Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Fabric, Aeolian Harp, The Harp of Life, The Banshee, and Tiger

Henry Cowell (1897–1965)

Program notes for Bard Music West, The World of Henry Cowell, April 6–7, 2018
and Tippet Rise Art Center, July 13, 2018
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019

Henry Cowell was one of the first composers to ask pianists to directly manipulate the piano strings as a kind of harp. This discovery built on his earlier invention of tone clusters (fists or elbows hitting adjacent piano keys) and predated John Cage’s more radical development of prepared piano (placing objects on the strings) by 15 years.

In 1923, Cowell published Aeolian Harp, the first of his “string piano” pieces. The sound production technique is avant-garde—the pianist silently holds down keys while strumming the strings, allowing the specified chords to resonate. But the music itself feels antiquarian, built around a descending harmonic sequence repeated three times, with just a little development (a whole step higher and slightly different progression) the middle time. The effect is ambient, like the sound of the winds chimes the piece is named for, or perhaps like overhearing someone practicing a snippet of especially beautiful harmony.

Fabric sounds comparatively conservative to the ear, but looks radical on the page, as it uses a special rhythmic notation of Cowell’s invention. He was skeptical of the idea that Western musical notation had reached a perfected, static point of development, and sought clearer ways to convey complex rhythms. For Fabric, he used square, diamond, and triangular note-heads to show different divisions of the beat. He published a treatise on his system, but it didn’t catch on.

The Banshee is another string-piano piece, focusing on scraping and strumming the piano strings; in Irish mythology, the banshee is a spirit whose shriek warns of an impending death in the family.

Tiger uses tone clusters, played with the whole arm on the keyboard. Cowell took the piece on tour to Russia in 1929, where it impressed the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky, and was first published in a Soviet edition.

Harp of Life again draws from Irish mythology, but this time from a creation myth. It combines hymn-like writing on the surface with murky clusters in the depths. The score explains the myth: “The God of Life, who was called the Dagna, possessed the Harp of Life . . . and with each tone the Dagna played upon this mighty instrument, something came to life in the universe.”

Cowell would move on from the string piano, chasing a wide variety of techniques and styles—some conventional, others experimental. His life was as eccentric as his music, and sometimes as difficult. Born in 1897 to anarchist parents in Menlo Park, California, he fled the Bay Area with his newly divorced mother following the earthquake of 1906. As a young adult, Cowell established himself as a composer in both California and New York and became involved with theosophical societies and utopian communities on both coasts. In 1936, he was arrested in California for a sexual encounter with a young man, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison—an unusual and vicious sentence, even for the time. He was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he taught music and continued to compose for four years, until friends petitioned for his parole. Later in life, he received a pardon, performed and traveled widely, and was enormously influential in American music through his teaching and artistic advocacy.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer