I have a new project. I’m learning everything Henry Cowell ever wrote for solo piano.

I’ve already been told it’s impossible – but that’s never stopped me before. After all, I’m making a living as a pianist, and started doing so well before I graduated from college.

Of course, while perhaps not actually impossible, this is still a very large project, and will take some time. I’m beginning by refreshing the Cowell pieces I’ve learned in the past (Advertisement, Aeolian Harp, Amiable Conversation, Antinomy, Banshee, Exultation, Tides of Manuanuan, What’s This), adding pieces I’ve always loved (Lilt of the Reel, Tiger, High Color, Deep Color) and then will continue to add pieces of interest until I have a full recital program. On the list for immediate consideration at the moment are Two Woofs (published in 1947 in the 20th Anniversary edition of New Music,  vol. XXI no. 1), Hero Sun, Harp of Life, Rhythmicana, Episode, the set of Ings (which seems to have been published as both 6 and 9 Ings?), Slow Jig, and more.

I expect to publish recordings and/or videos of some of the pieces along the way, links to those will be found on my site as the project grows.

A little bit of backstory: As some of you may know, I fell in love with Cowell’s music the summer I turned 13, when I first heard his music in a music history seminar at a summer chamber music program. I returned home from camp banging on the keyboard with my arms and deconstructing my family’s upright to play inside. Looking back, I’m amazed my parents were less visibly upset about this than they were. If my unorthodox piano experimenting (I won’t go so far as to call it practicing) bothered them, they would escape to the backyard or close the door to my clusters. In highschool I learned my first Cowell piece, Amiable Conversation, quickly adding Antinomy, Advertisement, and What’s This. I played them in a small local piano competition, which I didn’t make the final round in. The competition later re-worded the repertoire requirements to discourage the performance of less-than-standard repertoire. My piano teacher got tired of listening to Cowell, or maybe got tired of my attempts to play Cowell, but I never completed the other Encores to Dynamic Motion. Then Cowell was put on hold, I had too much on my plate with three different youth orchestras on two different instruments (and for a while four – piano, violin, viola, and harpsichord), martial arts, and working odd jobs to help pay for my music lessons, and preparing to audition for college, and to go to school for the first time (like Cowell, I was homeschooled and mostly self-taught).

In College, Cowell came back. I finally convinced my teacher to let me put some on a jury program junior year, mostly by showing up at my lesson with four short pieces already memorized (Banshee, Tides of Manuanuan, Exultation, and Aeolian Harp). By this point I knew I wanted to play new music (not exclusively, but as a focus). I put up with comments from faculty along the lines of (and I quote): “I’m sorry, but I really don’t like this piece. As far as I could tell, it was well played, with good concentration.” “A passing, if strange, jury.” “Would you please play some real music next time?” “What do you want anyway, a degree in avant garde?” “You’re wasting your time and mine.” “You are a failure, and this school has failed to teach you any taste.” It wasn’t all bad though! I made many lasting friendships through school, both with my fellow students and with members of the faculty, and honestly I enjoyed some of the controversy generated by my serious interests in new music.

All this passed, and here I am: Graduated, and able to do what I’m passionate about, what makes me tick, what I as a musician feel is important. Commencement, while a bit redundant since I’d been out of school nearly 6 months by the time it happened, presented me with further inspiration to continue doing what I love: MTT’s advice to the graduating class of 2012 (never mind that I had graduated in 2011…) was to go out into the world and do what we were passionate about, no matter what people (especially our teachers) thought about it. After bouncing around a few ideas and reading through several hours’ worth of piano music, I’ve finally found what I really knew all along: I am deeply passionate about the piano music of Henry Cowell, feel that he is an unjustly neglected figure in twentieth century music, and have now decided to do what I can to change that by performing his works and introducing them to new audiences.

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4 thoughts on “Cowell Project

  1. It’s frustrating that you encountered such frigid encouragement from the faculty. It’s unconventional playing–definitely not Beethoven–but I’m surprised that Cowell gets the “Is it music” reaction in this millennium.

    All the best for this project!

    1. I was surprised by the reaction as well – it’s part of the reason I’m so determined to show people that his music is worthwhile. Thanks for your support!

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