Henry Cowell: Homage to Iran

Program notes for Bard Music West, The World of Henry Cowell, April 6–7, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Homage to Iran reflects Henry Cowell’s deep involvement with the country in the years after the US-backed coup of 1953. Somewhat improbably, the anarchist-raised inventor of tone clusters and string piano (and former San Quentin inmate) was taken under the wing of the US Department of State in the mid-1950s. The reason was twofold: first, his unparalleled knowledge of world music made him an ideal cultural fact-finder, and second, his radical musical experimentation made him an unmistakable posterchild for American freedom.

And so between 1956 and 1957, he embarked on a world tour sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the State Department, and the United States Information Service. His itinerary in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt was curtailed by the Suez Crisis, so he diverted to American-allied Tehran. There he became a consultant to the radio station, which was seen as a potential unifying influence for the country. Part of Cowell’s project was to mix Iranian music and Western instruments into suitable radio programming, hopefully drawing listeners away from the Soviet station out of Baku.

Evidently, Cowell’s Iranian experience had a lasting influence and he maintained connections with the country through the early 1960s. At the conclusion of his tour, he imagined Homage to Iran for violin, piano, and a Persian drum. He removed the drum at the request of his publisher in order to increase its commercial prospects (on some recordings, it is restored). In 1959, the piece was performed in Iran by the violinist Leopold Avakian for the Shah himself.

The four-movement work uses no Iranian tunes (if anything, its main theme sounds suspiciously like Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Violin Concerto), but it does draw from Iranian modes and rhythms. The pianist mutes the strings with one hand to simulate a drum, and for this performance, a Persian tombak joins the violin for improvisations.