American Mavericks

Henry Cowell

(b. Menlo Park, California, March 11 1897; d. Shady, New York, December 10 1965)

Growing up near San Francisco and absorbing a wealth of music that came from across the Pacific, Henry Cowell was among the first to embrace the idea that “serious” music can exist outside the Western tradition. He absorbed all influences, from Eastern to American folk to European classical. He invented the “tone cluster” – in which a piano is played not just by fingers, but by forearms and fists. In the 1920s he created a sensation with his music in Europe. On his return to this country he founded the quarterly journal New Music, taught, and composed prolifically.

His 1936 arrest on a morals charge led to nearly four years’ imprisonment in San Quentin, yet even under these circumstances he remained active in the composition and promotion of new music – and established a prison music-education program.

He was a great champion of Ives and, with his wife, wrote the first important study of that composer, Charles Ives and His Music (1955). He served as music editor of the Office of War Information in World War II, and in 1956 he embarked upon a State Department tour in which he explored the music of many lands.