Cowell: ‘The Banshee’  [2’23”]

Robert Miller, string piano

34 Henry Cowell as a young man

Already a force of nature: the young Henry Cowell

With this short piece of 1925 we leave behind not just the mainstream but the keyboard itself, as we shall see.  The American Henry Cowell (1897–1965) was a type of twentieth-century avant-garde Mozart whose life was an extraordinary adventure pretty much from start to finish.  His father was an Irish immigrant who married an American woman.  Both writers, the pair had wound up in fairly straitened circumstances in Menlo Park, California, by the time Henry arrived on the scene.  Alan Rich takes the story on: “Aside from a few months’ schooling at six, Henry received no formal education.  Clarissa and Harry Cowell had divorced when he was eight.  Three years later, terrified after San Francisco’s catastrophic earthquake, Clarissa and her son had taken to the road, visiting relatives in various towns in the Midwest, ending up in New York, subsisting there for a time on public charities.  They returned to Menlo Park in 1910, again living in the shanty in the foothills, where Henry made what money he could as a gardener and a fashioner of wildflower bouquets. By 1912 he had earned enough money to acquire his first piano, a battered upright in lamentable condition but a musical instrument nonetheless.”  Henry seems from the start to have been interested not just in playing the instrument but at least as much in playing with it.  But he had talent.  In no time at all he was giving little concerts of his own pieces already using radical techniques of his own devising, including tone-clusters and interventions under the lid of the instrument that turned it into something well described by his term string piano.  By the age of 17 he had almost 100 compositions in his locker.  By 22, at the behest of his mentor Charles Seeger (father of Pete), with whom he had by now undergone formal studies, he had produced the first version of his influential (following its eventual publication in 1930) New Musical Resources, setting out his discoveries.

Cowell’s star kept shooting.  There were sensational national and European tours, his foundation in San Francisco of a New Music Society with its associated quarterly New music, both greatly influential in advanced musical circles (time has made them legendary), and many another manifestation of his role as dynamo of the American musical avant-garde besides.  He was prominent in bringing the obscure Charles Ives (whom he revered as a father) and other radicals to public attention; he pioneered exploration of non-western musics (learning, with characteristic commitment, to play the Japanese shakuhachi; he organized concerts and published scores of a wide variety of adventurous music – all the while continuing to be extremely prolific himself.  In short, he continued to carry all before him.  Until 1936, that is, when he was arrested for having sex with a 17-year-old male.  For this transgression (he confessed to others, though the matter wasn’t straightforward) he was sentenced to 15 years in prison without prospect of parole and packed off to San Quentin.  Where a lesser man would have folded, Cowell saw only new opportunities for music-making, and was soon teaching, forming orchestras and organizing concerts like crazy, no fewer than 2700 inmates eventually being enrolled in his various courses and ensembles: Johnny Cash gave concerts in San Quentin – Henry Cowell did everything but found a conservatory in there.  He even managed to continue composing (about 60 works!) during his sentence.  In the end, that is after four years, thanks to the efforts of a small number of supporters, not least the intervention of the fearless Australian composer Percy Grainger, in certain ways a kindred spirit, who offered to vouch for Cowell and even employ him, he was given parole, and a couple of years later a full pardon.  The amazing thing is that after this hiatus and blow to his reputation, though the experience shook him badly, Cowell was able to reclaim his position as “the open sesame for new music in America” (Cage).  After prison his own music, significantly or otherwise, would tend to sound markedly more conservative, though only, he insisted, to those not listening closely enough.

Cowell’s contribution to this playlist, for all its modernity, could hardly be more straightforwardly descriptive, attempting as it does in a literal way to capture the voice of a figure familiar from his father’s native folklore.  Cowell in characteristic terms described a banshee as “an Irish family ghost – a woman of the inner world, the word means.  And she will be an ancestor of yours who is charged with the duty of taking your soul into the inner world when you die.  So when you die she has to come to the outer plane for this purpose, and she finds the outer plane very uncomfortable and unpleasant, so you will hear her wailing at the time of a death in your family.”  To simulate the wailing in his piece, he goes on to explain, “the sounds are obtained by the player standing at the back of the piano with the pedal open, and the coils on the lower bass strings are played on horizontally [i.e. fingers passing along the strings, rather than strumming them harp fashion].  If the piano is in tune this will produce a very eerie sound roughly four octaves above the keyboard sound, with a strange tone quality of its own and with the possibility of wailing sounds which will be heard.”  At three points – 0’36”, 1’02”, 1’22” here – strings are plucked to produce notes of definite pitch.

The effect is not just eerie but strangely electronic-sounding – the kind of thing, indeed, that electronic music would eventually have to be invented to make possible.  Cowell’s string piano seems here to anticipate not so much Cage’s music for prepared piano as a work of 40 years later, designed to turn electronic music into a living thing rather than something fixed on magnetic tape: Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I (1964), in which an amplified tam-tam is acted on to disclose a world of sound beyond anything its intended function as a gong would lead one to expect.  Whether such pointers to the future make Cowell more than a mere precursor, however interesting, has been called into question, though some of his pieces settle the matter in his favour as far as I’m concerned.  To quote the late critic Alan Rich, ending the Cowell chapter of his useful and accessible book American Pioneers (Ives to Cage and Beyond), which I’ve been grateful to draw on here: “If not a great composer himself, Cowell has been one of the strongest seminal influences on the course of American music.  Perhaps what he created was art, perhaps it was merely the material out of which art might be made.   Its importance cannot be denied, nor its vigour.”

Researching this entry I’ve been struck more forcibly than ever by how thoroughly the internet has transformed the amateur music lover’s access to sources, many of them primary – and the less fêted the composer the more of a boon this has been.  Twenty years ago, that music lover – call him me – struggled to find very much at all concerning Henry Cowell, or a piece such as this, beyond the odd short encyclopaedia entry.  Now a little patient delving throws up a good deal of genuine worth, freely available, as for example:

  • Cowell’s score and performance instructions for The banshee.
  • A performance of the piece on You Tube, illustrating (though we could with a closer view) how it’s played.
  • A CD, available on Spotify, of Cowell playing his own music, recorded in 1963 under the auspices of Folkways Records (effectively now Smithsonian Folkways), the final track being his inimitable comments on the works on the disc (including, at 5’44”, The banshee).
  • Cowell’s audio Musical autobiography, which isn’t quite what it says (you won’t learn anything about the prison years) but simply more – about 100 minutes’ more – dryly humorous commentary on a wide selection of his music.  (The Internet Archive hosting this needs drawing to the attention of anyone unfamiliar with this amazing resource.)
  • An excellent scholarly article by Leta E Miller and Rob Collins shedding light on Charles Ives’s behaviour towards Cowell after his arrest, questioning the received wisdom that Ives cut off his former friend completely during his incarceration, and doing its utmost to descry the part played in the affair by the good Mrs Ives.

◄ Playlist #1 Index      Next track

Buy from Amazon  iTunes