- Embodied Experimentalism and Henry Cowell's The Banshee
An audience sits in the dark facing a grand piano on a brightly lit stage. The piano's lid angles upward, the keyboard waits for someone's fingers, and the bench sits empty. The audience quiets. A pianist walks on stage and sits at the keyboard, letting the hands lightly rest as the right foot lifts to touch the damper pedal in a small gesture of readiness. While the audience waits, another player walks to the crook of the piano, as a singer might. But this player moves too close to the piano, touches its curved edge, and reaches inside. The player's hands disappear as a strange assortment of sounds emanates from the instrument. Remaining mostly still and silent on the piano bench, the first player does not touch the keys but only moves the right foot down two inches to raise the piano's dampers and enable a performance of Henry Cowell's The Banshee (1925).
I have occupied a number of the roles described here: I have sat in audiences, watching and listening to The Banshee; I have sat on the piano bench and held down the damper pedal for teachers and friends as they play the piece; I have learned to play the strings myself and performed The Banshee for students and colleagues several times. Having encountered the piece from these different points of view, I turn here to a series of questions: What exactly happens when I practice and play The Banshee? How does the piece rearrange my piano-playing habits? What are [End Page 436] those normative habits? What is the nature of my physical relationship with the piano? What does it really take to play the piano keyboard? To read notation? To create a musical interpretation? Why is it so easy to forget that the piano is a piece of technology? What do I expect to see, hear, and do at a piano performance and how does Cowell manipulate those expectations?
It seems remarkable that the scholarly literature regarding Cowell as one of the forefathers of American experimental music includes only the briefest references to his manipulation of performers and instruments in works like The Banshee. David Nicholls writes that in The Banshee "the traditional relationships between notation, execution and perception are fundamentally changed—the score becomes at least partly indeterminate of its performance." James Parakilas observes that Cowell's works—alongside those of Charles Ives, John Cage, and George Crumb—call into question normative assumptions about "the piano and the concert hall."1 Other than these two remarks, scholars generally leave aside performative considerations and define Cowell's experimentalism in terms of aural attributes: his embrace of "noise" as music; his use of non-Western styles; his creation of elastic form; his use of sliding tones; and his development of dissonant counterpoint and polyharmony.2 Scholars who discuss the tone cluster works from the 1920s often relate the sonic qualities of these pieces to mysticism, Irish mythology, theosophy, and Cowell's mentor, the Palo Alto intellectual John Varian. The Banshee fits smoothly into this narrative, prompting discussions of its eerie musical depiction of a supernatural figure—the angel of death in Irish mythology.3 Scholarship regarding experimental music has been a bit readier to examine the physical performance of avant-garde works. In laying out the features of experimentalism, Michael Nyman includes the nontraditional use of instruments as well as composers' manipulation of conventional performer and audience dynamics. But Nyman relegates Cowell largely to his "Backgrounds" chapter without thoroughly considering the ways in which Cowell explored the performative dynamic of instrument, notation, performer, sound, and audience.4
Taken together, Nicholls's, Parakilas's, and Nyman's observations suggest a neglected area of inquiry: American experimental composers' manipulation of bodies and technologies. I look to Cowell as a starting point in this query not only because of my own experiences, but because his piano pieces from the 1910s and 1920s influenced a century of extended and prepared piano repertoire. And while Cowell's tone-cluster pieces rework the conventional dynamics between pianist and piano, The Banshee—the first piece in all of...