Henry Cowell-Piano Music

July 29, 2008

Henry Cowell

Piano Music (Smithsonian-Folkways 1994)

Link removed at the request of Smithsonian-Folkways

It is difficult, almost impossible, to redefine an instrument as familiar as the piano, but Henry Cowell did so by reaching into it and using the strings to manipulate his playing. His work with tone clusters and string manipulation inspired Bela Bartok to adopt his methods. In addition, John Cage utilized his methods to develop the prepared piano. His maverick ways led him to commission Leon theremin to create an instrument called the Rhythmicon that was later popularized by Joe Meek. Cowell even spent four years in San Quentin Prison on a “morals” due to his bisexuality and continued to compose and conduct the prison band until his pardon in 1942. After his release, his music became a bit more conservative, but he mentored such musicians as Lou Harrison and Burt Bacharach and served as a consultant to Folkways.

That is just a drop in the bucket in this man’s fantastic and creative career. There is something so powerful about how he strikes the keys. Sometimes he demands your attention with thick clusters of slammed keys, but he is equally magnetic when he plays in a more minimalistic style. It is hard to quantify the emotion spent by the striking of a key, but his playing truly leaves me in awe of how one person can transform a musical instrument into a magical one. There is something elegant, yet brutal and severe about how he approaches the piano. He turns the piano inside out as he uses every inch of his instrument to create a powerful, dynamic music that inspires and moves me like few others can. Since I’ve been rambling about phobias and the spiritual all evening, it is only fitting that I share some of the most heavenly sounds thine ears have heard. It isn’t always pretty, but it does hit upon personal chords that remind me that music can be a transcendent force in our lives.

One Response to “Henry Cowell-Piano Music”

  1. Edward Weiss Says:

    Great post. I’m going to share this with my students!

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