American Mavericks

Listening Room: Cowell

Welcome to the Henry Cowell Listening Room. You can comment on American Mavericks excerpts and join the conversation! Just click on the gray ‘comment bar’ beneath a sound visualization below. This will give you a link to the track on You can login using facebook, or create a soundcloud account, to comment on the track.

Piano Concerto

Program Notes: About Cowell’s Piano Concerto

Henry Cowell’s piano concerto tells us what a piano sounds like when forearm meets keyboard. The dramatic opening of the first movement, Polyharmony, lays out opposing statements of orchestra and soloist. In your opinion, how does this opening compare to other piano concertos?

Cowell: Piano Concerto Opening by SF Symphony


The second movement is titled “Tone Cluster”, after Cowell’s signature technique. You may be interested in hearing him describe the origins of this innovation:

The movement begins with atmospheric gestures from woodwinds and muted strings, joined by the piano before building up to an emphatic rhythmic section. The following excerpt begins about a minute into the movement, just before the piano enters.

Cowell: Tone Cluster at 1:00 by SF Symphony


In any concerto a primary challenge is creating compelling relationships between the soloist and the larger ensemble. Listen to this moment near the beginning of the third movement, Counter Rhythm:

Cowell: Counter Rhythm near beginning by SF Symphony


Cowell’s concerto employs unconventional techniques within a conventional genre and formal structure. What moments stand out to you as the most interesting combination of convention and innovation?