Henry Cowell and the Joys of Noise

Asha Bajaj
4 min readNov 19, 2020

#LibraryOfCongress; #HenryCowell;

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician, Emily Baumgart.

The Music Division has recently published a finding aid that brings together many of the Henry Cowell music manuscripts held at the Library of Congress, revealing a wealth of holograph scores spanning his entire compositional career.

Cowell’s musical aesthetic changed throughout his life from ultra modernism in the 1920s and 1930s to open form and the use of folk-inspired elements in the post-war period. His scoring likewise ranges from the traditional, with string quartets and choral music, to the unexpected, such as his Concerto for Koto and his works for string piano. It is this experimental side that Cowell is most famous for, and the Cowell manuscripts held by the Music Division demonstrate his prolific avant-garde output.

One of Cowell’s earliest pianistic innovations was the tone cluster technique, in which the performer plays groups of notes with their fist or entire forearm. Although there is some confusion surrounding dates, the earliest work to include tone clusters is generally considered to be Adventures in Harmony from around 1913, composed when Cowell was in his mid-teens. This work consists of several “chapters” forming a sort of catalog of different compositional techniques, designed as a gift for his piano teacher, Ellen Veblen. The tone clusters first appear in the third chapter of Adventures in Harmony where Cowell uses them mostly for color: they are meant to decorate an otherwise mostly diatonic work, and in this earliest iteration Cowell’s original attempt at transcribing this sound is somewhat unwieldy, with each specific note written out on the staff. Further experiments brought these tone clusters to the fore, as in Dynamic Motion (1916), ranging from small clusters of a few notes to wide swaths of the keyboard as the pianist plays with both forearms. The work even includes arpeggiated clusters, performed by tilting the forearm across the keys. Cowell’s score shows a more sophisticated, simpler representation for the technique that specifies only a lower and upper bound for the cluster; not only was Cowell experimenting with the musical elements themselves, but also a way to properly notate those sounds. Later on, Cowell adapted the idea of tone clusters to other instruments; they are especially prominent in both the solo piano and orchestral accompaniment of the Concerto for Piano (1928).

Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women