Henry Cowell: Dancing With Henry


Dancing with Henry

New Discoveries in the Music of Henry Cowell


Suite for Small Orchestra (1934)*

1. Largo (1:42)

2. Chorale (lento cantabile) (4:34)

3. Vivo (0:55)

4. Heroic Dance (1931?)* 4:37

5. Sound Form No. 1 (1937)* 4:51

Leta Miller, flute; Mark Brandenburg, clarinet; Jane Orzel, bassoon; Russell Greenberg and

Michael Strunk, percussion


6. Ritournelle (Larghetto) from ”Marriage at the Eiffel Tower” (1939)* 4:31

7. Reel No. 2 (1934)* 3:30

8. Dance of Sport (“Competitive Sport,”1931)* 4:56

Two Ritournelles from “Marriage at the Eiffel Tower” (1939)*

9. Andante 1:32

10. Allegretto 2:40

Josephine Gandolfi, piano

Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1934)

11. Allegretto 1:08

12. Allegro 1:01

13. Adagio cantabile 1:37

14. Allegretto con moto 0:55

The Cowell Quintet


Four Combinations for Three Instruments (1924)

15. Allegretto 1:36

16. Largo 1:57

17. Allegro 0:35

18. Largo 2:20

Picasso Ensemble


19. Ritournelle (Larghetto; abridged version; 1939)* 0:59

Josephine Gandolfi, piano


Atlantis (1926)*

20. Introduction 2:47

21. The Shooting of the Moon Arrows 2:16

22 . The Weeping of the Arsete of the Moon 115

23. Birth of the Sea Soul 0:53

24 . Temptation of the Sea Soul by Monsters 1:30

25. Pleasure Dance of the Sea Soul 1:26

26. Withdrawal of the Sea Soul to the Sea 1:08

27. Combat between Sea and Earth Monsters 2:17

28. The Triumph of the Sea Monster 2:48

Patrice Maginnis, soprano;Wendy Hillhouse, mezzo-soprano; Leroy Kromm, baritone

California Paralléle Ensemble

Nicole Paiement, conductor and director

* indicates first recording


Dancing with Henry:

New Discoveries in the Music of Henry Cowell


Some of the most revered compositions of the twentieth century arose from the collaboration of composers and choreographers. Stravinsky's programmatic works for the Ballet Russe come to mind immediately, as do landmark dance works by Aaron Copland, such as Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid.

But the collaborative process brings with it problems as well, as any composer who has written for dance will attest. The degree of coordination between dance rhythm and musical rhythm, the constraints composers face in terms of instrumentation, and the competition between sound and sight for the audience's attention present challenges that have prompted a variety of creative solutions over the years.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was particularly concerned with such issues, which he discussed in a series of articles published between 1934 and 1941. Modern dancers at the time were grappling with the problems of “interpretive dance” (i.e., developing choreographies to previously composed music), a process many saw as casting the dance in a subsidiary role to the music. Some choreographers chose todo away with music entirely. Others turned the compositional process on its head, constructing their movements first, then bringing in the composer to write a score.

Cowell, on the other hand, sought solutions that would treat both art forms with equal respect. In his earliest experiments, he sought a contrapuntal relationship between dance and music, the one art rising to points of climax while the other became quiescent. In 1937, Cowell advanced a more radical proposal: “elastic” musical forms in which compositional elements could be expanded, contracted, inverted, repeated, omitted, transposed, or interchanged in manifold ways - allowing the musical score to respond to the choreography without disturbing its own validity. (Two such works appear on the present disc.) In his last article on music and dance, Cowell issued a plea for rough, unrefined musical timbres with a high noise-to-pitch ratio to provide greater rhythmic emphasis.

Cowell had always been an experimenter. Educated at home by non-conformist parents, the brilliant young man (one of the case studies for the IQ test) became fascinated with unconventional approaches to musical composition. In the 1920s he created an international sensation performing his own solo piano music, which called for strumming or plucking the piano strings, and producing tone clusters with fingers, hands, and forearms. Cowell's training in composition was sporadic and eccentric, to say the least - his most important teacher being Charles Seeger, who arranged for Cowell's study at the University of California, Berkeley, despite his lack of appropriate academic credentials. During abrief stint at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, Cowell submitted one of Bach's own chorales as a class assignment in four-part harmony, and when it was returned with numerous corrections, he abandoned the program of study in disgust. Given this unorthodox background, it is no wonder thatCowell welcomed imaginative solutions to the problems of interweaving music and dance.

During his long creative life, Cowell collaborated with most of the major American choreographers of his day. Mary Anthony recalls his memorable persona at the Hanya Holm studio in the1940s:

Henry's.... shaggy grey eyebrows arched in constant anticipation of the reward of being joyously alive.... He spent so much of his time sitting crosslegged - either on the floor or a chair - that when he stood up straight [his pants]... bulged forward at the knees. Not that Henry stood still very often. I have the memory of him bounding like a wooly kangaroo from drums, to gongs, to piano, to center of studio to perform a few dance steps and then back to the drums to make a point.1

Works on this disc - the majority of which are recorded for the first time - were composed for Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Bonnie Bird, and Martha Graham. Dance of Sport (originally titled “Competitive Sport”) accompanied a dance by Charles Weidman, widely known for his stage humor. Heroic Dance and the Suite for Woodwind Quintet were written for Graham. The quintet is an arrangement of four of Cowell's Six Casual Developments, composed for clarinet and piano in 1933. Cowell first orchestrated the pieces and then arranged them for woodwinds in 1934.

