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By Sarah Cahill

The Tragedy and Transcendence of Henry Cowell

What would California sound like without Henry Cowell? It would sound very bland indeed.

Cowell gave us gleefully clangorous chord clusters and gentle strums of fingernails across piano strings; he championed maverick composers with his New Music Society and New Music Quarterly

He introduced us to “a whole world of music” beyond borders; he gave us John Cage (who called Cowell “the open sesame for new music in America”) and Lou Harrison; he wrote a visionary book, New Musical Resources, which inspired generations of experimental composers; he founded the Pan American Association of Composers to represent American music from the Americas, not just the United States; he integrated instruments from Iran, Korea, Africa, and Indonesia into concert halls; he gave us complex polymeters, aleatoric constructions, graphic notation, indeterminacy, elastic form. He gave us the first electronic instrument, in collaboration with Leon Theremin. In other words, he gave us the entire 20th century.

For all this, Henry Cowell has never gotten the credit he deserves.  We hear his influence everywhere, but seldom recognize the source.  And one tragic event overshadows his reputation. Cowell spent four years incarcerated in San Quentin on a trumped-up “morals charge” stemming from one intimate moment with a young man who was probably trying to blackmail him.  Sentenced to fifteen years, he was paroled after four into the care of fellow composer Percy Grainger.  He left California and never again returned to live in the state where he had flourished as a radical prophet before his imprisonment. It’s impossible to imagine Cowell coming of age anywhere but California. Born in rural Menlo Park, growing up poor with his single mother, an ardent feminist and bohemian anarchist, the young Cowell roamed the countryside as a kind of genius wild child.

It’s impossible to imagine Cowell coming of age anywhere but California

He absorbed music wherever he found it: birdsong, machine noise, and Irish folk songs commingled with the classics.  On visits to Chinatown in San Francisco, he sat outdoors on a curb and listened to the music played by a group of elderly Chinese refugee musicians wafting out from a club.  He learned songs from his Japanese, Chinese, Tahitian, and Filipino friends.  He and his mother couldn’t afford a piano—he had to work to support them both--  but he noticed that “All the children I played with went in from four to five in the afternoon, exactly, to practice the piano, and of course, everybody was out again at 5:01 to play.  I didn’t want to be left out of such activity, so for one hour every day I practiced in my mind.  I sat down at the desk and practiced listening to sounds in my mind.  I did this very methodically.. to cultivate my mind to hear sounds which became more and more complicated as time went on.” By the age of thirteen he earned enough from janitorial work, weeding neighbors’ lawns, herding cows, and selling wildflowers to buy himself “an old decrepit piano,” as he put it, but couldn’t afford lessons, so he invented his own techniques at the instrument, creating tone clusters with his fists and forearms, strumming inside on the strings, muting strings with his fingertips and palms, and notating his scores with the two hands playing in different keys and time signatures.  He also had to invent new notation because, as he wrote at the time, “a lot of new kinds of notes will have to be invented to write this down, as it is impossible, with our present limited supply.” Many of his youthful pieces evoke Irish legends and folk songs, with names like The Tides of Manaunaun, The Trumpet of Angus Og, and The Voice of Lir.  A major influence looming over these compositions is the Irish mystic poet John Varian, who Cowell visited frequently at Halcyon, the Theosophist colony near Pismo Beach.

Soon, he was touring and astonishing crowds with his forearm clusters and “string piano” techniques.  In 1919, he began writing his book New Musical Resources; its revolutionary theories of harmony and rhythm resonated through 20th century music (John Cage copied it out by hand).  In 1925, frustrated by the lack of avant-garde concerts in California, he launched his New Music Society, and a few years later started publishing the New Music Quarterly, featuring first printings of groundbreaking works by Ruth Crawford, Dane Rudhyar, Carlos Chavez, Charles Ives, Johanna Beyer, William Grant Still, Alejandro Garcia Caturla, and hundreds of others.  He said “If it sells, I don’t want it.” No one came close to supporting and advocating for the new music community as Cowell did.

No one came close to supporting and advocating for the new music community as Cowell did.

Cowell playing chord clusters for photographers.
Cowell playing chord clusters for photographers.

