COWELL: Set of Five. Trio in Nine Short Movements. Four Combinations. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 9.

by Walter Simmons



COWELL: Set of Five. Trio in Nine Short Movements. Four Combinations. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 9. Trio Phoenix (Kay Stern, violin; Sarah Fiene, cello; Josephine Gandolfi, piano); Rick Kvistak, percussion. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 37205-2Hl [DDD]; 47:56. Produced by Mark Dalrymple.

For some reason, the record companies are suddenly delving into the vast output of Henry Cowell with a vengeance (see my Cowell overview in Fanfare 17:2, and subsequent reviews by Art Lange 18:27 and myself 18:4.0. But any fair representation is almost hopeless, because the quantity of Cowell’s output approaches infinity, and the quality can most charitably be called “uneven”. And although what has thus far been unearthed represents the merest tip of: the iceberg, we already face considerable discographic redundancy–and considerable unevenness in quality of selections.

Set of Five, composed in 1952 for violin, piano, and large percussion ensemble, is one of Cowell’s stronger extended works, presenting typically odd and eccentric stylistic and instrumental juxtapositions with charm and geniality of spirit. Cowell might be legitimately termed the father of the concept of “world music,” and this 18-minute work in five movements exemplifies his approach at its beast, as Irish, Latin-American, and Anglo-American melodic materials are combined with Asian-inspired percussion sonorities, and treated with assorted “experimental” techniques, to produce an ingratiating musical stew. This new performance far exceeds in precision, interpretive nuance, and overall polish the rendition recorded for MGM during the mid-1950s by Anahid and Maro Ajemian, for whom it was written Another recording, featuring the Abel Steinberg Winant Trio on New Albion NA-036 won enthusiastic praise from William Wians in Fanfare 15:1 (pp. 430-1 , but I haven’t heard it.

The other fairly substantial piece is the Trio in Nine Short Movements, Cowell’s last completed work, composed shortly before his death in 1965. Each movement averaging barely two minutes duration, is a sort of variation on the original material. Each displays its own character, deriving from what often seems a rather mechanical execution of a relatively simple if quirky-compositional concept. The result is benign enough, but the deliberate absence of dynamic process results in a sterility that borders on the simplistic and can be quite boring. The closest aesthetic relative might be the pre-1950 music of John Cage (a student of Cowell). Yet even I — who considerCage, through his influence on hordes of gullible and uncritical avant-qarde apologists, to be one of the most profoundly damaging presences in 20th century artistic life — must credit his earlier work in this vein as more creative and imaginative than his teacher’s.

The other two pieces are very minor efforts. Four Combinations for piano trio dates from 1924. Its most interesting contribution is the use of tone clusters to accompany–and highlight most effectively — some surprisingly lyrical melodic material. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 9 was written for cello and piano in 1950. Pleasantly innocuous, it is definitely one of the less memorable efforts in the series.

The Mirecourt Trio has recorded perfectly respectable rendition: of the last three pieces discussed see Fanfare 4:6,169; 16:5, p. 278). But these readings by the Trio Phoenix, a young San-Francisco-based group, offer a bit more interpretive focus and slightly more refined playing. On the other hand, if I were a consumer, I’d skip this disc and on the basis of Wians’ recommendation, grab the New Albion disc: mentioned above for the Set of Five and a more promising selection of music by Hovhaness, Harrison, Cage (early), and Satoh.