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Henry Cowell: A Life Stranger Than Fiction

Musical pioneer. Prolific composer. Piano virtuoso. Tireless proponent of new music. Globe-trotter. World-music advocate. Convicted felon. As Juilliard faculty member Joel Sachs said in a recent interview with The Journal, “The problem with Henry Cowell is that if you had invented his life, no one would believe it.” 

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Fortunately, Sachs has documented Cowell’s unusual, seemingly implausible life story in the first complete biography of the American composer, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music, published in June by Oxford University Press. The culmination of nearly 24 years of work, the volume offers a detailed and probing investigation into Cowell’s legacy as a composer, musicologist, and American citizen. 

Sachs’s journey with Cowell (1897-1965) began by way of his music. As directors of the new-music ensemble Continuum, Sachs and pianist Cheryl Seltzer started performing and recording the music of Cowell in the 1970s. Soon after, the composer’s widow, Sidney Robertson Cowell approached Sachs and, since she had always enjoyed his program notes, asked him to write her late husband’s biography.

This wasn’t a new idea. According to Sachs, Mrs. Cowell had already approached two other people about the project, and though they had accepted, they had never really begun. “And then she attempted to write it herself,” Sachs said, “but she was much too close to the topic.” She then gave him the exclusive rights to use Cowell’s papers, which were at the New York Public Library.

The correspondence—Sachs estimates that there are more than 20,000 letters—and diaries, along with Sachs’s interviews with people who knew Cowell, served as the foundation for the book. Together, these sources revealed numerous “strange adventures” that paint an extraordinarily interesting, and nearly unbelievable, narrative of the composer’s life and career.

Immersed in world music from a very young age—“Nobody ever told him Western music was supposed to be better” than music from other parts of the world, Sachs said—Cowell was a musical ambassador of sorts, traveling to and becoming involved in the cultural scenes of places such as Iran, Japan, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. He was not only “one of the leading spokesmen for studying non-Western music,” but he also “played music of various cultures himself,” such as the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. Later in his life, as the result of a dismal prognosis of only a year to live (though “he actually lasted another 10 years,” Sachs noted), Cowell and his wife took a trip around the world so they could hear the world’s music in its places of origin.

As a composer, Cowell was deeply affected by this love of world music, and he is known not for a single approach but for his lack of one: “He saw no need to write in one style,” Sachs said. His fame began with ultramodern solo piano pieces that included direct manipulation of the strings and playing with the arms and elbows. Cowell toured internationally performing these works, which earned him a review for “piano boxing” on the sports page of a newspaper. Later music includes his Hymn and Fuguing Tunes series, based on early American harmonic styles; the Indian-influenced Symphony No. 13 (“Madras”) and the Japanese-inflected Ongaku and Harmonica Concerto. Although once frequently played, much of this beautiful music is now forgotten.

The biography also details the tragedy and ensuing hardships of Cowell’s conviction on a morals charge (for consensual oral sex with a 17-year-old) in 1936. The penalty (the severity of which is shocking to us now) was 15 years. Cowell served four years, at San Quentin State Prison, where he was “essentially defended from predators by the ranking murderer in the prison, who also conducted the prison band,” Sachs said. In prison, he taught music to some 2,700 inmates, wrote a book and many articles, and composed as much as he could. Still, the challenging prison conditions and his extreme difficulty in obtaining a job after being paroled took a lifelong toll.

In addition to his composing and performing activities, Cowell worked to create opportunities for unorthodox composers by establishing the California Society for New Music, starting a periodical, New Music Quarterly, to print work by composers whom the commercial publishers wouldn’t touch, and founding a label to record them (New Music Recordings). 

For Sachs, Cowell’s life was an incredible journey and so was the process of writing about it. “It was really a huge adventure, and I hope the book reflects that.” To celebrate the release, in place of the traditional book party, Juilliard will host a concert on September 27 featuring solo piano works performed by Sachs and Seltzer; The Eternal Flute for solo shakuhachi played by Ralph Samuelson, a former director of the Asian Cultural Council;  some chamber music and songs; and Sachs reading excerpts from the book.

After spending countless hours and nearly a quarter century on the project, Sachs is as enthusiastic about Cowell’s life and music as ever. “Carol Oja, the Harvard scholar, asked if I still liked him, and yes, I do,” he said. “He was extremely honest, extremely friendly and gregarious, and I don’t think I ran into a single person who didn’t like him. He was just one of these very lovable people and very generous in the way he helped his colleagues. I wish I had known him.”

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