Because of his unorthodox upbringing and trusting idealism, Cowell is often described in terms such as “innocent,” “naïve,” and “childlike.”  So it’s no surprise that others found it easy to take advantage of him.  Cowell often allowed a group of neighborhood teenagers to swim in his pool, but in May 1936, one of those young men told the police that Cowell had engaged in oral sex with him, which at the time violated Section 288a of the California Penal Code.  The young man had hoped to scare Cowell into giving him his red Stutz automobile, and was himself not charged with any crime.  Cowell was arrested and, on bad advice, pleaded guilty and wrote a detailed confession.  He believed he would be released on probation.  A guilty plea also meant he would protect the young men who swam at his pool (he wrote to his friend Nicolas Slonimsky that “there will be no trial; a trial would be very harmful to a number of perfectly innocent people”).  But he had sealed his own fate.  The wheels were set in motion.  The Hearst newspapers publicized the arrest with lurid headlines, fabricating the news that Cowell had confessed to molesting 24 boys between the ages of 10 and 17.  He was interrogated about his sexual habits, scrutinized by psychiatrists, and asked outright whether he was a pederast and an unrepentant deviant.  Pressured by the sensationalist press to make an example of this leftist composer with an international reputation, and pressured as well by the era’s raging homophobia, the judge branded Cowell a “sex offender” and gave him the maximum sentence, fifteen years at San Quentin.  His stepmother Olive Cowell said “They treated him as a degenerate who seduces the young with violence.”  Even the district attorney later said that if Cowell hadn’t pleaded guilty, the charges would have been dropped. 

Cowell’s mugshot after being arrested on a "morals" charge in 1936.
Cowell’s mugshot after being arrested on a "morals" charge in 1936.

San Quentin, founded in 1852 in idyllic Marin County, is the oldest active prison in California, until recently boasting the largest death row in the country.  Seen from a distance, jutting towards San Francisco Bay under the majestic peak of Mount Tamalpais, it resembles a Tibetan monastery, but during Cowell’s incarceration, executions were commonplace.  He arrived there on July 8, 1936, and entered cell 1841.  He was 39 years old.  

It’s hard to imagine the demoralization, the disappointment, and the shock Cowell must have felt, entering those prison walls.  In his first year, he was assigned to grueling labor at the jute mill, but even in these dismal surroundings, he was making music in his mind.  According to Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music by Joel Sachs:

"Having spent years training himself to play difficult simultaneous rhythms, practicing even on the subway, Henry adapted the physical movements required by the jute machine as exercises in irregular rhythms. His jerky gestures quickly attracted attention, which is the last thing a prisoner wants. Co-workers began questioning his sanity; supervisors could report him for inexplicable behavior. Eventually he stopped."

But Cowell’s optimistic spirit was indomitable.  He started teaching music history, theory, appreciation, and composition to thousands of prisoners, and soon he was leading a band and orchestra, which inmates clamored to join. He wrote a provocative music theory treatise called The Nature of Melody and several essays.  He formed a chamber music group with fellow inmate Raoul Pereira, who had studied with Brahms’ close friend Joseph Joachim; together they played regular concerts of classical music in the prison.  He learned Japanese and Spanish, and studied the shakuhachi and the saxophone.  He taught composition lessons to Lou Harrison, who visited him at San Quentin, as did Martha Graham, Carlos Chavez, and Leopold Stokowski. He set up a library to lend music, books, and instruments to inmates.  Best of all, he managed to write more than sixty innovative compositions during those four years.  Even when he was in the San Mateo County Jail, awaiting sentencing, he had composed his “United” Quartet, embracing diverse styles and perspectives.  In San Quentin, he wrote Rhythmicana, a radical work for piano in three movements which anticipates the complex polyrhythmic inventions of the later 20th century, juxtaposing meters like 13 against 7 and 11 against 9 (years before, Cowell had invented, with Leon Theremin, the Rhythmicon, which played the rhythms of complex ratios according to pitch relationships among the overtone series).  He also wrote two haunting scores featuring wordless voice, Vocalise and Toccanta, and invented elastic form, in which various modules of the piece can be rearranged, repeated, or left out.  This allowed him to work with choreographers “on the outside” whose dances needed music of flexible length, which could be adapted for different occasions.  Cowell used elastic form for a performance of Jean Cocteau’s The Marriage of the Eiffel Tower, for which Cage had invited him to contribute a score, and also in his Amerind Suite, which offers the pianist five different possible linked versions. High Color for piano combines an Irish reel, Lisztian virtuosity, and  brisk cascades of chord clusters.  Another fascinating composition from the San Quentin years is Pulse, for John Cage’s percussion sextet, scored in 7/8 meter for woodblocks and dragon's mouths, Chinese tom-toms and drums, rice bowls and cup gongs, cymbals, pipe lengths and brake drums (it was Cowell who brought John Cage and Lou Harrison to the junkyards in search of percussion instruments).  Of the dozens of compositions he wrote in San Quentin, many are among his finest work, all the more astonishing considering the severe circumstances.

