Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897, Menlo Park, California —died December 10, 1965, Shady, New York) was among the most innovative American composers of the 20th century. Cowell grew up surrounded by a wide range of musical traditions — including his father’s Irish folk heritage and his mother’s Midwestern folk tunes — in San Francisco, Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. He began studying piano at age 14, and the following year he gave a concert of his piano compositions. At 17 Cowell began studies at the University of California with the influential musicologist Charles Seeger, who persuaded him to undertake the systematic study of European musical techniques. Seeger also urged Cowell to formulate a theoretical framework for his musical innovations, which led Cowell to write New Musical Resources (1919; published 1930), an influential technical study of music. Cowell started studying Indian classical music in the 1920s and went on to teach Indian classical music at world music schools in California and New York. His pursuit of learning the gamelan, an Indonesian orchestra of tuned percussion instruments, led to further explorations with non-Western instruments, specifically those in the percussion family. He later studied Asian and Middle Eastern music, elements of which he absorbed into many of his own compositions. Cowell took comparative musicology courses in Berlin with Erich von Hornbostel as a Guggenheim Fellow. He also undertook a series of European tours playing his piano music, which caused controversy, while at the same time bringing him to the attention of a larger audience. He began teaching at the New School for Social Research in 1932, a position which he held for twenty years, and, beginning in 1949, at Columbia University. He obtained a post at the Peabody Conservatory in 1951.
Cowell was perhaps best known musically for his development of “tone clusters,” on the piano, chords that are produced by simultaneously depressing several adjacent keys (e.g., with the forearm). Later he called these sonorities secondal harmonies—i.e., harmonies based on the interval of a second in contrast to the traditional basis of a third. These secondal harmonies appear in his early piano pieces. Some of his compositions involve direct use of the piano strings, which are rubbed, plucked, struck, or otherwise sounded by the hands or by an object. His music also experiments with arrangement of musical material. With the Russian engineer Leon Theremin, Cowell built the Rhythmicon, an electronic instrument that could produce 16 different simultaneous rhythms.
Cowell wrote numerous pieces reflecting his interest in rural American hymnology, Irish folklore and music, and non-Western music. In order to publish the scores of modern composers, he founded the New Music Quarterly in 1927 and was its editor until 1936. He also edited American Composers on American Music (1933) and with his wife, Sidney Cowell, wrote Charles Ives and His Music (1955). A number of well-known American composers, including John Cage, Lou Harrison, and George Gershwin, studied with and were influenced by Cowell. He received a number of awards and honorary degrees and was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1951.