COWELL: American Melting Pot. Persian Set. Old American Country Set. Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 Air. Ensemble: Adagio. Richard Auldon Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Michael Sutton, violin. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7220-2 H1 [DDD]; 64:07. Produced by Michael Fine.
Henry Cowell (1897-1965) belongs — with Partch, Cage, and Harrison — to that group of Californian mavericks who played such a significant role in twentieth-century American music. Cowell’s own contribution was so far-reaching — he was a veritable one-man music industry — that it is difficult to summarize. Just to touch on a few high points: As an editor, publisher, critic, and general musical statesman, this exuberantly open-minded, elfin fellow was a positive constructive force, finding value in new music of all kinds, during a period in American music notable for hostile divisiveness and competitiveness; he was the teacher of both John Cage and Lou Harrison; he was close friend, colleague, advocate, and first biographer of Charles Ives; he was one of the first to promote the idea of “world music,” a fusion of sounds and techniques from musics of all cultures; he composed more than 900 works of his own that touched upon an enormous range of styles and functions (the list of works published in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music is staggering to behold).
Cowell’s fertile compositional career falls roughly into three phases, or “periods.” The first, lasting until the mid 1930s, was characterized by an emphasis on experimental techniques; the second, continuing until about 1950, concentrated on folk-related styles and materials, much, though not all, of Anglo-American origin; the third reveals a greater interest in Asian materials, while attempting some integration of vernacular and experimental interests. Contributing to a general sense of confusion about Cowell even among fairly sophisticated listeners (who but they even knows of him?) is the fact that his reputation is generally based on the works of the first period, while most of those pieces that are heard at all stem from the second period; the third-period music is hardly known at all. Furthermore, though Cowell’s benign, impish temperament may be detected in virtually all his music, not much else can: There is very little “content” to any of it. The music of the first period serves primarily as showcases for various innovative techniques: the pieces themselves are “examples” more than “works.” The music of the second period is exceedingly straightforward in its use of folk styles and materials: virtually nothing is “done” to it to give it a personal stamp. It is thus pleasant, but thoroughly unmemorable. It is in some of the music from the third period that Cowell seemed to attempt a distinctive aesthetic statement. Two works, available on recordings during the LP era, succeed in distilling something of the essence of this remarkable figure from his 900-some-odd compositions: the Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music” (1953), and the Variations for Orchestra (1956; rev. 1959).
This new release from Koch might have been a nice one-disc introduction to the music of Henry Cowell, but it is much too skewed toward the second period to give a representative impression of what the man was about. The only example from the first period is the “Adagio” from the 1924 Ensemble. A highly chromatic three-and-one-half-minute unison statement for strings, it is pregnant with possibilities for development; by itself it says nothing. Old American Country Set dates from the late 1930s and recalls the folk styles Cowell heard during childhood years spent in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Its five tuneful movements have a Grainger-like directness, with none of the cool sophistication found in, say, Copland’s treatment of Americana. The seven movements of American Melting Pot (1940) attempt to capture the spirit of some of the many ethnic groups comprising the American populace at the time. Again, however, these are strictly surface-level folk evocations. Cowell composed 18 Hymns and Fuguing Tunes based on the rough-hewn polyphony of colonial American choral music. These are warmly attractive pieces, explicitly imitative in character. No. 2 (1944) is typical of the genre. The pieces on the disc composed after 1950 share the characteristics of Cowell’s second period. The six-minute Air for violin and strings is modal, with more richly romantic interludes. Persian Set was once recorded by Stokowski on CRI. It was composed in 1957 during a visit to Iran and is a straightforward aural picture-postcard with no significant personal intervention.
All this music is thoroughly pleasant in a very superficial way. Performances are excellent. Program notes by Dana Paul Perna are generous and informative, but contain many typos. We need a more balanced representative sample of Cowell’s contribution as a composer.