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Henry Cowell

Which composer exerted the greatest influence on 20th-century American classical music? Thursday and Friday, Other Minds, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to such music, will make the case for Henry Cowell.

Cowell, who died in 1965, was a prolific composer whose own music was eclipsed by the works of his students. Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian discovered Cowell through the pioneering percussion music of the composer’s famous pupils John Cage and Lou Harrison. “I found that a lot of the experimentation on the West Coast emanated from him,” he said. “The more I looked at it, the more he seemed like a key figure who gave American music an original vision when it had none.”

Born in Menlo Park, Calif., in 1897, Cowell toured the world in the 1920s as a pianist, winning amazed reviews and publicity when he, for example, smashed rows of adjacent piano keys with a forearm or played directly on the piano strings and sound board. Such techniques added musical color and atmosphere, and “moved music away from the idea that every pitch of a chord should be heard, and toward masses of condensed sound being used for novel kinds of harmony,” Cowell scholar Joel Sachs explains. Cowell would have a profound impact on succeeding generations of American composers, most notably Cage, who won fame with his 1940s “prepared piano” pieces, which were inspired by Cowell’s experiments.


Brett Campbell
Wall Street Journal