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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.

Cowell discusses 18 contemporaries, from Ives to Sessions to Bartok. Here we find rare traces of humor, as in his discussion of musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky: "If you wish to be in a position to converse freely ... at cocktail parties about sisquitone, quadritone, quinquetone, and diatessaron scale progressions, or to engage in profound discussion of, let us say, the sesquiquinquetone progression of an equal division of eleven octaves into twelve parts, Slonimsky's Thesaurus is an absolute must for your library."

Meanwhile, the chapter on my beloved Lou Harrison is less on Lou than on percussion. ("The full possibilities of percussion ... have hardly been tapped in our symphonic literature.") As I grow older, I use less percussion and feel almost morally against all drums; if I never hear another cymbal crash it won't be too soon. Percussion is inevitably used as reinforcement, for emphasis; non-pitched percussion is seldom integral but decorative, like too much lipstick or too many earrings.

A section of the book entitled "Music of the World's Peoples" is marvelously researched and related by one who's been there. Likewise, in another section Cowell dissects three of his own works. Elsewhere he tells us of collaborations with dancers, from Hanya Holm to Martha Graham. In 1967, when Graham choreographed a work of mine, I could only concur with Cowell that she won, hands down, not by dancing to the sway but by going against the music; she made me hear myself as I never had before.

In a section on "Musical Craft," Cowell discusses the process of so-called creation, the nature of melody, and the joys of noise, presenting the liberation of dissonance: " ... a loud sound does not touch our emotional depths if it does not rise to a dynamic climax." What about Satie? Or Debussy's piano "Preludes"? The margins of my copy are littered with approving asides or cranky wrist-slappings. "How true!" I jot next to his "Meaning is imparted to melodies, very often, through inflections similar to those in speech." Or I write "Isn't it the reverse?" next to "Speech is given meaning by its tonal inflections. Melody, in music, rests fundamentally on the same sorts of inflections."

Cowell also answers many a lay question: "The most perfect instrument in the world is the composer's mind," he writes. "I rarely change a note after a composition is written." But, he adds, " ... only about ten percent of the musical idea can be realized even at the best performance." That, of course, forces me to reply: "Maybe closer to ninety percent." Et cetera.

Cowell's own music, stripped of percussion and other "effects," is far from forbidding. Listen, for instance, to the swooningly contagious final Largo from "Four Combinations" (1921). It offers no problem, beyond the one of dealing with sheer beauty. If the theatrical suite "Atlantis," four years later, is a series of trouvailles for human voices, those trouvailles are less formally integral than an overlay of tricks (squeaks, grunts, wails) erupting around and above quite diatonic music. The sum impression is madly spooky, but impression it remains, not a new language like Schoenberg's or even Partch's.

Music was Cowell's whole life. If, with his wife, Sidney, he covered 90,000 pages with words about music, he produced 100,000 with music toute courte, including 20 symphonies. It is for the latter that he doubtless will be judged by the future. For the present, I'm inclined, with Wallace Stevens, to stress, "Not ideas about the thing / but the thing itself."

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