Henry (Dixon) Cowell


Born in California, Henry Cowell’s early life did not run smoothly; after the great earthquake of 1906 his mother took him to the relative safety of New York. However, there they had no means of support and were forced to live on charitable handouts. Returning later to the town of his birth, Menlo Park, the young Cowell, who had already had his musical interest piqued with violin lessons, had to work and save to buy his own piano. Almost as soon as he had purchased the instrument he began to write works of innovative daring; aged 13 he composed his Adventures in Harmony, involving ‘tone clusters’, dense clumps of notes played with the fist or forearm. Although not the first to do this, Cowell made it a more integral part of his compositional process, treating it as an extension of existing tonality and later applying a similar vocabulary to chamber and orchestral works.

Cowell studied at the University of California and later at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, and served briefly in the army in 1918. After the war he began to give lectures on contemporary music, even travelling to the Soviet Union to do so. Other notable developments in his music were the use of instruments from around the world (aided by ethnomusicological studies in Berlin) and the development of, and composition for, new electronic instruments (in particular the Rhythmicon, invented in conjunction with Leo Theremin).

Unjustly imprisoned for homosexuality and corruption of a minor, offences he did not commit, Cowell spent four years in San Quentin, where he managed to continue composing. He was bailed by Percy Grainger and pardoned the following year, thankfully not serving the full 15 year sentence. He was thus able to resume teaching, composing and publishing unrestricted, and married in 1941. Fulfilling a long standing ambition he toured the East in 1956-57. He died in 1965, leaving over 600 works.

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