Henry Cowell was an American original – as composer, pianist, theorist, author, and teacher. He helped to create a modernist American music not derivative of Europe, a music that tapped homegrown sounds even as it embraced influences from Asia. Yet during Cowell’s lifetime and after, his compositions have lived in the shadows, for reasons that often have little to do with the music. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will help shine a light on this pioneering composer’s creations with “An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell” on Friday, January 29 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall (all tickets are just $25 each). The program includes local premieres of two of Cowell’s works.
Cowell’s influence is in the DNA of the 20th-century avant-garde, with his experiments in rhythm and texture the seed for works by such composers as Bela Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow and Elliott Carter. Cowell was the first biographer of Charles Ives and a mentor to composers as diverse as George Gershwin and John Cage, who called Cowell “the open sesame of new music in America.”
“Although Cowell’s place in the history books is secure, he and his music are not `in the air’. He was probably the most courageous American composer of the 20th century, with his daring techniques and desire to build bridges between Western music and what we now call `world music.’ He was an original thinker – an iconoclast. But Cowell is the sort of figure Americans talk about liking but don’t, actually. We celebrate the idea of American originals, but when we meet them, we tend to put them in jail.” - Leon Botstein
Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was born in Menlo Park, California, to a family of philosophical anarchists. He began composing at age 10 and went on to study at the University of California-Berkeley with Charles Seeger, one of the great father figures of American music. By his early 20s, Cowell had penned the groundbreaking theory book New Musical Resource. He composed works full of tone clusters that he played with his forearm on the piano (a technique that Bartók asked permission to use), and he further expanded pianistic possibilities by strumming and plucking the strings inside the instrument. Cowell composed rhythms so complex that he considered them unplayable by humans, so he had Leon Theremin build him a futurist instrument called the Rhythmicon. Cowell organized the Pan-American Association of Composers (alongside Edgard Varèse and Carlos Chávez), and he toured Europe as a pianist, interacting with the likes of Schoenberg. Cowell learned how to play several Asian instruments, including the Japanese shakuhachi flute – for which he wrote the first piece by an American. He said, “I want to live in the whole world of music.”
All tickets to the ASO’s Lincoln Center concerts are just $25 and are available by calling (212) 868-9276 (9ASO) or visiting www.americansymphony.org. All ticket sales are final.
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