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Henry Cowell

Biography

By contemporary standards, strumming the innards of a piano is old hat -- just as conventional as taking a fist to a piano and calling it art. However, someone had to do those things first. Enter Mr. Cowell. Born in 1887 and raised poor in San Francisco, he showed an early confidence in exploring new musical forms. After a University of California education he became one of the cornerstone composers of new music of the twentieth century. Teacher to John Cage, Lou Harrison, and George Gershwin, as well as promoter of then-unknown Charles Ives, his influence has become all-pervasive. His innovations include usage of aleatory elements, as in Mosaic Quartet (performers have spontaneous choices to make); tone clusters, or harmonies built upon the interval of the second rather than the third (i.e. play the piano with your entire forearm, WHAM!); and the heavy incorporation of polyrhythms and other non-Western elements. He infused much of his work with far/near eastern, south Asian, African, and Javanese gamelan sounds and rhythms, studying and combining all these influences long before postmodernism dictated it was hip to do so. Exit Mr. Cowell, 1965.

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