Cowell, Henry Dixon

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Cowell, Henry Dixon

Henry Dixon Cowell (kou´əl), 1897–1965, American composer and pianist, b. Menlo Park, Calif., largely self-educated, studied musicology in Berlin (1931–32). Cowell experimented with new musical resources; in his piano compositions he introduced the tone cluster, played with the arm or the fist, and wrote compositions, e.g., The Banshee from the mid-1920s, played directly on the strings of the piano. He founded (1927) New Music Edition, a quarterly publishing music by contemporary American and European composers. In 1931, with the help of Leon Theremin, he invented the rhythmicon, a device that produces various rhythms and cross-rhythms mechanically, for which he wrote a concerto (1932). An interest in counterpoint produced the five Hymns and Fuguing Tunes (1941–45). Extremely prolific, Cowell wrote 20 symphonies as well as piano pieces, band music, and vocal and chamber music, and edited American Composers on American Music (1933). He also wrote on numerous musical subjects and was an influential teacher whose many students included John Cage, George Gershwin, and Alan Hovhaness. In the late 1950s he and his ethnomusicologist wife traveled throughout the Middle East, India, and Japan collecting musical materials, which he later incorporated into compositions.

See his New Musical Resources (1930, repr. 1969) and D. Higgins, ed., Essential Cowell: Selected Writings on Music (2002); biography by J. Sachs (2000, repr. 2012).

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