Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Henry Cowell returns
to San Quentin


Pianist Sarah Cahill performed Henry Cowell compositions.
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He may have been one of America's most influential and progressive composers, but Menlo Park-born Henry Cowell (1897-1965) spent four of his most fertile years in San Quentin State Prison on a conviction of "oral copulation." It is some of the astounding, history-changing music Cowell wrote in jail that, on Jan. 24, pianist Sarah Cahill and the Ives String Quartet managed to perform in San Quentin's chapel before two rapt audiences of inmates and "free" music-lovers.

In 1936, after pleading guilty to oral sex with a young man of legal age, Cowell was put away for 15 years. His shocking sentence was due in part to intentionally sensationalist falsehoods published in a much earlier incarnation of the San Francisco Examiner. The dismal tale is recounted with great detail in Joel Sachs' recent authorized biography of Cowell, which was commissioned by Cowell's widow, and summarized in Brett Campbell's excellent article for San Francisco Classical Voice []. In 1940, two years before Cowell's official pardon, pressure from an artistic community that included Martha Graham led to his parole in the custody of composer Percy Grainger.

During his time in jail, Cowell composed prolifically. He also gave regular lessons to gay composer Lou Harrison, taught music to nearly 3,000 inmates, and directed the prison band. That's just the half of it. His prison compositions ranged from the silly Mother Goose Rhymes – simple melodies with surprisingly complex piano accompaniments – that the audience sang and laughed through near the end of each program, to the fantastic "High Color" from Set of Two Movements. The latter, played by Cahill with astounding virtuosity that elicited bravas, contrasted deep purple valleys with golden hilltops by means of two-octave-long forearm-struck figures and tone clusters played with fists. These were but some of Cowell's startling musical innovations that changed forever the course of music in this country and abroad.

There may be no better way to understand how liberating an impact Cowell's music made on his fellow composers and the public – his student, gay composer John Cage, proclaimed Cowell "the open sesame for new music in America" – than to hear some of it played in the context in which it was written. Imagine Cowell behind bars, conceiving the three-movement piano work Rhythmicana, whose magical second movement's falling figures have such unusual, mind-bending rhythms as 13 against 7, and whose final movement's time-signature changes with virtually every measure. Try playing 3/4 time with your left hand and 5/4 with your right between stints in your cell.

It should come as no surprise that Cage, for whose performance of Jean Cocteau's The Marriage of the Eiffel Tower Cowell wrote his Hilarious Curtain Opener while in San Quentin, was influenced by Cowell's decision to give musicians and choreographer alike the opportunity to combine and repeat modular sections of the work at will. In Cowell's work and their shared interest in music of the Far East lie the roots of Cage's future "chance" compositions.

Around the time of his incarceration, Cowell's reputation had begun to suffer because the increasing modernity of his pieces alienated audiences. (When have you heard that before?) Hence he wrote his String Quartet No. 4, the "United" Quartet, in which he united musical elements from radically different cultures in an attempt to appeal as much to the bricklayer as to the corporate executive. The Ives Quartet played the gorgeous work to perfection. The trance-like repetition of its first movement may have owed its inspiration to Bali and beyond, but its haunting quality – to these ears, the music sounded a warning cry of "danger" – seemed to reflect elements of Cowell's imprisonment. The second movement was short and lovely, the third strange and suspended, the fourth distinguished by unusual rhythms that two musicians rapped out on the bodies of their instruments, and the last by initially tentative strokes and silences that soon built to a tremendous conclusion.

The music community owes a debt of gratitude to Cahill, Carol Newborg of the William James Foundation/, and prison officials who worked three years to make last Friday's program at San Quentin possible. You can support efforts to restore transformational prison arts programs by attending a benefit concert by Beso Negro & This Old Earthquake at Mill Valley's Sweetwater Music Hall on Feb. 8 at 9 p.m. (


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