Cowell, Henry: Set of Five

Though its institutions remain rather strong and its roots are reasonably deep, the place of classical music in America has never been easy or certain. The country is simply too large — and too willfully diffuse in its cultural and religious sources — to allow for a dense notation-based style to wrap itself around the nation’s musical identity. Our music has shown itself rather to be an unprecedented efflorescence of mostly nonwritten or half-written ‘folk’ styles tracing the social, political, commercial, and aesthetic desires of a changing and restless populace. Classical music cannot find its firm ethnic-European footing here, let alone claim cultural primacy; its canon is merely one constellation (with all the arbitrariness that implies) in a vast universe of musical possibility.

The field was especially open in California, where Henry Cowell, the son of fairly unhappy visionary progressives in San Francisco, was born in 1897 and raised as a genius. On the one hand, his upbringing could be seen as intel- lectually curious and potentially positive: he was idealistically home-schooled on the fringes of the Berkeley campus, could allegedly engage in deep philosophical discourse as a teenager, and was locally regarded as something of a prodigy. On the other hand, he was notoriously unwashed, weirdly coddled as a ‘natural’ musi- cal novelty, and had great difficulty with spelling. (Musically talented he certainly was; Felix Mendelssohn he certainly was not.)

The musical results of this upbringing were a strange combination of näive and radical. Cowell experimented with musical form at its very roots, introducing random and wandering ideas to his composition — he grew especially well-known as an avant-gardist in the 1920’s for bringing ‘tone clusters’ to piano playing (this meant playing all the notes next to one another on a piano — ‘pounding’, if you will). He also maintained a long-standing loyalty to the open and simple tonality of American Protestant ‘hymning’ songs. But perhaps his most enduring contribution was a spiritual and aesthetic openness to the ‘whole world of music’, which he presented with indefatigable energy everywhere from Columbia University to San Quentin Prison to Buenos Aires. This openness, a Whitman-like will to contain multitudes, was a quality which, for better or worse, was infinitely more likely to arise in Berkeley than in Leipzig or Vienna. The consequences of this openness, of a bold sweet näivete brought up on the edge of Chinatown, are very purely audible in the charming ‘Set of Five’: in Eastern gongs against Western tonality; in quick exploratory pleasures over a breezily wandering landscape.

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