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Cowell Update

Two things happened this week: I’ve made arrangements to practice at home, and I finished reading Cowell’s New Musical Resources. The first is exciting (yay!) because it means I will be practicing much more regularly and thus able to learn without occasional lack-of-regular-work steps back that inevitable haunt the piano-less pianist. The second is exciting because it’s given me a few ideas about more specific aspects of my Cowell Project. For one thing, it provides valuable insights into Cowell’s own views of his music and how one might go about analyzing it. For another, it provides (along those same lines) explanations of how one can learn to hear tone clusters as tonal. Cowell assembles what is perhaps best dubbed a “theory of musical relativity” that relates all aspects of music (rhythm, meter, counterpoint, harmony, melody, etc) to the overtone series. His book, New Musical Resources, summarizes this quite well (although proves occasionally mind-bogglingly complicated if you, like me, are a musician who hates math.). I see lots and lots of fractions and ratios in my future.

There are several very quotable passages, chief among which is the final paragraph (which is also an awesome run-on sentence): “For the sake of the exquisiteness of emotion which music may express, as well as for the sake of perfection of the music itself, therefore, there is a place for the formalization and coordination of different contemporary musical resources by means of their common relationship with the overtone series, which, although it forms a mathematical, acoustical, and historical gauge, is not merely a matter of arithmetic, theory, and pedantry, but is itself a living essence from which musicality springs.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone aspiring to play or understand not just contemporary music, but our place in the musical world as contemporary (currently practicing) musicians. By understanding how older and newer musical materials are related to one another, we gain a deeper understanding of music as a whole. One of Cowell’s greatest achievements (imho) is in his interest in and acceptance of so many different kinds of music, well before it was fashionable to do so. In New Musical Resources, we see the credited inspiration for Conlon Nancarrow’s rhythmically complex player piano music, and the anticipation of instruments, tunings, tonalities, a first description of dissonant counterpoint (keep in mind that this book was published in 1930, but had been completed well before then – Schoenberg was still working on his 12-tone serialism), and the influence of music from non-western cultures before any of these were commonly accepted in the world of western classical music.

The more I learn about Henry Cowell, the more highly I regard his contributions to the musical world, both through his compositions, and through his teaching (students include Lou Harrison, John Cage, and others), and his research and thinking. I continue to be extremely excited about my project (learning the complete Cowell piano music – this may take a while… there’s a lot of it) and also continue to enjoy my research about an important figure in the history of American Music.

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