Atlantis was envisioned as the prologue of a three-part drama on a libretto by Alice Pike Barney to be choreographed by Doris Humphrey. Barney intended to commission three different composers for the project: Cowell for the prologue and two others for Acts 1 and 2. Though Cowell completed his section, there is no evidence that the other parts were written, and the expensive project was ultimately abandoned. Cowell's work nevertheless stands on its own as a successful suite, guiding the convoluted plot through a coherent, if incomplete mini-drama. On a moonless night in the Cyclopsian period before Adam, the Terramares, a moon-worshipping people, shoot a message to the moon asking her to create a Feminine Soul. They wound the moon with their arrows, causing the moon goddess Aserte to weep. Her tears give birth to the Soul in the ocean depths. The Earth Monster, attracted by her beauty, entices her with the wealth of the land. Entranced by the glittering gems of the earth, the Soul dances in pleasure, but the moonbeams draw her back towards the sea. A battle ensues between the Sea-King, who refuses to give up the Soul, and the Earth-Monster, desperate to possess her. The Earth emerges as victor and the Sea, enraged by defeat, implants in the Soul all evil. He warns that through her, he will spread evil over the earth and then rise to engulf the world. Cowell set the music for this libretto in nine movements without text. Although there are three singers (the Soul, the Sea-King, and the Earth-Monster), the voices are treated as colorful instruments within the orchestral fabric, the singers enunciating only moans, groans, wails, sighs, grunts, and squeals of ecstasy.

The three piano Ritournelles stem from a performance of Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (text by Jean Cocteau), choreographed and produced by Bonnie Bird at the Cornish School in Seattle on March 24/25, 1939. In her capacity as dance instructor at this small but avant-garde institution, Bird employedJohn Cage as accompanist for classes and performances from 1938-1940.2 Cage, in turn, organized the music for Marriage on the model of Les Six's 1921 collaboration in Paris, but in this case with only Les Trois: Cowell, George McKay of the University of Washington, and himself. Cowell at the time was in San Quentin prison, serving four years of a fifteen-year sentence on a morals charge. Composers around the country rallied to his defense, and there is little doubt that Cage's invitation for him to contribute to the collaboration at the Cornish School was an effort to provide encouragement during this difficult period. (Cowell was released in 1940 and was granted a full pardon by the Governor of California). For the Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, Cowell sent Cage a “Hilarious Curtain Opener”, a “Train Final” for percussion ensemble, and the three Ritournelles on the present recording. Bird used only the first two pieces, rejecting all three Ritournelles as incompatible with her choreography. However, the first of them was later published along with the “Hilarious Curtain Opener” in New Music Quarterly.

This first Ritournelle exemplifies the type of elastic form Cowell was exploring during the late 1930s. He provides 24 measures of music marked “Larghetto Cantabile” followed by an 8 measure trio. Both largetto and trio contain optional repeats, and Cowell recommends a da capo of the larghetto at the end. He also provides instructions for creating shorter versions by stringing together various combinations of measures. On the present disc, the three Ritournelles are dispersed among the other works. The elastic "Larghetto" is performed once in its full version and later in one of Cowell's more successful abridgments.

Sound Form No. 1, also from Cowell's San Quentin years, is similarly elastic in concept. In fact, this short quintet for woodwinds and percussion was intended to accompany the 1937 article in the Dance Observer in which Cowell proposed elastic forms in the first place.4 Appended to his manuscript is a set of detailed instructions giving alternative performance options. The entire piece, major sectional divisions, four-measure units, or even individual measures may be repeated at will; instrumentation may be altered; the melody line may be performed alone without accompanying parts; or the percussion figuration may be transplanted from one section to another. On the present recording, Cowell's original composition is first played without alteration, followed by a da capo in which percussion interludes are added, instrumentation is altered, articulation is changed, and individual measures or pairs or measures are repeated.

The recording is completed by the delightful Reel No. 2 (1934), evoking Cowell's Irish heritage, and by two pieces not specifically associated with dance: Four Combinations for Three Instruments (1924) and the Suite for Small Orchestra (1934). The title of Four Combinations refers to the work's diverse scoring: violin and cello in movement 1, violin and piano in movement 2, cello and piano in movement 3, and all three instruments in movement 4. Both this composition and the compelling Suite for Small Orchestra show Cowell's more serious side. His use of dissonant counterpoint in these works may well reflect his studies with Charles Seeger, who pioneered this approach to polyphonic expression.

Except for the Suite for Woodwind Quintet and Four Compositions for Three Instruments, none of the music on this disc has been previously recorded. The original manuscript scores are housed at the Library of Congress; we are most grateful to librarian Wayne Shirley for his help in obtaining them as well as his advice on repertoire and performance practices. This enticing sample of Cowell's oeuvre is but the tip of the iceberg; a wealth of unpublished music awaits rediscovery, performance, and professional recording. Grants from the Unversity of California, Santa Cruz, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music Recording have made it possible to produce this eclectic sampler.


-Leta E. Miller
University of California, Santa Cruz