Henry Cowell


Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was considered one of the most innovative American composers of the 20th century. At just fourteen years old, Cowell had a reputation for performing using experimental techniques on the piano. At age seventeen, Cowell studied with musicologist Charles Seeger at the University of California. He persuaded Cowell to create transcriptions of his innovations, which he later published as New Musical Resources in 1930. Cowell studied Asian and Middle Eastern music in addition to to European classical music, and this mixture heavily influenced his compositional style.

Cowell’s compositions from 1912- 1930 all used extended techniques of plucked piano strings and tone clusters–a term that Cowell coined, which are notes played very close to one another on the piano. In fact, his most famous works, such as The Banshee (1925), and Aeolian Harp (1923), contain these elements. Cowell writes specific instructions on these pieces to help guide the performers of the works. Cowell, along with Leon Theremin, was also influential in creating the Rhythmicon, one of the first electronic instruments that could produce 16 different simultaneous rhythms. He composed a piece specifically for the instrument entitled Rhythmica in 1931.

Cowell taught at the New School for Social Research from 1930 until 1952 on a variety of topics, including Primitive Music,” the “Creation of Music,” “Origins of Music: Ancient Indian and Chinese,” “Folk music as a hybrid between primitive and cultivated systems,” and “Development of modern music from older masters.” In 1933, he organized a symposium called “American Composers on American Music,” which became a book; he also founded the New Music Quarterly in 1927 and was its editor until 1936 in order to publish scores of modern composers.

During his first few years as a professor, Cowell became affiliated with the Young Composers Group, a composers’ organization under the instruction of Aaron Copland, which organized their concerts at the New School. He was also apart of The Composers’ Collective, a music organization associated with the Workers’ Music League, which included a number of New School faculty and students in its membership. Cowell was also a co-director of the concert series entitled Contemporary American Composers, which performed at the 66 W. 12th street auditorium. The New School was one of the few places where 20th century composers could play their work with great support from the community. It became a safe haven for many other composers that passed through the New School at the time, such as John Cage, Charles Ives, and Edgard Varese.

Cowell was accused and imprisoned for homosexual conduct in 1936. He still composed works during his time in prison, despite the fact that he was unable to practice and perform. He returned to the New School in 1940, and continued to give lectures and perform other 20th century works.