Henry Cowell and the Joys of Noise

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician, Emily Baumgart.

The Music Division has recently published a finding aid that brings together many of the Henry Cowell music manuscripts held at the Library of Congress, revealing a wealth of holograph scores spanning his entire compositional career. Cowell’s musical aesthetic changed throughout his life from ultramodernism in the 1920s and 1930s to open form and the use of folk-inspired elements in the post-war period. His scoring likewise ranges from the traditional, with string quartets and choral music, to the unexpected, such as his Concerto for Koto and his works for string piano. It is this experimental side that Cowell is most famous for, and the Cowell manuscripts held by the Music Division demonstrate his prolific avant-garde output.

Henry Cowell, composer. Adventures in Harmony, chapter III. circa 1913. Call number ML96 .C823 (Case), Music Division.

One of Cowell’s earliest pianistic innovations was the tone cluster technique, in which the performer plays groups of notes with their fist or entire forearm. Although there is some confusion surrounding dates, the earliest work to include tone clusters is generally considered to be Adventures in Harmony from around 1913, composed when Cowell was in his mid-teens. This work consists of several “chapters” forming a sort of catalog of different compositional techniques, designed as a gift for his piano teacher, Ellen Veblen. The tone clusters first appear in the third chapter of Adventures in Harmony where Cowell uses them mostly for color: they are meant to decorate an otherwise mostly diatonic work, and in this earliest iteration Cowell’s original attempt at transcribing this sound is somewhat unwieldy, with each specific note written out on the staff. Further experiments brought these tone clusters to the fore, as in Dynamic Motion (1916), ranging from small clusters of a few notes to wide swaths of the keyboard as the pianist plays with both forearms. The work even includes arpeggiated clusters, performed by tilting the forearm across the keys. Cowell’s score shows a more sophisticated, simpler representation for the technique that specifies only a lower and upper bound for the cluster; not only was Cowell experimenting with the musical elements themselves, but also a way to properly notate those sounds. Later on, Cowell adapted the idea of tone clusters to other instruments; they are especially prominent in both the solo piano and orchestral accompaniment of the Concerto for Piano (1928).

Henry Cowell, composer. Dynamic Motion, 1916. Call number ML96 .C823 (Case), Music Division.

Henry Cowell, composer. The Banshee, 1925. Call number ML96 .C823 (Case), Music Division.

Cowell’s other big experimental piano approach was what he termed the string piano. To be clear, this is not any kind of new instrument, but a new way of playing an old instrument: instead of playing on the piano keys, the performer in these works plays on the strings inside the piano. The techniques can range from the gentle strumming and glissandi of Aeolian Harp (1923) that seeks to mimic the pastoral sounds of a harp, to the harsh, eerie scrapes, slides, and plucks of The Banshee (1925). It is this second work that is Cowell’s most famous string piano composition, and the Library of Congress holds an early holograph of the score. Like the tone clusters, Cowell had to develop notation for this new style of performance, as seen in the letters A-L associated with the typical staff notation. Each letter specifies a different performance technique, including which part of the hand or finger to use, which direction to slide, and whether to dampen the strings. The end result does sound rather like the screams of a banshee, connecting this new compositional practice to Cowell’s lifelong use of mythic and folkloric elements in his music. An earlier work and the first string piano piece, The Sword of Oblivion (1921/1922), shows some of the same notation as The Banshee, though it is combined with other symbols as Cowell was still experimenting with the best way to notate these new sounds for the performer. This earlier work is also a sort of transition from typical piano performance to Cowell’s new string piano technique, as Sword incorporates both keyboard and string sounds.

Henry Cowell, composer. The Sword of Oblivion, 1921-1922. Call number ML96 .C823 (Case), Music Division

Cowell experimented with different techniques and sounds throughout his life; the tone clusters and string piano were only the beginning of a long and prolific career. Though it may at times seem to some listeners that these compositions are more noise than music, Cowell said it best in his article “The Joys of Noise”: “Since the ‘disease’ of noise permeates all music, the only hopeful course is to consider that the noise-germ, like the bacteria of cheese, is a good microbe, which may provide previously hidden delights to the listener, instead of producing musical oblivion.”

One Comment

  1. Bob pollack
    December 12, 2020 at 6:20 pm

    There is a story that both Henry Cowell and Bela Bartok were in England for some event and were both staying at the same house. There was a piano and Bartok heard Cowell playing and using his tone clusters. Bartok, the ultimate gentleman, sometime later recalled hearing this innovative sound and wrote to Cowell asking for his permission to use that technique in a piano piece he was composing. was

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