Henry Cowell's tone clusters and The Harp of Life

May 23, 2017
Ray Heigemeir
Henry Cowell, The Harp of Life (detail showing tone clusters)

The maverick composer Henry Cowell wrote the solo piano work, The Harp of Life, in Menlo Park in 1925; it was later incorporated into the suite, Four Irish Tales, for piano and orchestra (1940). The original holograph score is held in the Memorial Library of Music in Stanford’s Department of Special Collections (MLM 232C). Accompanying correspondence from Cowell’s widow, Sydney, notes that only a few of Cowell’s 25 or so manuscripts employing tone clusters have survived, this being one. The Harp of Life refers to a great cosmic harp, upon which a plucked string announces the birth of a new being. Cowell’s tone clusters create an aural celestial environment within which the harp is played.

A tone cluster is a chord made up of adjacent notes played simultaneously.  A simple example may be played on the piano by pressing down on the keys with a flat palm. Tone clusters may also be played with the fists or forearms, either as block chords or glissando (i.e., “rolled”).  While Cowell did not claim to have invented the technique, he systematically incorporated it into numerous works, along with other innovative approaches to sound production on the piano (see Cowell’s string piano piece, The Banshee). Clusters are now somewhat commonplace in modern compositions.

A cluster is notated with a thick line connecting the two outer pitches; wavy lines (as in The Harp of Life) indicate the glissando effect and direction.

Cowell's Harp of Life (excerpt)
The Harp of Life manuscript (excerpt)

Cowell (1897-1965) was born and raised in Menlo Park (Harkins Avenue, then a rural dirt road) during the early growth years of neighboring Stanford University. As a young polymath with extremely unconventional schooling and a high IQ, he came to the attention of Lewis Terman in Stanford’s Psychology Department. Under Terman’s instruction and mentorship, Cowell went on to study with Charles Seeger at the University of California. He also made the acquaintance of Serge Rachmaninoff through Samuel Seward, who taught Rachmaninoff’s daughter at Stanford in the summer of 1919. Rachmaninoff was kindly, but chided Cowell for the 41 wrong notes (which he circled in red pen!) in Cowell’s piano composition, Fleeting. By the time Cowell reached his early 20s he was composing and performing his avant-garde musical works on tours throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, Russia, and Cuba. His debut Carnegie Hall recital in 1924 was advertised as introducing tone clusters and the “ultra-modern” composer-performer who devised them. Not surprisingly, reviews ran the gamut from glowing to horrific. E.F. Perkins, in the New York Herald Tribune (February 1924) comments: 

"...there is no essential crime in transcending the limits of ten fingers and using elbows--or feet, for that matter--or employing other means to lend increased effectiveness to the music. We are told that Handel was known to employ his nose to push the stops of his organ when his hands were otherwise occupied [...] The trouble was that the only way to concentrate on the music, rather than its performance, was to shut one's eyes and keep them shut."

Cowell, playing a tone cluster with his left forearm
Cowell, playing a tone cluster with his left forearm

Cowell’s connection to Stanford continued in the 1930s.  He taught a summer course through the Psychology Department, “Music Systems of the World,” followed by a course on rhythm, through the Department of Hygiene and Physical Education for Women. Attempts to establish a required course in world music were unsuccessful. In 1954, Stanford sponsored a “Cowell Week,” including concerts of his music, lectures, and a symposium, which Cowell reportedly found to be validation of his life’s work.

Portrait by Anne Parker Wigglesworth. Henry Cowell Collection, Stanford Music Library 
Cowell's portrait hangs in the Stanford Music Library

Learn all about Henry Cowell’s remarkable life and works in Joel Sachs’ biography, Henry Cowell: a Man Made of Music