Author Topic: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)  (Read 17017 times)

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Offline vandermolen

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Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« on: March 06, 2011, 02:22:15 AM »
I have some bits and pieces by this composer but never made much of them.  However, I just bought a second hand Bay Cities CD of music by American composers including Cowell's Symphony No 5 from 1948.  This is by far the best music I have heard from him - lyrical, moving (especially the slow movement) and well-integrated. I think that it is a fine American symphony.

Any other views on Cowell?
« Last Edit: March 07, 2011, 01:32:20 AM by vandermolen »
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #1 on: March 06, 2011, 08:34:36 PM »
Honestly, I wish I knew more of his music, but this will soon change. I've heard he was a bit of a radical, but he was also not afraid to compose something of lyrical beauty.
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Offline vandermolen

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #2 on: March 07, 2011, 01:33:35 AM »
Honestly, I wish I knew more of his music, but this will soon change. I've heard he was a bit of a radical, but he was also not afraid to compose something of lyrical beauty.

Thanks for your response. On the strength of Symphony No 5 I've just ordered a CD entitled 'Persian Set' which I'll report back on in due course.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

cilgwyn

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #3 on: March 07, 2011, 05:48:08 AM »
Hello everyone. Regarding the Persian set'. I have had this cd for some time. Cowells use of vocal  contributions from the orchestra reminded me of the different but similairly colourful 'Eventyr' by Delius. There are some newer recordings of Cowell,conducted by Botstein,available on Amazon,(and maybe some other site),for download,which include his Second & eleventh symphonies & a deleted Koch cd,which includes some more symphonies. The sound quality on the latter seemed a bit 'thin' & this should be taken into account before downloading or buying. The Naxos cd's are Cowell in more experimental mode & I must admit to not being so keen on those. Cowell is very neglected at the moment & his interest in the the East makes him an interesting comparison to the better known Hovhaness. There also recordings of Cowell playing & announcing some of his piano music on another cd. Unfortunately Cowell doesn't have a cult following like Hovhaness,but in my opinion he is an intriguing figure who certainly deserves more exposure. No doubt some of the smaller & more adventurous record labels will reach him in the end.

snyprrr

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #4 on: March 07, 2011, 08:26:53 AM »
I went through a Cowell discovery process. My BottomLine with Cowell is not that complimentary, but, within such a wide ranging WorksList, there will probably be something for everyone.

1) Piano Music: if you like Cage's Sonatas & Interludes, you'll like Cowell's playful experiments. One certainly cannot overlook Cowell's contribution to 20th Century Piano Music. There is also some Harpsichord Music. I'm not sure about guitar or harp, but I think Lou Harrison overshadows on both.

1A) Piano & Violin Music: I believe there are four pieces(?), including the Suite, the Sonata, a Hymn & Fuging Tune, and perhaps an Air (?). They are all on a 'Complete' cd.

1B)...Cello...: There is the early Sonata (which hasn't got all favorable reviews; I haven't heard it (they say it sounds juvenile)), and a few anniversary pieces, and a solo piece ('Vigorously & Gravely'). I believe all pieces are fairly available. There might be a DUO for violin & cello, but I can't think of why.

1C) Piano Trio: Koch has a cd of all PTs (plus other bits I believe), which I think amount to three(?).



2) String Quartets: Nos. 1-2 are in HC's ultra dissonant style. No.3 is a mixture, from the '30s. The most famous might be No.4, United, which i have not hear. No.5 is Late, and may be very conservative.



3) Chamber Music: regardless of the instrumentation, HC's music will either be in the ultra dissonant style, or the Late, much much more conservative, Style. There are Piano Trios, of which I like Four Combinations for  (preferred version by hartley Trio). Fluffy trifles for cello and violin (Violin Sonata?) tend to be frivolous. Special mention should be made of the set of Hymn & Fuguing Tunes for different combinations of instruments, up to orchestra (I think).

3A)The Quartet Romantic is for 2 flutes and 2 strings. There's the 6 clarinet pieces. There's an oboe piece on a Crystal recital (is it the Hymn& Fuguing Tune, or something else?). There's probably a few other pieces for the other instruments, but I don't think we'll find much substance: at 700 pieces, there must be a lot of small stuff, no? The Woodwind Quintet is one such piece.


3A II) Brass Music: there's a Hymn & Fuguing Tunes for brass ensemble, and I believe one for three trombones.

3B) There's a harpsichord Quintet of the Naxos disc, and there's a harp Quintet on the Mode set.