Cowell’s musical projects and his prison experience intersected in interesting ways.  His concertmaster in the orchestra was W.E.J. Hendricks, who had robbed and strangled a man and dumped his body into a ravine.  Hendricks became Cowell’s protector, making it clear to the more aggressive inmates that he was not to be touched.  Cowell wrote to Slonimsky, “I cannot convey to you how extraordinary is the experience of being thrown in with such a motley crew…the whole thing is really an experience which, if not too protracted, one would not wish to have missed.”

Cowell might have stayed behind bars for his entire fifteen-year sentence if not for tireless advocates like his stepmother Olive, the folk music scholar Sidney Robertson (his future wife), and fellow composers including Percy Grainger, who secured Cowell’s parole in 1940 by offering him a secretarial job at his home in White Plains, New York.  Another deciding factor was California’s newly elected governor, Culbert Olson, who wanted to reform the state’s prisons: his first act was to pardon a labor activist who had served twenty years for a crime he didn’t commit.  One of his staff pointed out that Cowell “had foolishly pleaded guilty to a morals charge which should never have been filed.”  When Cowell was finally released, the head of San Quentin’s Education Department wrote to him, "The Music Department in San Quentin is not a Music Department without Henry Cowell. It was his and without him it just isn't. There will never be another who can take your place."  In 1942, Cowell received a full pardon.

After a year under Percy Grainger’s guardianship, he married Sidney Robertson and they lived happily together until his death in 1965.  They traveled to Iran, India, and Japan, and he incorporated what he heard into his compositions. He kept busy, teaching “Music of the Peoples of the World” at the New School for Social Research  (he had taught the same class in the 1930s in San Francisco) composing, and working for the Office of War Information on radio broadcasts.  He wrote hundreds of articles about fellow composers and about non-Western music.  But despite some adventurous compositions like Ongaku and Homage to Iran, most of the music he wrote during this time was far tamer and conservative, never expressing the unbounded joy of his earlier work.  He toned down his radical political beliefs.  Conlon Nancarrow recalled meeting Cowell in 1947, "The impression I got was that he was a terrified person, with a feeling that 'they're going to get him.'"  In 1963, he recorded twenty of his youthful piano pieces, with spoken comments about their origins.  He had devoted much of his life to supporting and advocating for fellow composers, but he lived to see more “serious” composers, like Stockhausen, Boulez, and Crumb, capitalize on his own musical innovations without giving him credit.

Cowell conducting outdoors towards the end of his life.
Cowell conducting outdoors towards the end of his life.

Generally, things have changed for the better in the last half century.  Just a generation after Cowell’s incarceration, his two closest students, Lou Harrison and John Cage, were able to live proudly as gay men, with their life partners by their sides. Same-sex marriage is now a guaranteed right in the United States. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that oral sex between consenting adults is legal in all states. In March 2023, Governor Newsom announced a major overhaul for San Quentin to transform it into “the preeminent restorative justice facility in the world,” focused on rehabilitation and education.  Progress needs to be acknowledged and with such positive examples, it’s tempting to find comfort in the notion that Cowell’s arrest and incarceration belong to the distant past.

Still, tragic stories like Cowell’s have not disappeared.  He would not fare well in Florida, with its “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in 2022, or in Alabama, where protections for LGBTQ communities are almost non-existent.  And despite reform, the sinister machinations of the prison industrial-complex continue to punish infractions as minor as Cowell’s.  Ultimately, Cowell’s story is not about his tragedy, but about his courage and persistence in the most adverse circumstances, his determination to create, and the extraordinary music he bestowed to future generations.

About the Author

Sarah Cahill is a pianist based in the Bay Area. In 1997 she produced a three-day festival at Cal Performances for Henry Cowell's centennial, commissioning new works in honor of Cowell from Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Myra Melford, and many others.  In 2014 she performed two concerts in San Quentin of the music Cowell wrote while incarcerated there.