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Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 - Dec. 10, 1965) was an American composer, writer, pianist, educator, lecturer and publisher. He was born to a poor family in Menlo Park, California, near San Francisco; Menlo Park remained his home until 1936. Cowell was mainly schooled at home by his mother and began his music studies at age five on the violin; he switched to piano within a few years and began composing around the time he was 10. Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University, began studying Cowell as an example of a child genius and used him as a case study subject for the development of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Another Stanford professor, Samuel Seward, arranged a fund to educate Cowell and to assist his family. Cowell began studying with Charles Seeger, among others, at the University of California at Berkeley in 1914. Another mentor Cowell met in his teens was the Irish Theosophist poet John Varian, whose texts Cowell set to music. Later in his life Cowell studied with musicians from non-western cultures to learn about their music.

Following a stint in the army in 1918-1919, Cowell concentrated on performing his own music. He began touring the United States and visited Europe for the first time in 1923, attracting publicity for his use of tone clusters and direct manipulation of piano strings; he drew more substantial interest from European composers such as Bela Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg.

In addition to his own musical activities, Cowell was a tireless advocate, publisher and presenter for other contemporary composers, most notably Charles Ives, but also for his friends John Becker, Carl Ruggles and Wallingford Riegger, among others. He formed the New Music Society of California, and was a major player in the Pan American Association of Composers, which helped publicize such composers as Carlos Chavez. Cowell also established the brand name New Music, a quarterly journal which also branched out into a record label and score publishing concern.

Cowell taught at many institutions during his life, most notably the New School for Social Research, but also at Columbia University, Eastman School of Music, Stanford University and the University of California. He wrote books, including New Musical Resources, an exploration of modern compositional methods, and Charles Ives And His Music, the first book about Ives (written with Sidney Robertson Cowell). Cowell also toured the world meeting other musicians and composers to facilitate intercultural exchange, at times under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department and the Rockefeller Foundation

Cowell's music defined many of the major developments of twentieth-century music, and he was among the earliest composers to endorse the view that the musical materials of the whole world, not just Western Europe, should be available to composers and inform their musical and cultural outlook. In many ways his music and philosophy both exemplified and anticipated the musical aesthetics of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

Source: Nicholls, David. "Cowell, Henry (Dixon)", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 12 September 2006),

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