As an improvising pianist who worked almost exclusively inside the instrument, it was perhaps inevitable that I would encounter the work of Henry Cowell. As I gained a deeper understanding of his work I realised I had found in Cowell, a composer who was perfectly suited to my own musical temperament and performance approach.
Henry Cowell was working directly on the strings of the Piano in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. He spoke of 165 ways of playing inside the instrument,
“ordinary means still uncounted”.
He systemized ways of playing and notating keyboard clusters and found further ways to extend the sound world of the conventional instrument. He developed a way of working with these techniques that was wholly personal, often choosing just one or two techniques with which to build a single composition.
He followed in the tradition of the 18th and 19th century pianists as composer/performer. His concerts often resulted in outrageous comments from the press. My own favourite is when a New York daily paper sent a sports writer to cover his recital, duly publishing the review on the sports page as an account of the bout between ‘Battling Cowell’ and ‘Kid Knabe’. (Knabe was a respected American Piano manufacturer of the time.)
Cowell’s own favourite newspaper headline was a brief one;
“ uses egg to show off Piano.” (Egg in this case was a darning egg, an object made of stone, porcelain or wood used to darn socks.)
My interest in Cowell coincided with my own explorations into the innards of the instrument, during the early 1980s. At that time I could find only two slim volumes of his Piano Pieces published by AMP. My search to obtain other scores led to a suggestion that I should speak to his widow, Sidney Robertson Cowell. I spoke to her by phone at her home in Shady, New York State; the home she and Cowell had shared for the last years of his life. She put me in touch with publishers and libraries and my requests for scores led to a flood of pieces coming my way. Not only were there copies of printed scores, but many were written in Cowell’s own hand, with a number also by David Tudor. Some copies of his sketches were also sent. Following studies of these works I recorded “A Henry Cowell Concert” - ACTA 7, 1993, containing 21 of his pieces. “Chris Burn, poised technician and trenchant interpreter is the most convincing Cowell champion I’ve heard”.Andrew Porter, The Observer. 1994
Following the Cowell CD I made a 30 minute programme for BBC Radio 3. I recreated in the studio a number of his party pieces; Chopin’s black key etude played with an orange and the opening of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, with a brush playing over the treble stings in imitation of the violins.I’ve played Cowell at many concerts and festivals, often combining his music with my improvised work. It has always seemed comparatively easy to move from improvising to playing these Cowell pieces. One thing I have absorbed from his work is a strong sense of him trying things out on the strings and keys, a hands on composer with an improviser’s inquisitiveness for sound. Another element of his work that interests me is the confluence of disparate materials that Cowell returned to again and again. He does this in a completely unselfconscious way. In ‘Snows of Fujiyama’ and ‘Deep Colour’ for example, simple melodies constructed with predominantly pentatonic scales are shadowed with all sorts of clusters; black key, white key, chromatic, one octave, two octave and those played with both (fore)arms. In ’Tides of Manaunaun’ a simple tune is set in amongst an ever expanding swell of bass note clusters, culminating in a soundboard rattling sequence of (spread) chromatic clusters played with the left arm. This is marked ffff.
The list of my own Cowell concerts is an extensive one, from the 1980s to the present day; the Yamaha Piano Series 1990, Ulrichsberg Kaleidophon ’94, Sound Art London ‘98, BMIC concerts, Bangor University, Cheltenham - thinking music festival, Munich Ad Hoc festival 2007 are just a few of the concerts where I have played Cowell. At Sound Art ‘98 I performed amongst other pieces, ‘Deep Colour’ from Cowell’s hand written score. A rare London performance. I have also given lectures and workshops about his music; Colchester Institute, Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music, European Piano Teachers Association amongst others.
Other pianists approaches to the music can vary quite dramatically; unsurprisingly for a music where - in my opinion - to find a personal response to the sound world is the paramount consideration for the performer, over and above all others. For me, Henry Cowell remains one of the true originals of the Twentieth Century.
“A Henry Cowell Concert” - ACTA 7 is still available for purchase .Please email .