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Henry Cowell

Born: 1897

Died: 1965

Nationality: American

Publisher: AMP

Photo © Sidney Cowell


A tireless musical explorer and inventor, Henry Cowell was born 11 March 1897 in Menlo Park, California, where he grew up surrounded by a wide variety of Oriental musical traditions, his father's Irish folk heritage, and his mother's Midwestern folktunes. Already composing in his early teens, Cowell began formal training at age 16 with Charles Seeger at the University of California. Further studies focused primarily on world music cultures. His use of varied sound materials, experimental compositional procedures, and a rich palette colored by multiple non-European and folk influences revolutionized American music and popularized, most notably, the tone cluster as an element in compositional design.

In addition to tone clusters evident in such works as Advertisement and Tiger, Cowell experimented with the "string piano" in works like The Aeolian Harp and The Banshee where strings are strummed or plucked inside the piano. Studies of the musical cultures of Africa, Java, and North and South India enabled Cowell to stretch and redefine Western notions of melody and rhythm; mastery of the gamelan and the theory of gamelan composition led to further explorations with exotic instruments and percussion. Later, Cowell developed the concept of indeterminancy or "elastic form" in works like the Mosaic Quartet (where performers determine the order and alternation of movements).

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