Movement for String Quartet (String Quartet No. 2) (1928)
Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp (1962)
CD 2 Polyphonica (1928)
26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963)
Quartet Euphometric (1916-19)
Quartet Romantic (1915-17)
String Quartet No. 1 “Pedantic” (1916)
Poised over the keyboard, with forearms pounding out thunderous clusters of sound-that is how Henry Cowell (1897-1965) has entered popular imagination. During the 1920s, he crisscrossed the United States and Europe, gaining notoriety for his physicality with the piano and the unorthodox sounds that resulted. But this composer of clusters also wrote singable tunes. The composer of clusters also produced consonance. And, this guru of American experimentalism also respected tradition, whether of the East or the West. Cowell’s tremendous innovation went on to influence generations of composers afterwards, from John Cage to Frank Zappa.
These various and contradictory sides of Cowell the composer are most evident in his chamber music. The resulting “Mosiac” is revealed on this 2-CD set, with works spanning his career from his youth in California in 1916 to two years before his death in New York in 1963.
Included are the three famous early string quartets, the open-form 26 Simultaneous Mosiacs (which Cowell wrote after learning of John F. Kennedy’s assassination) heard in 3 very different performances, the infamous Polyphonica for 12 instruments, the baroque-influenced Quartet of 1962, and the Asian influenced Return for percussion ensemble culminating in a human wail (its premiere in 1939 was on an all-percussion program arranged by John Cage).
Liner notes by American music scholar Carol J. Oja.
Henry Cowell Mosaic Mode 72/73
A recent release, Mosaic fleshes out Cowell’s cross-cultural agenda with several pieces making their appearance on disc for the first time. In particular, 26 Simultaneous Mosiacs (1963), crams dozens of musical and ethnic sytles into a unified composition for string quartet and percussion. — Kenneth Goldsmith, Tower PULSE!, “Banging On Cans: American Gamelans”, September 2000
Apart from Cowell’s own performances, this 2-CD set is the best advocacy for his music to appear on disc, with excellent notes from Carol Oja. His chamber music can now take its place beside Ives within the challenging early 20th-century repertory, well repaying the difficulties of performance. Enterprising ensembles, such as those represented here, are becoming aware of this.the chamber music here is a revelation. — Peter Dickinson, Gramophone
Nobody invented American experimental music. It just grew that way, and grows. But nobody ever cared for it more than Henry Cowell. Born in Menlo Park, California in 1897, Cowell began exploring new possibilities on the piano when he was still in his midteens: gigantic clusters of notes played with the forearms on the keyboard, unusual sounds created by leaning inside the instrument and brushing a hand across the strings. After his death, in 1965, his music almost disappeared, and for a long while there were very few recordings available. That situation has changed during the last decade, but still there is probably no more complete or engaging tribute to this exploratory yet gentle musical spirit than a new double album of his chamber music, played by the Colorado String Quartet and the ensemble Musicians Accord (Mode 72/73, ****). The chamber pieces tend to be more concise than the orchestral works, and these excellent performances set new standards of care and calm in Cowell performance.
The works chosen cover pretty much the whole of the composer’s creative life, from his teenage quartets — in which he explored some of the techniques that would go into New Musical Resources, especially simultaneous combinations of unrelated rhythms — to some pieces from near the end of his life. There is a huge difference between going through different superimposed meters (as in the Quartet Romantic of 1915-17 for two flutes, viola and cello) and evoking the music of Ireland or Indonesia (both visited in the Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harp of 1962). Certainly the latter produces a more euphonious effect. But, inanother sense, all Cowell’s work was experimental. In each piece he set up certain conditions and waited to see what would happen.
Some experiments involved dissonant harmony, though usually against the background of the Protestant hymn. Cowell’s liking for Irish folk music was similarly in his musical genes, and survived all kinds of rough handling. Other kinds of experiment had to do with learning from non-classical traditions. But whatever the case, Cowell’s demeanor was accepting, and his music is ultimately about tolerance — about cultures coexisting, about instruments getting along with each other even though they cannot agree about where the beat is, about composers not imposing themselves on performers and listeners but rather putting forward possibilities of experience.
Cowell’s respect for his fellows surely underlies his “mosaic” forms, in which separate segments of music can be put together in various ways. In his Twenty-Six Simultaneous Mosaics of 1963 he provided that number of mobile elements for a mixed quintet of instrument — some of the elements tonal (including a strikingly Bach-like dance for the cello), some atonal.
Three different takes of the piece are offered here, but perhaps the most fascinating pieces are those in which a little more order is sustained — not so much the emphatically dissonant pieces, which fall back on repetitive melodies and seem very tame alongside Schoenberg or Webern, as those that wander along different rhythmic paths at the same time. Notable among these are the exuberant Polyphonica and the weird Quartet Romantic, where the instruments seem to be perpetually astray, as if not hearing one another — though they still all vaguely remember Bach and hymns and folk music. — Paul Griffiths, “Nurturer of American Experimental Music,” Classical Pulse!, July 1999
Henry Cowell on Mode: Dancing with Henry (mode 101)
Also with Musicians’ Accord on Mode: Luciano BERIO: The Great Works for Voice (mode 48) Musicians’ Accord: Chamber Music for Voice (mode 23)