Works performed by Earplay:

26 Simultaneous Mosaics

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) grew up in poverty in Menlo Park from where he would sometimes come to San Francisco to hear Chinese opera. He started composing as a teenager and later studied with UC Berkeley musicologist Charles Seeger. With his use of original piano techniques such as playing clusters of notes with his arms and bowing the piano strings, he made a name for himself as a composer and performer. During his twenties he toured widely, visiting Europe several times, even performing in Stalinist Russia.

Cowell was a brilliant theorist, exploring atonality, polyrhythms, and non-Western modes before almost any other American composer, and publishing New Musical Resources in 1930. Many composers, including Cowell’s students John Cage and Lou Harrison, have mined his ideas ever since.

Cowell was a tireless promoter of the music of other composers, especially Charles Ives. He facilitated performances of new music and founded the journal New Music Quarterly that published scores and recordings by experimental composers.

As a young man, Cowell developed a strong interest in early-American rural music as well as Irish music. In the early 1930s he studied the emerging field of ethnomusicology in Berlin. He continued to travel widely and to learn about music from all over the world. His ability to fuse a variety of musics and styles resulted in his developing an eclectic style of "world music."

From 1936 to 1940 he was incarcerated in San Quentin prison on charges of homosexual conduct. Working in the jail school, he taught music to 2,700 inmates and composed about sixty pieces before he was paroled. Though he was pardoned in 1942, the imprisonment affected his ability to get work and performances. Some observers have maintained that it led to a turn in his musical style from the avant garde to more conservative styles. This is debatable, as he continued to break new ground with his music (26 Simultaneous Mosaics on tonight’s program is an example). Late in his life Cowell began to receive the recognition he deserved. He was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

The experimental and the worldly mingle in equal proportion across the music of Henry Cowell. He was a musical pioneer — and a California treasure.

— R. W. M.

[from program for January 19, 2015 concert]

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