkeley with Charles Seeger, one of the great father figures of American music. By his early 20s, Cowell had penned the groundbreaking theory book New Musical Resource. He composed works full of tone clusters that he played with his forearm on the piano (a technique that Bartók asked permission to use), and he further expanded pianistic possibilities by strumming and plucking the strings inside the instrument. Cowell composed rhythms so complex that he considered them unplayable by humans, so he had Leon Theremin build him a futurist instrument called the Rhythmicon. Cowell organized the Pan-American Association of Composers (alongside Edgard Varèse and Carlos Chávez), and he toured Europe as a pianist, interacting with the likes of Schoenberg. Cowell learned how to play several Asian instruments, including the Japanese shakuhachi flute – for which he wrote the first piece by an American. He said, “I want to live in the whole world of music.”

In his program note for “The Music of Henry Cowell,” Leon Botstein writes:

“Cowell’s career coincides with the advent of American modernism in painting, sculpture and architecture. Insofar as music in American life before 1917 seemed to be derivative in its indebtedness to European models, the challenge facing young American artists in the 1920s was the creation of something distinctly and uniquely American. Now that America, though still young, seemed fully realized as a nation, it demanded that its own distinctive voice be heard.  The character of that voice would have to match the industrial spirit of America. It had to be marked by a self-conscious modernity and a faith in innovation. In this regard, there was no more distinctly American composer in the first half of the 20th century than Henry Cowell. He was an experimentalist and a pluralist. True to America’s identity as an immigrant nation, he embraced influences from numerous sources. He broke the boundaries that had been erected between types and genres of music. He invented new sounds.” 

But Cowell’s intrepid role in American creative life was tragically interrupted when he was arrested on a “morals” charge for sex with a consenting adult man and imprisoned in San Quentin for four years. Cowell’s experience of imprisonment chastened him, curtailing his most experimental and political impulses. Yet he was eventually pardoned by the governor of California (thanks to the efforts of his wife) and traveled to Japan, India and Iran as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the State Department, interacting with local traditional musicians; these were trips that would inspire several notable Cowell compositions. Iconic conductor and American Symphony Orchestra founder Leopold Stokowski was one of the few musicians to champion Cowell’s work in the mainstream, and his music does not enjoy the currency of that by Charles Ives, despite their connection. But Botstein, questioning in his program note the narrowness of the concert canon, writes:

“The judgment of history does not constitute an objective test. Consider the fate of Henry Cowell. The scandal surrounding his imprisonment for homosexuality, and the easy association in many circles between aesthetic radicalism and left-wing politics damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime and posthumously. For all of America’s celebration of innovation, there has been a dark side to American cultural life: an enormous pressure to conform, the rule of a marketplace that is intolerant of genuine individuality and dissent, and a risk-averse anti-intellectualism derived from mistrust, isolationism and commercial interest. Cowell’s career and music have consistently tripped the wires of all of these negative attitudes. As a result, for the last 50 years, his music was deprived of the hearing it deserved except in a small community of devoted advocates. More exposure is necessary to permit a reasonable assessment of the worth of his many compositions. Only after repeated performances can we as performers and listeners decide which works we prefer and which seem more persuasive than others. . .  That is what makes Cowell the perfect subject for the mission of the American Symphony.”

Excerpts from Richard Teitelbaum’s notes on the program:

Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3 (1944) is an example of 18 such works Cowell wrote between 1944 and 1964 for forces ranging from solo cello to full orchestra. They reflect his interest in early American music. For No. 3, the composer drew from “Southern Revival meetings in which popular minstrel show rhythms were turned to religious purposes.”

Atlantis (1926-1931) is one of Cowell’s most unusual and experimental pieces, a dance work scored for three voices and small orchestra. Eventually abandoned as too expensive to stage, “Atlantis” wasn’t premiered until 1996.

Variations for Orchestra (1956/59) was revised for Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony. Based on what Cowell called “a brief, simple and melodious theme of twelve different tones,” the Variations see the composer follow his own path, avoiding both Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and conventional theme-and-variations form.

Symphony No. 2, “Anthropos” (1938) was completed while Cowell was still in prison. The five movements are titled 1) Repose 2) Activity 3) Repression 4) Liberation. It was premiered on March 9, 1941, at the Brooklyn Museum with the composer conducting.

Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1962) wasn’t premiered until 1986 — by this evening’s soloist, Robert Bonfiglio, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic under Lukas Foss. The work entails such Japanese elements as the sound of the sho, the chamber reed organ that can produce tone clusters. This enabled Cowell to combine two longstanding interests, his ultra-modernist “invention” of tone clusters and similar chords inspired by the ancient Japanese gagaku court orchestra.

Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music” (1953) follows Cowell’s concept that “there are Seven Rituals of Music in the life of man from birth to death.” The symphony opens gently with music for a child asleep and ranges through percussive music for work, a song of love, the ritual of dance and play, preparations for war and, finally, the ritual of death – a lament that grows in intensity until the symphony ends.

Last season, Maestro Leon Botstein began delivering pre-concert talks, starting 75 minutes before each concert; he continues these talks this season. Don’t miss his illuminating talk on the music of Henry Cowell on January 29 at 6:45 pm in Avery Fisher Hall.

All tickets to the ASO’s Lincoln Center concerts are just $25 and are available by calling (212) 868-9276 (9ASO) or visiting All ticket sales are final.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-2010 concert season is made possible, in part, by support from individuals, private institutions and government agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as GG Group, Inc., and The Henry and Sidney Cowell Estate.   


Friday, January 29, 8:00 pm
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3 (1944)
Atlantis (1926-31) New York premiere  
Variations for Orchestra (1956/59)  
Symphony No. 2, “Anthropos” (1938)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra* (1962)
Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music” (1953) New York City premiere  
American Symphony Orchestra
*Robert Bonfiglio, harmonica
Leon Botstein, conductor

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© 21C Media Group, November 2009



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