John Herbert McDowell: Composer, Choreographer, Writer, and All-Around Delightful Mischief-Maker

Photograph of Emily Baumgart, Music Division archives processing technician.

This guest blog post introduces Emily Baumgart, one of the Music Division’s recently hired archives processing technicians, as well as composer John Herbert McDowell (1926-1985), whose collection was her first assignment here. Emily shares some of the creativity that characterizes this collection, which is now open to research.

That Guggenheim Fellow John Herbert McDowell and his work remain virtually unknown is a surprise in light of his startlingly prolific creative output. During the period from 1955 to 1975 in which he was most active, McDowell had his hands in an inordinate number of pies. He became heavily involved in experimental music in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, and was a major member of artistic groups at Judson Memorial Church. He proudly claimed that he had composed more music for dance than any other composer (though that claim is unsubstantiated), and taught both music and choreography at The New School for Social Research and the Gulbenkian Foundation’s National Choreographic Summer School. McDowell’s music was eclectic, encompassing a large range of styles and genres: sacred and secular, concert and theatrical, chamber music, orchestral music, and film music. An early proponent of tape music, he was also one of the first modern composers to incorporate the harpsichord in his works, as seen in the Suite for Harpsichord (1955), Modulamen (1961), and Darkened Psalters: Dramatic Ballet in Three Scenes based on The Scarlet Letter (undated).

Portrait of John Herbert McDowell adorned with bowties, c. 1955. Box 50 / Folder 1, John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division.

Beyond this example of a modern composer and choreographer, however, there is a playful side to McDowell’s work. His compositions often feature a sort of tongue-in-cheek wit and humor, with such titles as Fock Musique: On an Ancient Basque Air with Latest Serial Technologies and Oklahoma Danger Remark: or, a Luncheon Date with the Torpedos of Fu Manchu (A Musical Evocation of Florence Nightingale and Her Era), as well as his Harbinger of Health, a musical setting of passages from Andrew Jackson Davis’s 1862 medical textbook. He had a tendency toward wordplay as well, and would twist words and phrases around to suit his fancy with intentional spoonerisms. “Music cues” for incidental theater music became “cusic moos,” and one score for an unknown movie is titled Phrog flim. McDowell’s collection showcases a mischievous, impish character and his scores reflect this sense of fun: from tempo indications “as fast as possible, or faster” to performance instructions to “repeat your friendly low B-flat many times.”  While he could certainly write “serious” music (his cantata Canticle of Expectations is an excellent example), his work and creativity thrived in areas where he could experiment and occasionally goof around with his friends and fellow artists.

Title page of McDowell’s opera Oklahoma Danger Remark (a collaboration with Arthur Williams, James Waring, Joanna Vischer, and Joanna Schielke), premiered in 1965 by the American Theatre for Poets. Box 10 / Folder 1, John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division.

These fellow artists seemed to encompass the entirety of the modern arts community of New York City. He provided the film scores for several directors, including Brian de Palma’s early works (read more in this archived blog post), and he was a frequent collaborator of choreographers James Waring, Paul Taylor, Cliff Keuter, Elina Mooney, and others, as well as participated as a core member of both the Judson Dance Theater and Judson Poets’ Theater. At one Judson Dance performance, critic Jill Johnston described him as “having no ties or tensions arising from a training and having an inordinate sense of fun” performing a dance that his collaborator and friend, Beat poet and writer Diane di Prima, characterized as “leaping about like a demented pixie.”[1] His social circle spanned the whole of New York’s artistic scene, including camp creator H. M. Koutoukas, Warhol Factory dancer Fred Herko,  science fiction author Samuel R. Delany, poet and activist Amiri Baraka, and pop artist Rosalyn Drexler. McDowell also maintained a friendship with microtonal composer Ezra Sims, whose extensive collection of manuscripts, papers, and recordings recently came to the Music Division. The large number of programs in the collection (many embellished with coffee stains or notes to himself) is a testament to how active and engaged McDowell was in all aspects of New York’s artistic scene.

The John Herbert McDowell Papers showcase a wealth of information, both about McDowell himself and about the lively arts in New York City during the second half of the 20th century. The collection is processed and open for research at the Music Division’s Performing Arts Reading Room.

[1] Quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 46.

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