There's the Set of Five, Persian Set, and Homage to Iran. I don't know how many ensemble works we get here in the trio-quintet-octet range, but the aren't many 'famous' things, so, maybe, if we just look at what's available, and have a Complete Works List, I'm sure we can fill in the blanks in our heads, no? We probably don't need to even scour too far. But there are the pieces Ensemble (including the 'Adagio' (with 'thunderstick')), Polyphonica, 36 Simultaneous Mosiacs, a few of the Hymn & Fuguing Tunes, and the other pieces mentioned previously. That sounds like the beginning of a portrait.

As a rule, HC's LateMusic is all very conservative and pretty, all written after his stint in jail. This can be slightly maddening. This music all sounds very much like Lou Harrison's more fluffy style (the two share more than their share of sounds).

I have a great Mode 2cd set called 'Mosaic', which includes a nice swathe of Chamber Music, in all his different styles. There is a Late harp quintet that is as light and gay as anything. This may be the best overall HC set out there.


3C) Percussion: HC also has a few percussion pieces from the dawn of that era, also. Pulse, Return




4) String Orchestra: the early Adagio is in the ultra dissonant style, but the Hymn&FuguingTunes are all light. I have Koch cds of really light, 'American' sounding 'melting pots' that really do nothing for me. There is also a CPO disc of the same material

5) Symphonies: what?,... we have 17? Perhaps vandermolen got one of the good ones (No.5). I've heard a few bits here and there, and I hear a lot of HC's conservative style. I still haven't heard a very good overview of these Works, and have pretty much given up here.

5A) Piano Concertos: There's a disc of about 4-5 different concertante works. I can't off hand think of ANY OTHER CONCERTOS; can you help me here?

5B) Other Orchestral Music: Music 1957, Synchrony, various orchestrated suites like the American Melting Pot, and so forth, and what seems like a bewildering array of pieces called Air (there's one for violin and one for sax).
There might be pieces called 'Chorale' or Fiddler's Jig, or all kinds of things like that.



6) Eclectic/Indigenous Music: the Iran and Persian musics are ok. The Japanese stuff,... eh. I just find this StoneAge,... so much more has been learned since the the advent of WorldMusic. One cannot discount HC, but I find him obsolete here. Harrison certainly took over here.





All I can say to any prospective Cowell seeker is: WatchOut!!,... there is a lot of research, but not that much reward, IMHO. The Mode set is my pick for a OneStop Cowell class. Perhaps those two Naxos discs will be enough.

I have two Koch discs (one has the Late Concerto Grosso, which sounds very Middle Ages to me), the Mode set, and some other, random, pieces (that Piano Trio, 4 Combinations, I like). I have, more than once, really tried,... TRIED to get to the bottom of Cowell, but I truly think his personal life overshadowed his talent. Whatever happened,... or,... whatever proclivities he might have had,... seem to me to have caused a reaction in his music. He just got so,... fake?,... writing all this 'pretty' music so as not to make any further waves? I don't know, but it sure seems as if that were the case. His LateMusic certainly has no testosterone. btw- he was quite the looker as a young man,... quite the typical gay WestCoast look as an elderly man. Perhaps he was just a Cat Lady in drag? I find Cowell a tragedy. :( Perhaps I've opined too much here,... I'm not seeking a gay debate, however interesting the 'manly' sounds of Ives and Ruggles might compare to the more 'feminine' sounds of Cowell, Harrison, etc.,... CRI certainly poisoned me against this whole topic, oy vey!! ::) ok, just disregard the last paragraph! ;D 8)
« Last Edit: February 05, 2012, 11:46:17 PM by snyprrr »

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #5 on: March 08, 2011, 12:19:00 AM »
Hello everyone. Regarding the Persian set'. I have had this cd for some time. Cowells use of vocal  contributions from the orchestra reminded me of the different but similairly colourful 'Eventyr' by Delius. There are some newer recordings of Cowell,conducted by Botstein,available on Amazon,(and maybe some other site),for download,which include his Second & eleventh symphonies & a deleted Koch cd,which includes some more symphonies. The sound quality on the latter seemed a bit 'thin' & this should be taken into account before downloading or buying. The Naxos cd's are Cowell in more experimental mode & I must admit to not being so keen on those. Cowell is very neglected at the moment & his interest in the the East makes him an interesting comparison to the better known Hovhaness. There also recordings of Cowell playing & announcing some of his piano music on another cd. Unfortunately Cowell doesn't have a cult following like Hovhaness,but in my opinion he is an intriguing figure who certainly deserves more exposure. No doubt some of the smaller & more adventurous record labels will reach him in the end.

