26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963) by Henry Cowell
for clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello

[Earplay performs 26 Simultaneous Mosaics twice tonight, at the beginning of the concert and again at the end.]

Henry Cowell composed about a thousand pieces of music during his life. 26 Simultaneous Mosaics came late, written two years before his death and using a kaleidoscope of compositional techniques Cowell had invented or developed during his career.

No two performances of this work are the same. It has an open or elastic form, a structure in which separate segments of music can be put together in various ways. Each of the five players has five movements to choose from, except the piano player who has six. Cowell instructs the players to "start and stop as they please and choose the order of the movements as they please. Use repeats [or return to the beginning at will]. Use lots of rest between movements so that everything is not always going at once... The pianist may give a sign when he feels that the last round has come (seven or eight minutes) but each player finishes whatever mosaic he is playing." The work thus creates a sort of musical analog of a mobile sculpture.

Cowell is said to have drawn inspiration for 26 Simultaneous Mosaics from his student John Cage, who by 1963 was creating numerous indeterminate works, generating processes rather than objects. Nevertheless, Cowell had already composed a similar if not so radical piece in 1935 with his Mosaic Quartet for strings.

The musical content of the movements varies widely, exhibiting the eclectic mix of styles characteristic of Cowell's works. Each movement elucidates a few simple ideas. One piano piece has high, fast, shimmering tone clusters, another slow moving six-note chords. Various modal hymns and folk songs appear, with atonal accompaniments when they turn up in the piano part. There is a Bach-like dance for the cello. The tempos range from a slow Grave to a fast Presto. The melodies usually cover a relatively narrow range and the rhythms are mostly steady. The percussion part has different instrumentation for each of its movements.

While Cowell was composing 26 Simultaneous Mosaics, President John Kennedy was assassinated. The next day the composer wrote a couple of cello movements for the piece and dedicated them to the memory of Kennedy. Soon, however, he detached these sections and used them to create Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 17 which he dedicated to Kennedy instead. He wrote new movements to replace the ones he had repurposed. In the end, Cowell dedicated 26 Simultaneous Mosaics to Oliver Daniel, a musicologist and composer who promoted the work of contemporary composers — as Cowell himself had done so tirelessly — and who in 1954 helped found the CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) record label.

This work is a wonderful exemplification of Henry Cowell’s spirit, drawing from many sources and returning to the places he had been and the people he had served and honored.

— R. W. M.    

[from program for January 19, 2015 concert]