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The Sadly Neglected and Wholly Original Henry Cowell

ESSENTIAL COWELL: Selected Writings on Music, By Henry Cowell, Edited by Dick Higgins, McPherson & Co.: 342 pp., $35

September 29, 2002|NED ROREM | Ned Rorem is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and the author of 15 books (diaries and essays). He is president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

John Cage, like Jean Cocteau or Jesus Christ, has a name our world knows; yet he might have remained unknown were it not for the now-unknown composer Henry Cowell. Indeed, Cowell's pupils--Cage and Lou Harrison, George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach--have tended to outlive him, like so many of his more flamboyant colleagues (Carl Ruggles, Harry Partch, Edgar Varese, Ruth Crawford Seeger, George Antheil, Joseph Schillinger), partly because of his publicizing them. Now comes "Essential Cowell" to reinforce that notion. In 48 prose pieces, he discusses the music of almost everyone but himself--and of himself there is no value judgment, only technical explication.

But that accords with my own memories of him. I met Henry Cowell twice, both times at Virgil Thomson's in the early 1960s when the three of us, plus Vladimir Ussachevsky, were plotting to revive (unsuccessfully) the journal New Music Edition. In the glare of Virgil's rapid wit, Cowell struck me as self-effacing if willful, without much glamour. Had he been dulled by four years in prison? (In 1936, he went to San Quentin on a morals charge after having sex with a 17-year-old boy.) By his selfless efforts to support others? By encroaching disease? I never saw him again. He died in 1965.

Kyle Gann's preface to "Essential Cowell" in itself is a perfect review. If he opens by declaring that "Henry Cowell was the one composer who seems to have come out of nowhere" and then contradicts this by saying that "Charles Ives used tone clusters years before Cowell," one is merely reminded of what the novelist Raymond Radiguet said about artistic originality: "A true artist is born with a unique voice and cannot copy; so he has only to copy to prove his originality."

Gann briefly outlines Cowell's work and life, which began in 1897, stressing the man's "utter refusal to be hemmed in by, or overly impressed with, the past.... Like Cage, Cowell could say, 'I can't understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.' " Indeed, today, we remain the sole era in history in which the musical past takes precedence over the present--a performer playing Mozart can earn in one evening what a living composer may earn in five years.

Cowell also composed some of his best pieces in the most difficult of circumstances. At San Quentin, he claimed it was too noisy to write original music and that jailers thought his scores were "codes." But he did manage to organize an inmates' band and complete one of his most ravishing pieces, the "United Quartet." In 1940, thanks largely to a campaign by Sidney Robertson (whom in 1941 he married), Cowell was released from his sentence into the custody of Percy Grainger, his "musical secretary."

Not all of Cowell's friends were sympathetic. Composer Charles Ives (1874-1951) never quite forgave his younger colleague. Cowell, meanwhile, promoted Ives' work as avidly as Mendelssohn promoted Bach a century earlier, placing him forever on the international map--another proof, if proof were needed, that great artists aren't necessarily great human beings, while many saints are second-rate artists. Art is unrelated to morality: It does not make us better, or even change us; art makes us more into what we already are by reminding us of all the things we know.

It was the late Dick Higgins, poet and actor, who had sewn together selections from Cowell's huge catalog of prose, some of it mere wisps, some in-depth essays, all of it didactic and with little style but rich in content. The best of Cowell's writings are from the 1930s, and are as much analyses as appreciations (for example, the writings on Stravinsky and on Virgil Thomson, in which he extols simplicity as radical).

"Essential Cowell" is divided into seven sections, ranging over his entire career, his encounters with other composers and countries. He relates a trip to Moscow in 1931 and the unexpected things that happen at concerts, partly due to unusual political situations. But Cowell believes that "it is largely because of the vital part that music plays in the lives of Russians. We here are apt to regard music as a mere amusement. To the Russian, music is a deeply ingrained necessity for the outpouring of his feelings." Higgins notes that Cowell's expressed abhorrence of communism is a reflection of McCarthyite hysteria still in the air when he penned "Music Is My Weapon" in 1954.

I resist Cowell's statements such as "I believe in music: its spirituality, its ecstatic nobility ... its power to penetrate the basic fineness of every human being." (What about the Nazis, who played Beethoven quartets to drown out the screams of their victims?) Or: "Unexpected inner response to the power of music dedicated to human integrity might reach dictators more easily than an atom bomb." This, from a man who was imprisoned for four years at San Quentin.

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