Thanks so much for this and welcome to the forum. I'll report back on 'Persian Set' in due course.
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #6 on: March 08, 2011, 12:22:01 AM »
I went through a Cowell discovery process. My BottomLine with Cowell is not that complimentary, but, within such a wide ranging WorksList, there will probably be something for everyone.

1) Piano Music: if you like Cage's Sonatas & Interludes, you'll like Cowell's playful experiments. One certainly cannot overlook Cowell's contribution to 20th Century Piano Music.

2) String Quartets: Nos. 1-2 are in HC's ultra dissonant style. No.3 is a mixture, from the '30s. The most famous might be No.4, United, which i have not hear. No.5 is Late, and may be very conservative.

3) Chamber Music: regardless of the instrumentation, HC's music will either be in the ultra dissonant style, or the Late, much much more conservative, Style. There are Piano Trios, of which I like Four Combinations for  (preferred version by hartley Trio). Fluffy trifles for cello and violin (Violin Sonata?) tend to be frivolous.

As a rule, HC's LateMusic is all very conservative and pretty, all written after his stint in jail. This can be slightly maddening. This music all sounds very much like Lou Harrison's more fluffy style (the two share more than their share of sounds).

I have a great Mode 2cd set called 'Mosaic', which includes a nice swathe of Chamber Music, in all his different styles. There is a Late harp quintet that is as light and gay as anything. This may be the best overall HC set out there.

HC also has a few percussion pieces from the dawn of that era, also.

4) String Orchestra: the early Adagio is in the ultra dissonant style, but the Hymn&FuguingTunes are all light. I have Koch cds of really light, 'American' sounding 'melting pots' that really do nothing for me. There is also a CPO disc of the same material

5) Symphonies: what?,... we have 17? Perhaps vandermolen got one of the good ones (No.5). I've heard a few bits here and there, and I hear a lot of HC's conservative style. I still haven't heard a very good overview of these Works, and have pretty much given up here.

6) Eclectic/Indigenous Music: the Iran and Persian musics are ok. The Japanese stuff,... eh. I just find this StoneAge,... so much more has been learned since the the advent of WorldMusic. One cannot discount HC, but I find him obsolete here. Harrison certainly took over here.


All I can say to any prospective Cowell seeker is: WatchOut!!,... there is a lot of research, but not that much reward, IMHO. The Mode set is my pick for a OneStop Cowell class. Perhaps those two Naxos discs will be enough.

I have two Koch discs (one has the Late Concerto Grosso, which sounds very Middle Ages to me), the Mode set, and some other, random, pieces (that Piano Trio, 4 Combinations, I like). I have, more than once, really tried,... TRIED to get to the bottom of Cowell, but I truly think his personal life overshadowed his talent. Whatever happened,... or,... whatever proclivities he might have had,... seem to me to have caused a reaction in his music. He just got so,... fake?,... writing all this 'pretty' music so as not to make any further waves? I don't know, but it sure seems as if that were the case. His LateMusic certainly has no testosterone. btw- he was quite the looker as a young man,... quite the typical gay WestCoast look as an elderly man. Perhaps he was just a Cat Lady in drag? I find Cowell a tragedy. :( Perhaps I've opined too much here,... I'm not seeking a gay debate, however interesting the 'manly' sounds of Ives and Ruggles might compare to the more 'feminine' sounds of Cowell, Harrison, etc.,... CRI certainly poisoned me against this whole topic, oy vey!! ::) ok, just disregard the last paragraph! ;D 8)

That's really helpful - thanks very much for taking so much trouble to respond.  Up until Symphony No 5 I had not appreciated Cowell, but as you suggest maybe I was lucky with this one.  Others might find the idiom too conservative but I was very moved by this work - which is my main critirea for appreciation! Thanks again.

Interesting that some composers become more stylistically radical as time goes on (Schoenberg, Braga Santos and Lilburn come immediately to mind), whereas Cowell appears to become more conservative.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2011, 08:39:55 AM by vandermolen »
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

snyprrr

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #7 on: March 10, 2011, 11:25:30 PM »
I listened to the percussion piece Return (1939), which had a kind of dark tropical feel; and that harp Quintet from 1962, which sounds a bit like renaissance music mixed with that Cowellness,... not a note out of place. For a harp Quintet, I found it soporific in the worst sense. Pretty and perky dullness going nowhere.

