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GORDON RUMSON reads from
the American composer's selected writings 1921 - 1964


Henry Cowell must be considered one of the seminal figures in American music of the 20th century standing together with Charles Ives, his senior by 23 years, and John Cage, his junior (and pupil) by 15. The sad fact is that Cowell is barely known to the wider public and rarely heard. His formidable and varied output is hardly mainstream. While he had a gigantic impact on piano music (quite literally with his banged out cluster chords, elbows and fiddling on the pianos' innards) his keyboard music is rarely performed, except in new music ghettos. Of his orchestral, chamber and vocal pieces it is hardly germane to speak of performances. Rather, there are exceptions to the oblivion.

An avant-gardist from the get go, Cowell investigated a bewildering array of techniques for advanced composition and influenced a stunning range of composers (such as the player piano madman Conlon Nancarrow). His writings have perhaps been more influential than his compositions. For in his early book, New Musical Resources (published 1933) he outlined techniques of music making that have still not been exhausted, even if the impetus for avant-gardism has been.

Cowell wrote a great deal and always with superior thought, fine expression and sincere dedication to the best in music that he knew. Selected and edited by the late Dick Higgins, himself a composer and proponent of Cowell's music, the book was completed by Bruce R McPherson. Kyle Gann provides an astute preface and the text is rounded out by a discography of Cowell's music.

Essential Cowell - Selected Writings on Music by Henry Cowell 1921-1964. © McPherson and co. 2002

This selection begins with a very personal and engaging reminiscence of his excursion to Russia in the 1920s. The extremism that was possible in the first decade of the Soviet regime is startling. Just so much so as the retreat that occurred shortly thereafter. Cowell had a keen eye and I think he saw through the pretense very well. His description of the bureaucratic madness makes one cringe. Sadly, as R Murray Schafer chronicled the same sort of thing, albeit in Canada, in one of his books, that madness is not so distant and not confined to communistical ideology.

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Copyright © 23 May 2002 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Alberta, Canada





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