Thursday, January 06, 2005


Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources was begun in 1917 under the guidance of Charles Seeger, essentially completed by 1919, waited for publication until 1930 and was remaindered in 1935. But the book was anything but a failure. Recognition of the book as a source of rich ideas for music experiment has steadily increased. Three ideas in particular have continued to invite composerly invention -- tone clusters, the integral use of rhythmic units subdividing the whole tone other than factors of two (i.e triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, etc.) and the translation of harmonic ratios into rhythmic proportions.

I first read NMR in 1976, in the summer before I turned 15, and a mixture of Cowell, Kuhnau (one of his Biblical Sonatas included three-tone diatonic clusters), and Mozart (those suspensions in the Catalogue Aria) found itself written into my first piano sonata, a sonatina really, where the finale reprise of the rondo has the melody stated in octave wide diatonic clusters. Fun stuff.

I don't think Cowell's "overtonal" claims for clusters have held up, although it would be interesting to make pieces where the clusters are really tuned up in harmonic ratios. IMO, the charm of clusters lies rather in their ability to superimpose precise melodic directionality and a fuzziness about their precise identity. Douglas Leedy's Piano Sonata 1994, (Material Press), a single movement work of ca. 12 minutes duration, composed entirely of octave-wide diatonic clusters is exemplary. It's noted ingeniously, with a typewriter, indicating by letter name the bottom and top notes of each chord, and occasionally with a prefixed # or b to indicate a change in diatonic collections from the collection with all white keys to one with a sharpened F or a flattened B. It's a remarable work, at once severe, lyrical, minimal, and dense. The only thing a bit like it is Cage's original, solo piano version of Cheap Imitation - Cage's name is even encoded in the score - and perhaps some Cowell, at his naive best.


toby said...

this blog is really interesting so far... keep up the entries! there's not much like this online. i'm a young canadian composer surrently studying in montreal and just stumbled across your blog.

Daniel Wolf said...

Thanks for stumbling by -- come back again and let us know more about your music.