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

With all these notable and positive aspects to his character, were there no flaws at all in Cowell? Well, his spelling did not advance with his word sense; it remained somewhat eccentric even into adulthood. Another venial sin, more vexing to those who have tried to chronicle his life and his works, was his fallibility in respect to dates or chronology. He simply had no head for dates: he lived in the present and the future; the past was chronologically a blur. That much is clear to anyone who has wondered at the conflicting dates ascribed to given works in the various printed sources that took their dates from what Cowell wrote or said. It is amusingly clear to anyone who compares the dates in the half-dozen and more lists of works he himself compiled over the years. (He loved to make lists.) One partial exception is a list he called Compository Dates, compiled during the period 1912-26; for the years 1912-21, most of the entries were made fairly soon after completion of the works, and their dates need be taken with only a grain of salt. In 1942 Cowell told someone that he had composed How Old Is Song? "several years ago," whereas the New York Times reviewed its premiere on 10 Mar 1931. Much stranger, and surely not due to faulty memory, is the fact that in 1934 he began to refer to his Move- ment for String Quartet as dating from 1934-whereas the date by his signature on the original holograph is 1928, and between 1929 and 1933 there had been at least four performances that could not have been given without his direct help!

What, on a more substantive plane, of the claim that Henry Cowell was not a com- poser at all but a mere inventor of sounds? (Aaron Copland was, I think, the first to voice that idea, in Modern Music 3:3 [Mar-Apr 1926], pl6.) Long ago that seemed to me a pertinent observation as well as a bon mot of sorts. It implied that musical composition involves more than the mere formulation of a series of sounds, that it is a psychic phenomenon more than an acoustical one. Yet it now appears that music is defined merely as organized sound-not necessarily a strictly "musical" sound. And if the sounds are chosen by a random technique, how can one argue for organization by the psyche? As far as I am concerned, Cowell's practice of organizing sounds by their sounds is more musical than random organization or the abstract arithmetic of the dodecaphonic school and its offshoots.

Above all, Cowell takes into account the values of rhythmic cohesion, something I find sadly absent from the aimless wanderings of the plink and squeak school. Cowell admired, late in life, the sophisticated rhythms he heard among certain musical cultures in Africa, rhythms beside which our own-and his own-appear childishly simple. He told his Western contemporaries that "all of us" should learn about rhythm from those Africans: but the experience came too late for him to pro- fit from it in his own compositions. Compositions? Yes, compositions.
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Henry Cowell: Mind over Music