A major figure in the modernist movement of the twentieth century, American composer Henry Cowell is celebrated for his avant-garde style and tireless advocacy of contemporary music. Cowell was born to a pair of bohemian writers in then-rural Menlo Park outside of San Francisco. Cowell’s approach to the piano and violin at a young age were shaped by traditional Midwestern folk tunes he picked up from his mother’s heritage, Irish folk music from his father, as well as the flourishing East Asian communities in San Francisco.
Even in his early compositions, Cowell did something entirely different—instructing the performer to play a range of neighboring notes all at once by holding down the hand or forearm, known as the “tone cluster.”
As he matured as an artist, Cowell delved deeper into his interest in the ultramodern and avant-garde. He formed one of the first recording companies—The New Music Quarterly Recordings—to publicize the works of significant composers such as Charles Ives and Edgard Varese. Bela Bartok was deeply inspired, and sought Cowell’s “permission” to use tone clusters in his own music, thinking that Cowell had patented the technique.
Over his lifetime, Cowell produced a prolific oeuvre, penning more than one thousand works. One of his best-known works, The Banshee (1925), highlights his unconventional approach by playing the strings inside of the piano rather than the keys. The result is a haunting and hair-raising sound. Listen for yourself below: