You may know Henry Cowell (1897-1965) as the “tone cluster” composer, if you think about him at all. Or maybe you know about “The Banshee,” one of his early compositions, in which the pianist strums the strings inside the piano with a fingernail. This American original goes “unsung” as so many do. But I felt it important to reproduce a large portion of one of his artistic “credos” for you today. (Taken from the Edward R. Murrow series “This I Believe” in 1954)
“I believe in music: its spirituality, its exultation, its ecstatic nobility, its humor, its power to penetrate to the basic fineness of every human being.”
Wow. Me too.
Born in Menlo Park, CA, Cowell was a founder of the New Music Society in 1925, and publisher of the revue New Music: A Quarterly of Music Compositions from 1927-1958. George Gershwin studied with him. He was exploring “world” music in a non-patronizing way long before anyone else was. He was also an inmate in the notorious San Quentin prison from 1936-1940, convicted of a “morals” charge. He allegedly had sex with a 17-year-old boy. Though Cowell had several male lovers over the years (and one marriage to a woman), this particular affair never happened. He received a full pardon in 1942. He and his wife wrote the first “definitive” biography of Charles Ives. But let’s return to his “credo”:
“As a creator of music I contribute my religious, philosophical and ethical beliefs in terms of the world of creative sound—that sound which flows through the mind of the composer with a concentrated intensity that baffles description, the sound which is the very life of the composer, and which is the sum and substance of his faith and feeling. When he offers a composition one should remember that it is complete, concrete, and full of dynamic force in his mind and consciousness; and that a performance is only a run-through of the music for the benefit of those who listen, those who the composer hopes will respond. Yet this presentation will, if successful, so impregnate the listener with the philosophy of the composer that it is shared both in the realm of feeling and that of intelligence.
Since I am more used to expressing ideas in music than in words, I find that the latter seem inadequate, and do not have the drive, positiveness and persuasiveness that I should hope for in a musical presentation; but here are what words I have. My belief is that the Golden Rule is the supreme guide in human relations. I do not believe that ant race or people is better or worse than any other.
I believe that each human being should have the liberty to be an individual, and that everyone who wins the right to act in his own way must, in return to society, behave ethically. I used to be almost totally uninterested in politics; but it becomes increasingly clear to me that ethical individualism cannot flourish under radically extreme political conditions. Thus I abhor communism, under which individualism is impossible and expression of liberal thought is punishable; and I abhor its right-wing counterpart under which innocent liberals fear persecution and reprisals of various sorts if they express their sincere ideas for the betterment of the government. My own belief is in a regard for individual rights according to the letter and spirit of the United States Constitution. This I fight for by creating music which I hope will reach and touch all who listen so that they will be thereby encouraged to behave according to their own highest possibilities. Unexpected inner response to the power of music dedicated to human integrity might reach dictators more easily than an atom bomb.
In any event I believe that a truly devoted musical work acts to humanize the behavior of all hearers who allow it to penetrate to their innermost being.
That is why I am a composer.”
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs