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Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – December 10, 1965)

Henry Dixon Cowell was an innovative proponent of Modernist theory in music and one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. He taught at the New School for Social Research (1928-1963) and developed techniques of “tone clusters,” where the fist or palm is used to hit several keys at once, and percussing directly on piano strings. He wrote some of the first “aleatory” works, where an element of chance enters into each performance.

Cowell’s musical compositions include Tides of Manaunaun, The Lilt of Reel, Synchrony, Persian Set, Ongaku, and Concerto for Koto and Orchestra. Among his students were George Gershwin, John CAGE, and, later, Burt Bacharach.

Cowell, who was bisexual, was arrested and convicted on a morals charge in 1936. Sentenced to fifteen years, he spent four in San Quentin State Prison. There he taught fellow inmates, directed the prison band, and continued to write music, producing around sixty compositions, including two major pieces for percussion ensemble: Pulse and Return.

Cowell had contributed to the Eiffel Tower project at the behest of Cage, who was not alone in lending support to his friend and former teacher. Cowell's cause had been taken up by composers and musicians around the country, although a few, including Ives, broke contact with him. Cowell was eventually paroled in 1940; he relocated to the East Coast and the following year married Sidney Hawkins Robertson (1903–1995, married name Sidney Robertson Cowell), a prominent folk-music scholar who had been instrumental in winning his freedom. Cowell was granted a pardon in 1942.

Following his release, Cowell toned down his approach, and became notably more conservative in politics and music.



Stern, Keith (2009-09-01). Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals (Kindle Locations 3780-3790). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Further Readings:

Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music by Joel Sachs
Hardcover: 624 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (July 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195108957
ISBN-13: 978-0195108958
Amazon: Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music

Joel Sachs offers the first complete biography of one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American music. Henry Cowell, a major musical innovator of the first half of the century, left a rich body of compositions spanning a wide range of styles. But as Sachs shows, Cowell's legacy extends far beyond his music. He worked tirelessly to create organizations such as the highly influential New Music Quarterly, New Music Recordings, and the Pan-American Association of Composers, through which great talents like Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Ives first became known in the US and abroad. As one of the first Western advocates for World Music, he used lectures, articles, and recordings to bring other musical cultures to myriad listeners and students including John Cage and Lou Harrison, who attributed their life work to Cowell's influence. Finally, Sachs describes the tragedy of Cowell's life--his guilty plea on a morals charge, which even the prosecutor felt was trivial, but brought him a sentence of 15 years in San Quentin, of which he served four.

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Tags: gay classics, queers in history
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