Both of these pieces are on the Mode 2cd.

cilgwyn

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2011, 05:57:45 AM »
I think you're overall verdict on Cowell COULD be right! I have to say that while I find some of his music interesting,it's not music I would generally return to very often. Indeed, I would be inclined to place some of his music in the 'experiment for experiments sake' category,it just doesn't seem to have any real musical merit. As to his dabbling in eastern & exotic modes; I find his efforts lack the imagination and sincerity of some of Hovhaness's best efforts. Cowell's response is more of a 'dabbler',whereas Hovhaness's musics,with all their inherent faults,do come over as heartfelt. I quite enjoyed the Koch cd 'Persian Set',but I would be loathe to make any great musical claims for it. Indeed,I would be foolish to do so. But,it is quite fun to listen to now & again,and strikes me as the sort of cd that might help to persuade some sceptics that there's more sides to classical music than just Beethoven & Mozart. A sort of Party cd for New Agers & the quality of the performances help.
The old Louisville recordings of Symphonies 11 & 15 have their moments & while the recordings are old and showing their age they do have conviction and atmosphere which some newer recordings of Cowell's music seem to lack. Unfortunately,the symphonies are uneven & seem more like suites,but they do have an odd  atmosphere &  some of the effects Cowell summons from his orchestra are striking,and,at least to my ears,genuinely imaginative. In fact,'eerie' and 'spooky' and haunting are words that all spring to mind,which is more than I can say for his 'Banshee'! The 'Ongaku for Orchestra',on the other hand,while not unpleasant,is as some critic observed,(I forget who),the sort of thing that Hovhaness (& Harrison) did allot better.
Of the Henry Cowell I have heard to date,these two cd's stand out as the only one's I have enjoyed. They are both,to my ears at least,exceptionally well performed. The itsy bitsy representation Cowell has at present in the record catalogue suggests to me that Cowell's music needs a more committed & thorough re-appraisal before we can really come to any genuinely balanced assessment of his achievement. Although no doubt some small record label will come to his 'rescue' sooner or later!
I gather that you're not an admirer 'Snyprrr'?!!!

snyprrr

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #9 on: March 11, 2011, 08:11:51 AM »
I think you're overall verdict on Cowell COULD be right! I have to say that while I find some of his music interesting,it's not music I would generally return to very often. Indeed, I would be inclined to place some of his music in the 'experiment for experiments sake' category,it just doesn't seem to have any real musical merit. As to his dabbling in eastern & exotic modes; I find his efforts lack the imagination and sincerity of some of Hovhaness's best efforts. Cowell's response is more of a 'dabbler',whereas Hovhaness's musics,with all their inherent faults,do come over as heartfelt. I quite enjoyed the Koch cd 'Persian Set',but I would be loathe to make any great musical claims for it. Indeed,I would be foolish to do so. But,it is quite fun to listen to now & again,and strikes me as the sort of cd that might help to persuade some sceptics that there's more sides to classical music than just Beethoven & Mozart. A sort of Party cd for New Agers & the quality of the performances help.
The old Louisville recordings of Symphonies 11 & 15 have their moments & while the recordings are old and showing their age they do have conviction and atmosphere which some newer recordings of Cowell's music seem to lack. Unfortunately,the symphonies are uneven & seem more like suites,but they do have an odd  atmosphere &  some of the effects Cowell summons from his orchestra are striking,and,at least to my ears,genuinely imaginative. In fact,'eerie' and 'spooky' and haunting are words that all spring to mind,which is more than I can say for his 'Banshee'! The 'Ongaku for Orchestra',on the other hand,while not unpleasant,is as some critic observed,(I forget who),the sort of thing that Hovhaness (& Harrison) did allot better.
Of the Henry Cowell I have heard to date,these two cd's stand out as the only one's I have enjoyed. They are both,to my ears at least,exceptionally well performed. The itsy bitsy representation Cowell has at present in the record catalogue suggests to me that Cowell's music needs a more committed & thorough re-appraisal before we can really come to any genuinely balanced assessment of his achievement. Although no doubt some small record label will come to his 'rescue' sooner or later!
I gather that you're not an admirer 'Snyprrr'?!!!

I admire the... mmm... gumption??? of Cowell. One certainly needs someone to do the stuff he did, but, I suppose, one does not need to like the results. Without his prodding, maybe we would be less rich today? Still, your assessment is as mine: wildly uneven, with the nuggets coming with much seeking and searching, to the point where you wonder if it was all worth it. The 'Persion Set' cd I have, and yes, it's 'fun',... for a while.

I suppose we do need a general WARNING concerning Cowell? Research as much as you can before purchase? The fact that so much early Lou Harrison also mirrors Cowell, can be confusing.

