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Opening Up The Piano

June 2024
1min read

Henry Cowell
Piano Music

Smithsonian/Folkways 40801 (one CD), $15.00 . CODE: SMF-1

“I want to live in the whole world of music!” wrote the composer Henry Cowell in 1955. He always approached sound as an explorer, seeking new lands, and nowhere is this more evident than in his works for piano. He reached into it to pluck strings, pounded the keyboard with his arms, combined staggering arrays of rhythms, strummed the wires like a harp. He made this recording of nineteen of his pieces in 1963, when he was sixty-six, two years before he died. In the first number, “The Tides of Manaunaun,” Cowell accompanies a simple modal melody with rich clouds of notes rising from the deep bass. There follow a depiction of the Irish harp of life, which is supposed to extend from above heaven to beneath hell; a raucous sound portrait of repetitive neon advertising in Times Square; a delicate and ethereal “Aeolian Harp” in which the strings are gently stroked; an “Anger Dance” that Cowell thought up when a doctor advised to have his leg cut off; and a dozen more pieces, none any less surprising or adventurous. All the music was written in the teens and twenties; it sounds a good deal less shocking today but is no less pioneering, genuinely provocative, and entertaining.

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