A Man Made of Music: Joel Sachs on Henry Cowell


I just finished reading Joel Sachs’ new book, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music for the third time. I had previously read it for my own pleasure, and I was delighted to be asked to review it. I’ve read an enormous amount of material on Henry Cowell (although nowhere near as much as Sachs has!), and I must say, this book is by far the best comprehensive biography available. Sachs speaks of the “indigestion” that followed reading every piece of paper associated with Henry Cowell plus background information on San Francisco history, 1920s politics, and so forth. Perhaps it took a while to digest all that information, but the resulting book is well worth the wait. It is a wonderful read, both accessible and informative, full of information and stories so vivid you can’t help but be drawn into Cowell’s life. From Cowell’s humble beginnings at the Menlo Park of the late nineteenth century—then a muddy stretch of nothing worlds from the Silicon Valley suburb it is today—the book chronicles a life so full of adventures it could be a novel.

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was much more than the composer of such experimental piano pieces as “The Banshee” and “Tides of Manaunaun.” He is without a doubt one of the single most influential figures in 20th century American music. He wrote a vast catalogue of compositions in a wide variety of styles for practically every possible combination of the usual instruments and some less familiar, including thunder-sticks, shakuhachi, Koto, tap-dancer, and Léon Theremin’s lesser known project, the Rhythmicon—an instrument capable of producing rhythms so complicated no human musician could perform them accurately (the rhythmicon was built to Cowell’s specifications). Cowell created such organizations as the New Music Society (with the associated publications including New Music Quarterly, Orchestra Series, and New Music Recordings), and the Pan-American Association of Composers. He was one of the first Western advocates for musics from around the world, and helped bring such composers as Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Ives to the attention of the public. Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, and Lou Harrison credit Cowell’s influence in their life’s work. Besides his compositions and texts, Cowell contributed much to western music: he was one of the first composers to use sounds from outside the western chromatic scale, thus planting the seeds of “noise” as music. Both Berg and Bartok requested his permission to use tone-clusters in their work.

In addition to his influence on American music, Cowell traveled the world and brought his influence with him. Still today the Cowell drumming prize is awarded every year in India. Cowell was one of the composers asked to write a Singaporean National Anthem (although his was not selected in the end). He was the first American composer/performer to be invited to tour soviet Russia – in May of 1929 he played concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. His music was performed, broadcast, or published in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America.

Even Cowell’s tragic years in San Quentin couldn’t prevent him from working on his projects: he wrote a book, several articles, and countless arrangements, small pieces, and lectures while serving time for what his prosecutor felt was a trivial morals charge. Speaking of which: now that papers and other materials have been made available, Sachs has been able to clear up much of the stir around Cowell’s guilty plea and subsequent imprisonment. The book goes into great detail about the legal ins and outs of the whole affair, but suffice to say there would have been no crime nor trial in today’s much less puritanical world.

Henry Cowell A Man Made of MusicWhat makes Sachs’ work different from other materials I’ve read concerning Cowell’s life, especially the more controversial aspects of his sexuality and his time in San Quentin Penitentiary in California, is his ability to weed through the enormous volume of previously unavailable material and find the objective voice in what has up to now been primarily rumor and myth. Sachs’ book presents an inclusive and (mostly) chronological biography detailing everything from Cowell’s boyhood activities through Sidney Cowell’s memories of his last year. Sachs succeeds in showing Cowell as truly human. In the conclusion, Sachs asks himself “after getting to know Cowell so intimately, do I still like him?” and concludes “most definitely,” that “[Cowell] thought of himself as a man made of music, but he was also a man made of ideas and action. Full of fun, and a lover of life, he intended to get the most out of it and bring the most to it. His finest gift was his music at its best.”

Out of all the material on Cowell I’ve read (an extensive and still growing list), Joel Sachs’ book is the first truly comprehensive biography I’ve encountered. There are other books that cover bits and pieces of Cowell’s life quite well, in fact Sachs doesn’t cover the New Music Society years in any great depth in his work but instead points the reader toward Rita Mead’s excellent book on the topic, Henry Cowell’s New Music (1925-1936). There is enough information packed into this book that I think I’ll be reading it at least another 3 times (and probably learning more and enjoying it all over again each time through!) It reads very smoothly, and is filled with just the right amount of humor to balance out what was at times a very difficult life. While one could sit down and read any given chapter/section, the book read from cover to cover flows together into a very complete biography of a man who is—in my opinion—one of music history’s most unjustly neglected figures.

Originally published on I Care If You Listen, 1/22/13


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.


September 8-9 (6 PM Saturday through about 2 PM Sunday) I’ll be one of about 20 bay area pianists participating in a complete performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. The performance will take place at the Berkeley Arts Festival.

I’m looking forward to it!


New Musical Resources


Newest addition to my Cowell reading: Henry Cowell’s own book New Musical Resources. First published in 1930, this book represents many of Cowell’s earlier ideas about music – there are three major sections covering Tone Combinations, Rhythm, and Chord-Formation. Each section is further divided into chapters covering (among other things) Scales of Rhythm, Dissonant Counterpoint (about which there were no written guidelines what Cowell was writing the book), and a whole 23 pages on Tone Clusters. I’m looking forward to reading this (so far only read the introduction) as well as the accompanying essay by David Nicholls.

Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources


Cowell Project

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.

New Music

I love rediscovering the forgotten treasures of my music library when I unpack. So, settling in after my latest move, I’m organizing my music library once again and I rediscover the following.

New Music, Vol. 21 No. 1, October 1947

Yes, that is correct. It’s a volume of Henry Cowell’s publication New Music, dedicated to the publication of works by „ultra modern“ composer of the time, including major works by Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, John Cage, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and sometimes Cowell himself.

Wild Rumpus

I’m really excited to be working with Wild Rumpus for their upcoming concert – I’ll be playing two new pieces with the group, one by Yao Chen and the other by Nomi Epstein. It’s official now, I’m even on their guest artist page!

Now, off to practice the music! 🙂

Papers, papers, and more papers!

I am still writing papers, yes! And the pile of possible topics only grows with each passing day. Eventually, after I’ve read through the latest pile of books and articles and journals and analysis and scores the supply of topics should narrow down.

I’ve always loved this part of academic writing: the reading, studying, listening, the taking of notes. It’s the part of the paper-writing process when you learn the most. Luckily, I’ve picked a few different things to look into, so my listening isn’t confined to one century or one composer at the moment. I get a good mix of 19th century bravura (thanks, Liszt) and huge quantities of 20th century music for varying kinds of instruments, and some used in less-than-traditional ways. It’s been a great week; I’m getting a lot done! Thanks to conversations with several People Who Know What They Are Doing, I feel as though I’m on the right path, things are look up (read: bookish), and life is good!

Now, time to figure out how to get two armloads of books home with only enough arms for one arm load.


My review of this year’s Switchboard music festival is now up on I Care If You Listen. You can find the article here.