Henry Cowell’s “Throbbing Masses of Sounds”

Carol J. Oja

in Making Music Modern

Published in print December 2000 | ISBN: 9780195058499
Published online January 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780199865031 | DOI:
Henry Cowell’s “Throbbing Masses of Sounds”

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Henry Cowell (1897-1965) gained fame for his musical innovations during the 1910s and 1920s—especially for his use of clusters (which he defined as “chords built from major and minor seconds”), his conceptualization of the string piano (a technique of plucking and otherwise manipulating the piano strings rather than striking the keys), and his forays into complex rhythms. And as with Carl Ruggles, Cowell's connection to the innovative theories of Charles Seeger deeply affected his own work. Cowell made a debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1924 and took several European concert tours during the 1920s. Cowell also felt the impact of spirituality on his evolving theories of new music. In the early stages of his exploration he had significant contact with Dane Rudhyar. In writings about spirituality and dissonance, Rudhyar repeatedly conjured up Cowell's clusters as exemplifying his ideals. By late in the decade, the language Rudhyar used for describing Cowell's music began to travel beyond spiritual circles, becoming enmeshed in the rhetoric surrounding these novel pitch constructions.

Keywords: Henry Cowell; Dane Rudhyar; modernist music; new music; New York City; spirituality; clusters; composers; Charles Seeger; modernism

Chapter.  6057 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: American Music

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