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!


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.

#Liszt104 update

One of my (several) current projects involves analyzing Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 104. Of particular interest are Liszt’s interesting choices in notation/spelling. I had done an informal/partial roman numeral analysis a couple years ago as part of a presentation I did in a keyboard lit class, but coming back to it after a break has alerted me to new depths of chromatic craziness. For one thing, he can’t decide what to call his Augmented chord. The chord is spelled differently in the beginning than it is in the end (the end is the only time it’s different – a C instead of a B-sharp). When it’s a B-sharp, it functions as a leading tone (i.e. VII+ /iv) to C-sharp minor, but when it’s spelled with a C it becomes a bVI+ in the tonic. Liszt, why can’t you make up your mind???? On top of this, when the „main theme“ shifts/modulates half way through, the spelling is again modified so that in the new key it’s spelled as a bIII+ but functions as a V+/IV or a VII+/IV depending on how you want to hear leading tones. Or, of you don’t believe in secondary dominants, it’s a bVI+ in the new and temporary key of D major.

All this about how he uses ONE CHORD in an 8 bar phrase. The piece is 5 pages long (in the Henle Edition score I’m using for my initial analysis because it has lots of space for scribbling in the margins). I haven’t even started talking about the introduction yet, which is a series of syncopated suspensions „resolving“ from a dominant 7 sonority to a diminished 7 one, leading into an extended „recitative“ or cadenza-like passage outlining a VII˚7 chord (D#, F#, A, C) over a G-sharp, which is either ^3 in the tonic or a ^5 in the relative minor.

I must say, while it is a bit of an adventure to analyze, this rampant chromaticism does do a very fine job setting the scene for what was originally a song (set for tenor with piano accompaniment), the test of which Petrarch’s 104th Sonnet, „Pace non trovo“ (Peace I cannot find). The sonnet is full of contradictions, and illustrated the conflicted/agitated state that the writer finds himself in because of his love for an (in this case) unidentified lady. Petrarch’s original text and my own translation, which is quite literal and much less poetic than it might be follow:

Pace non trovo, e non ho da far Guerra;

E temo e spero, ed ardo e son un ghiaccio;

E volo sopra ‘l cielo e giaccio in terra;

E nullo stringo, e tutto il mondo abbraccio.

Tal m’ha in prigion, che non m’apre, ne serra;

Ne per suo mi riten, ne scioglie il laccio;

E non m’ancide Amor, e non mi sferra;

Ne mi vuol vivo, ne mi trae d’impaccio.

Veggio senz’ occhi, e non ho lingua e grido;

E bramo di perir, e cheggio aita;

Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui:

Pascomi di dolor, piangendo rido;

Equalmente mi spiace morte e vita.

In questo stato son, Donna, per Vui.


I know not peace, yet I do not wage war;

I fear and I hope, I burn and then I freeze;

I fly high above the sky, then lie on the ground;

In vain I grip, the entire world in my embrace.

I am held prisoner, yet do not seek release;

He neither holds me nor loosens the noose;

Love will not bind me, nor will he free me;

My life means nothing, yet brings me no difficulty.

Seeing without eyes, and without a tongue I shout;

I long for death, I ask for help;

I hate my very existence, yet I love another.

With pain I am nourished, while weeping I laugh;

Equally I despise both death and life.

In this state am I, Lady, for you.