He Was the Great Connector ( Composer Henry Cowell)

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Which composer exerted the greatest influence on 20th-century American classical music? Thursday and Friday, Other Minds, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to such music, will make the case for Henry Cowell.

Cowell, who died in 1965, was a prolific composer whose own music was eclipsed by the works of his students. Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian discovered Cowell through the pioneering percussion music of the composer's famous pupils John Cage and Lou Harrison. "I found that a lot of the experimentation on the West Coast emanated from him," he said. "The more I looked at it, the more he seemed like a key figure who gave American music an original vision when it had none."

Born in Menlo Park, Calif., in 1897, Cowell toured the world in the 1920s as a pianist, winning amazed reviews and publicity when he, for example, smashed rows of adjacent piano keys with a forearm or played directly on the piano strings and sound board. Such techniques added musical color and atmosphere, and "moved music away from the idea that every pitch of a chord should be heard, and toward masses of condensed sound being used for novel kinds of harmony," Cowell scholar Joel Sachs explains. Cowell would have a profound impact on succeeding generations of American composers, most notably Cage, who won fame with his 1940s "prepared piano" pieces, which were inspired by Cowell's experiments.

Cage's other celebrated innovation, composing by "chance" methods, owes much to the "randomizing" techniques Cowell developed in the 1930s, with the score to his Mosaic Quartet leaving the order of movements up to the players, and a piece for choreographer Martha Graham providing "snippets of melody that could be combined any way she wanted," Mr. Sachs says.

Most enduringly, Cowell's vision of living "in the whole world of music" made available vast new compositional vistas, performance styles and even instruments for Western composers. Living in San Francisco, the young Cowell and his mother couldn't afford to attend European operas, so they sat outside the city's Chinese-opera houses and listened to music few Westerners knew. Cowell regarded non-Western music as equally worthy of attention as European classical music, then a radical philosophy for an American musician, and in the 1920s staged some of the first concerts of non-Western music by non-Western performers on both coasts, Mr. Sachs says.

"Long, long before it was fashionable, he taught at the New School a course called Music of the Peoples of the World, where he brought in musicians from Bali, Japan, Appalachia," Cowell's former student John Duffy recalls. Harrison credited Cowell with inspiring his later glorious fusions of Asian and Western classical music...

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