Why would I have Jack Cassidy play Cowell in the movie version?

cilgwyn

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #10 on: March 11, 2011, 08:24:16 AM »
 I can't resist giving a honorary mention to Cowell's 'Atlantis' available as a download conducted by the idefatigable Botstein,from Amazon (& possibly some other sites). I've got to hand it to Cowell, I haven't laughed so much listening to a piece of music in ages. Trouble is I'm not altogether sure it's meant to be funny,but hopefully it is. Anyway,Cowell basically gets his singers to groan and scream and howl & make all kinds of wierd noises. It's a bit dada-esque,have a listen!
  Some of the negative comments here made me go back to the Albany/Louisville cd. This time around I have been rather impressed by the Symphonies,particularly No 11. But,again, maybe it's just the quality of the performance!

cilgwyn

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #11 on: March 11, 2011, 02:35:28 PM »
Followed the Cowell cd's with a cd of Vaughan Wiliams's 'London Symphony'. A totally different composer from a different continent,but it does bring home what real musical inspiration is all about. I think,ultimately,I concur with 'snyprrr',Cowell was a bit too 'clever' for his own good. I would,however, recommend the Louisville recordings,despite their age,to anyone out there who wants to give this intriguing but ultimately rather frustrating composer a try. I have now downloaded Botsteins performances of Cowell's 'Atlantis' and Second symphony & shall have another crack at HC when I've got some spare time! For the time being it's back to V-W!

Offline Luke

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #12 on: March 11, 2011, 03:41:29 PM »

1) Piano Music: if you like Cage's Sonatas & Interludes, you'll like Cowell's playful experiments. One certainly cannot overlook Cowell's contribution to 20th Century Piano Music.

Not sure about that, as I'm living proof of the contrary - I adore Cage's S+Is (think they are one of the key works of the 20th century) and am not impressed with Cowell's piano music much at all - and I've played a great deal of it, many times. There's not a great deal of refinement in there, just big bold ideas roughly sketched out - clusters being only the most obvious. There are some interesting and even beautiful pieces - my favourite is Fabric, an experiment into the notation of complex rhythms which fails, but which makes a lovely sound on the way. But there's nothing with the exquisite ear for sonority and structure evident in every bar of the Cage.

My favourite Cowell fact - he met Janacek whilst on a tour of Europe. If one tries very hard one can pretend there is some influence going in one direction or the other, but there isn't really; however, the fact that they met seems a little incongruous, somehow (just as does the fact that Janacek met Tagore too)

Offline Luke

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #13 on: March 11, 2011, 04:29:20 PM »
Yeah, James, we all know what you think, but hey, I have my reasons for saying what I say (and feeling what I feel) and they are perfectly good, musically-educated and musically-founded ones, so leave off with the eye-rolling, huh? It's a bit tedious.  ::)     ;)

Offline Luke

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #14 on: March 11, 2011, 04:37:42 PM »
Of course it is, James. That's why it's mentioned in all the textbooks of 20th century music -  because it's important in the history of that music. See how that works?

Offline Luke

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #15 on: March 11, 2011, 04:53:10 PM »
Mostly because, James, I can't be bothered to try to engage you in musical debate - a) I'm far too tired, and b) what would be the point, I know how you'd respond - with the usal lack of reference to musical specifics and resort to nah, whatever, eye roll, pffff, etc. I could talk, at 1 a.m., after an exhausting week of music-making, start to talk about the structural innovations and influence of the Sonatas and Interludes all night, but what would be the point, your mind is made up and closed, you'll dismiss them as piffle because that's how (without ever giving musial reasons as to why) you dismiss all music in that tradition. The S+I are without doubt a key work in 20th century music, just a key work in an area you don't have any time for.
« Last Edit: March 11, 2011, 04:55:19 PM by Luke »

snyprrr

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #16 on: March 12, 2011, 07:38:52 AM »

Offline Luke

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #17 on: March 13, 2011, 09:30:59 AM »
Schoenberg's Romeo and Juliet?

 ::)

cilgwyn

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #18 on: March 14, 2011, 10:28:33 AM »
No doubt if Henry Cowell was still around,albeit EXTREMELY OLD,he would probably relish some of these posts!

karlhenning

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Re: Henry Cowell (1897-1965)
« Reply #19 on: March 16, 2011, 05:14:59 AM »
Not sure about that, as I'm living proof of the contrary - I adore Cage's S+Is (think they are one of the key works of the 20th century) and am not impressed with Cowell's piano music much at all - and I've played a great deal of it, many times. There's not a great deal of refinement in there, just big bold ideas roughly sketched out - clusters being only the most obvious. There are some interesting and even beautiful pieces - my favourite is Fabric, an experiment into the notation of complex rhythms which fails, but which makes a lovely sound on the way. But there's nothing with the exquisite ear for sonority and structure evident in every bar of the Cage.

QFT