Henry Cowell: An Unknown Great

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There's been a lot of talk lately about the late American composer John Cage, whose 100th birthday would have occurred on September 5. But Cage didn’t materialize out of thin air: He found inspiration from the work of another composer, Henry Cowell.

In fact, several generations of America’s most important composers owe a musical -- and perhaps philosophical -- debt to the 20th century innovator. And yet, people who at least know the names of John Cage, or Aaron Copland, or perhaps Charles Ives, have no idea who Cowell was.

Author and conductor Joel Sachs aims to change that with his book Henry Cowell – A Man Made of Music, and he joined us in the studio.


Fast facts about Henry Cowell: 

  • His parents were anarchists.
  • He was an early listener to "world music" - particularly Japanese and Indian music.
  • His music was often inspired by nature, and by his Gaelic ancestry.
  • He often wrote "tone clusters" into his compositions, which required playing many notes simultaneously on the piano using the forearms. 
  • He hosted a few live radio concerts on WNYC in the 1940s. 
  • He spent 4 years in San Quentin State Prison after pleading guilty to a "morals" charge. While there, he taught inmates music and also conducted the prison band. 
  • His students included John Cage, George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and Burt Bacharach.