Subversive Prophet: Henry Cowell as Theorist and Critic
By Kyle Gann

Excerpts from the article published in The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium, David Nicholls, editor (Harwood Academic Press, 1997)

What the cynics claim of John Cage may be truer of Henry Cowell: that he is more important for his writings and ideas than for his music. In Cage's case, those of us deeply attached to Sonatas and Interludes, the 1950 String Quartet, Music of Changes, Hymnkus, Europeras I-V, and other beautiful and influential compositions find the cliche ludicrously unfounded. Applied to Cowell, though, the statement might hold water, if only because Cowell's compositional output has never become as well known or widely distributed as Cage's. Though often impressive, in the role of composer Cowell appears as a minor figure in the august company of Ives, Stravinsky, Varese, Schoenberg, and others of his time. As a musical thinker, however, and theorist of new musical possibilities, he is a giant in a virtual desert, towering above all his contemporaries with the possible exception of Schoenberg (and at present, Cowell's speculations look to be more prophetic and enduring than Schoenberg's, whose influence is no longer in the ascendant). It is not difficult to argue that Cowell was the least tradition-bound, most original musical thinker and theorist of his era.

Much of what was best in Cowell's legacy can be found in his writings and publications: his theory books New Musical Resources and The Nature of Melody (the latter as yet unpublished), the seminal collection of essays he edited called American Composers on American Music, his biography of Charles Ives written with his wife Sidney, and his more than 200 articles and reviews in various journals and magazines. Yet there has been remarkably little attempt so far to assess Cowell as a writer and theorist.... This article will attempt to take Cowell's verbal output as a whole, to look through the span of his fertile life as a writer and find changes as well as continuities.

What such an attempt will show is that Cowell, typical of his early 20th-century generation, placed the bulk of his theoretical emphasis on materials - new dissonances, new rhythms, new notations - rather than on form, systems, or larger aesthetic issues. Increasingly, and especially following his incarceration at San Quentin, he was deeply divided between his composer's enthusiasm for sound combinations never heard before and his theorist's concern for logic, continuity, and a firm foundation; his efforts to patch up this division render some of his late work unnecessarily pedantic. And yet, despite the limitations of his historical viewpoint and the doubts of his later years, he provided a new and visionary basis for musical exploration based in the unalterable facts of acoustics, a basis so broad that it opened up room in the Western tradition not only for musics of the rest of the world, but for compositional systems that have not even been conceived yet. If Cowell failed to fulfill his own potentials, it was because those potentials were too ambitious to be realized except by a succession of future generations. As a prophet he pointed the way to a new world he was not destined to live in....

Cowell's ideas [in New Musical Resources] found their greatest resonance in the 1950s, the post-war era in which all aspects of music were being pervasively redefined. It is sad that, during these years, Cowell was largely ignored by the composers who were developing the ideas he had birthed, and given little credit for having anticipated so many post-war musical developments by over 30 years. Even so, New Musical Resources has not suffered a tragic fate. New generations of composers, even when not directly influenced by it, have found confirmation for their own explorations in Cowell's "Theory of Relativity." Cowell's attempt to transfer structures and methods from pitch to rhythm (and vice versa) has become one of the central tenets of American composition. And, through the music of Nancarrow, the book has had a tremendous indirect influence, for dozens of young composers have been inspired to imitate the frenetic tempo clashes of the Studies for Player Piano.

Just a few examples: James Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow for just-tuned player piano builds up a harmonic series of pitches in rhythms proportional to their frequencies, as if in imitation of Cowell's Rhythmicon - an instrument Cowell had contructed for him in 1931 to mechanically produce rhythmic ratios that could be inflected by hand. Ben Johnston's Knocking Piece is a direct translation into rhythms of the justly-tuned pitches of his A Sea Dirge. La Monte Young's sine-tone installations can be seen as an extension of Cowell's interest in the upper reaches of the overtone series.

Among younger composers, the influences and parallels are even more abundant and striking. Peter Garland is perhaps Cowell's most direct compositional descendent, though influenced more by his music than by his writings. John Luther Adams discovered New Musical Resources at the impressionable age of 21; the drum trios from his opera Earth and the Great Weather, and his orchestra piece Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, could serve as examples for Cowell's rhythmic theories, with their continual divisions of the whole note into various numbers of equal parts. David First has based most of his output, including his multimedia opera The Manhattan Book of the Dead, on analogous treatment of pulses and pitches. Larry Polansky has been directly influenced by Cowell in his tempo canons and number-based pitch and rhythm structures. Ben Neill bases computer improvisations on tempo canons and other structures that translate pitch into tempo. Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, and Michael Gordon have all based works on the patterns that emerge from different pulses played at the same time, and from "links" of different lengths going in and out of phase, two of the seminal ideas of the Totalist movement in New York music of the 1980s and '90s. And my own music is indebted to Cowell for his ratio-based approach to rhythm, a debt acknowledged in my Homage to Cowell, in which looped drum samples tuned in just intonation dot out competing pulses in the manner of the Rhythmicon.

One could well argue that New Musical Resources is more relevant today than it has ever been before. Whether a composer starts out reading it (and it should be required reading for undergraduate composers at every university in America) or discovers it further on down the road, the book stands as a monumental guidepost pointing the way to fascinating new territories of musical experience....

[Cowell's] aim was to seek the "universal elements in all music," and he makes explicit his philosophy of influence: "Welcome and explore and inquire into everything, new or old, that comes your way, and then build your own music on whatever your inner life has been able to take in and offer you back again." It is a fitting epitaph for the composer who first and most comprehensively dealt with the problem of putting together a music from the dazzlingly diverse resources America offered.

It is symptomatic of Cowell's career that we can neither think of him as having been primarily important for his music, nor primarily important as a theorist. For him, the two activities were inseparable. He came into a world not nearly prepared for his far-reaching musical vision, and he realized that, to bring that vision about, it was not enough to simply compose the music. He had to prepare the ground, start a new foundation; rethink the materials, provide the theory, provoke the public into listening, sift through and comment upon the music of his time, champion composers who were on the right track, arrange their concerts, publish their scores, and explain exotic musics of the world in such a way that would put new music in context. His was not a unified body of work, and the tasks involved were too diverse for any one person to be equally good at all of them. But they all needed to be done, and he never shrank from working where he was needed, or claimed that his specialty lay elsewhere. The unfortunate price he paid is that he may never be as dear to the music-loving public as he is to those of us in the profession who realize what a momentous underground influence he had on the history of composition.

Copies of The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium can be ordered electronically at

return to the home page