Young and Matured Henry Cowell with his music note.
 
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Henry Cowell: Mind over Music

rhythmicon, a device for sounding as many as sixteen distinct rhythms simultane- ously, was constructed by Leon Theremin, but it was Cowell who conceived the idea, suggesting the photoelectric cell as prime element of the mechanism. Among musical techniques Cowell invented "elastic form" to help dancers and choreog- raphers obtain musical building blocks of just the right size for their movements; and his "rhythm-harmony" experiments in relating tonal duration to the overtone series were no more a practical failure than the many theoretical experiments that languish in physics laboratories every week, not developed but not disproven.

Cowell's knack for invention was not limited to technical aspects of music. He was an ardent salesman and a clever promoter, not only of his own music but of other music as well. He once pleaded with American performers who found avant-garde American music unattractive: he told them they should at least perform some of the more conservative kinds of music being written by Americans rather than con- tinue on with the same old European brands of conservatism. He was in all things practical. As a boy, poor and with no piano to experiment on, he did all his musical inventing in his head. Fifteen years later, only slightly less poor and with no music publishing firm supplying the kind of music he wanted to see published, he again solved the problem by direct action on his own: he founded the New Music Society and then the New Music Quarterly-with important help, of course, from a deus ex machina named Charles Ives. But the deus without Cowell would have effected nothing; Cowell without Ives would have found a way.

Still another paradox concerns Henry Cowell's esthetic nationality. His early life of poverty on the California frontier, his self-sufficiency in learning old and creating new musical techniques, his eternal energy and optimism, his promotion of himself (but also of others)-all these traits are frequently viewed, rightly or wrongly, as "American." But the first half of his career had a strongly Irish flavor to it-or at least to the extra-musical elements in it: the titles he gave his piano pieces, the stories and characters that fired his imagination, some of the texts he set. His occasional attempts at American folk-music motives (in Old American Country Set, for in- stance) were much less successful than the quasi-Irish efforts. Still more "un- American" in a superficial sense was Cowell's eagerness to know the musics of other lands and other cultures-and not only to know them but to reconcile elements of those musics with each other and with the American elements of his own music. His most popular lecture, one he gave in many places over many years, was "Music of the World's Peoples." He wanted, he said, to "live in the whole world of music." If his Irish influences made him to some extent an Irish-American, his eagerness to encompass elements from many musical cultures surely made him a "World- American."
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Henry Cowell: Mind over Music