Biography of Henry Cowell
"I Want to Live in the Whole World of Music" — Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell was a true American original, and one of the most important figures in American music of the twentieth century. Born in Menlo Park, California in 1897 to a family of philosophical anarchists, he was recognized early as an uncommonly gifted child. From an early age, he studied the violin, mastered the piano, and read extensively in many fields. Home-schooled by his mother Clarissa, he received little formal education until, at the age of seventeen, he had the good fortune to be sent to study with Charles Seeger, who had been recently appointed Chairman of the Music Department at UC Berkeley.
Seeger was a brilliant theorist, musicologist, composer and pater familias of one of America’s great musical families (father of Pete, Mike and Peggy, teacher and husband of Ruth Crawford). He immediately recognized Cowell’s extraordinary gifts, and took the young man under his wing. Seeger introduced Cowell to the latest modernist compositional techniques from Europe and the United States. In the early 1920s he helped Cowell write the groundbreaking theoretical book, New Musical Resources, (published in 1930) which has become one of the seminal texts of twentieth century music.
One of Cowell’s most famous early compositional innovations was the tone cluster (thick chords made up of major and minor seconds) which he played all over the piano with his forearms and fists. Bartok later wrote to ask Cowell’s permission to compose with them. Cowell invented a variety of other groundbreaking techniques for stroking, strumming and plucking inside the piano, directly on the strings, which he dubbed the string piano. He also developed a complex pitch-rhythm system (detailed in his book) that correlated the mathematical ratios of the pitches of the overtone series with rhythmic proportions, thereby anticipating similar concepts and procedures used by Conlon Nancarrow, Elliot Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many