Notes 60.1 (2003) 176-178
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Henry Cowell, Bohemian. By Michael Hicks. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. [ix, 204 p. ISBN 0252027515. $29.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
Henry Cowell (1897-1965) remains both one of the most renowned and enigmatic of American composers. His reputation as an avant-garde performer, inventor of extended techniques, theoretician, and multiculturalist suggests several personalities from which it is hard even now to discern an obvious unity. Add to this an extraordinary prolificity (to the point that archivists are still trying to determine a definitive works list), and it becomes clear why Cowell remains something of a historical chimera. Michael Hicks, who teaches at Brigham Young University, presents what is billed as the "first full-length study" of the composer, although his book is far more controversial, problematic, and incomplete than that description might suggest. Before dealing with my reservations, however, let me examine what Hicks does accomplish, at times brilliantly.
Hicks's thesis is that Cowell, who presented himself as a homegrown prodigy, a sort of "wild first fruit" of native American genius, was in fact the product of a cultural environment that almost guaranteed his emergence. According to Hicks, Cowell's career and aesthetic stance was the natural result of growing up in early-twentieth-century California, and in particular the Bohemian community of the Bay Area. He benefitted from a series of devoted supporters and patrons, ranging from his literarily ambitious mother Clarissa, to Ellen Veblen (the wife of Thorstein), the Stanford English professor Samuel Seward, the Anglo-American poet and mystic John Varian, and the progressive Berkeley music theorist and composer Charles Seeger. This world has a very familiar feel to the contemporary reader. It is full of artists, poets, professors, mystics, and the communes and cults thereof. Indeed, Hicks drives the point home by describing Cowell's music for a play by John Varian in an open-air performance for his Temple of the People,
The pageant was produced in a field near the beach, the makeshift stage lit by automobile headlamps, covered with cellophane. An anonymous writer described the spectacle [as] "...rather queer music, a piano out of doors, played boldly and freely, the high cry of a man's dramatic tenor, then a crash of chorus ... we came upon the extensive grounds of an old-fashioned California mansion, [End Page 176] where some hundreds of people sat in utter silence watching what went forward on a two acre out-door stage, the audience in the star-lit dark, the stage expanding and contracting, appearing and disappearing in the various moods of flames and lights cleverly manipulated." The story being enacted in all this, the writer explained, was "nothing less than the story at once of the creation of the Universe out of chaos and the parallel evolution of the human soul, a theme vast enough for the New Age being born in bloody travail..." (p. 86)
To underscore the fact that nothing really changes: In the book's central portfolio of photographs, there is a portrait of Cowell at age sixteen. A few years ago a friend had given me this picture and I have it on my office door, although I feared its provenance (the Internet) would ultimately render it a hoax. Apparently not. There is Cowell sitting at an upright piano, with long unkempt blond locks and a slightly spacey look, resembling as much as anyone Kurt Cobain or Beck; in short, a dead ringer for any one of the myriad young composers and creative musicians one encounters in America today.
One of the things this work conveys superbly is just what an original sensational presence the young Cowell must have been. Simultaneously shy and artistically arrogant, living in genteel poverty with his mother in a cabin near Palo Alto, writing reams of undisciplined but seemingly unprecedented piano works, most of them gifts for friends or for those he simply encountered, he comes off very much as an artistic "wild child." (Frequent references to his lack of physical hygiene reinforce that impression.) It is easy to see how the Bay...