New Music: Henry Cowell

New Music – Piano Compositions By Henry Cowell Performers: Brown, Hays, Kubera, Cahill

1. Dynamic Motion (1914)
2. What’s This? (1914)
3. Amiable Conversation (1917)
4. Advertisement (1914)
5. Antimony (1914)
6. Timetable
7. The Banshee (c. 1925)
8. Exultation (1919)
9. Tides Of Manaunaun (c. 1912)
10. Aeolian Harp (1923)
11. Hero Sun
12. Fabric (1917)
13. Lilt of the Reel (1925) 14. Nine Ings (1922) – Floating
15. Nine Ings – Frisking
16. Nine Ings – Fleeting
17. Nine Ings – Scooting
18. Nine Ings – Wafting
19. Nine Ings – Seething
20. Nine Ings – Whisking
21. Nine Ings – Sneaking
22. Nine Ings – Swaying
23. Slow Jig (1925)
24. The Fairy Answer (1929)
25. Set of Two Movements – Deep Color
26. Set of Two Movements – High Color


When you hear the methodical full-body slams (or so they seem) delivered by pianist Chris Brown on Henry Cowell’s Dynamic Motion, it amazes that the composer scripted the piece in 1914. Exactly when the world was hitting its modern stride, when speed was vital, Cowell was plunging listeners into the most dense piano music ever composed, even using the term cluster to describe how the piano ought to be played in his works. This collection of 26 Cowell pieces focuses on the easily contained modern era, all of it composed before 1930 and most before 1925. Don’t let that mislead you, though; these are some of American music’s most maverick moments, times when Cowell made himself perfectly clear in declaring a new language for the keyboard. The pieces, while resolutely American in their declarative, independent character, are also painfully lovely, each suggesting (and many making abundantly clear) the profusion of tonal and atonal possibilities in different clusters. The performers are an adventurous lot, with Brown and Joseph Kubera the best known. But Sorrel Hays and Sarah Cahill do equally tremendous things with these works, exploding them for their full interpretive potential (as Cowell would want). This is one of the great piano-music releases of the 1990s, intrepid and sonically outstanding. –Andrew Bartlett

Grooves, San Francisco Bay Guardian

MOST FANS of avant-garde jazz and improvised music are familiar with the extended techniques — fists bashing against the keys, hands reaching inside to pluck the strings — used by such innovative pianists as Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell, and Greg Goodman. But fewer probably understand the seminal contribution of the late Henry Cowell (1897-1965).

This compelling 70-minute distillation of three all-piano concerts from the 1997 “Cowell and His Legacy” tribute festival is a brilliant corrective. Held in UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, the festival included performances of music by such Cowell students and colleagues as Lou Harrison, John Cage, Charles Ives, and Ruth Crawford, along with new music by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, and others. But the relatively short Cowell pieces — 26 of them here — established the tone and organizing principle of the event.

A self-taught pianist, Cowell created his own “tone clusters” by slamming his fists and forearms into the keyboard, and he introduced his innovations into early 20th century classical music by constructing compositions around them. Called the “Loudest Pianist in the World” in 1920, he is equally resonant as a liberator of later pianists, giving them license to explore the entire sound-making potential of the grand piano, which, after all, is more than just a set of black-and-white keys poised for polite caresses.

From the expressive playing of the four pianists on this recording, it’s obvious they chose their Cowell pieces according to what rang emotionally true for them. Cowell provides copious resources — percussive exuberance, rhythmic drive, melancholic and whimsical moods, mighty cluster crashes, complex counterpoints, and lilting Irish folk song melodies — to inspire the musician, and when taken up in hands as gifted as these, they amaze and delight the listener.

reviewed by Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian

FOUR STARS by Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

The three-day festival that Bay Area Pianists and Cal Performances co-sponsored in 1997 to mark Henry Cowell’s centennial was an exciting and often revelatory event. This wonderful grab bag of Cowell’s piano pieces — brilliantly played by a foursome of local keyboard wizards — recaptures the zest of those concerts. Wisely, producers Sarah Cahill and Foster Reed have left out the new music inspired by Cowell, hardly any of which proved very interesting, and concentrated instead on the creations of the old tinkerer himself, which are by turns pugnacious and winsome, tuneful and percussive.

The most famous pieces are here, including “Aeolian Harp,” which has Sorrel Hays playing arpeggios directly on the piano strings, and “The Banshee,” with its eerie keening produced by a fingernail along the strings. But there are also odd little pockets of experimentalism tinged by Celtic lore, such as “Slow Jig” and “The Fairy Answer,” played by Cahill with plenty of folklike fervor, or the clangorous “Lilt of the Reel.” And there are the “Nine Ings,” tiny character pieces tha

“fiercely gifted”

– The New York Times

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