Thursday, August 13, 2015

Henry Cowell online

So let me tell you what's excited me in musical recordings and why I wanted to be able to record sound feed off the Internet. (I got it to work by changing to a different default MP3 player.)

It's symphonies by Henry Cowell.

Cowell, who has a local connection - he grew up 14 miles from here, and I drive past his home street all the time - is one of my favorite early/mid 20C composers, and for my tastes the most under-rated. I'm not going to put him on my list of Greatest 20th Century Symphonists, but I do like his music. And not just the symphonies.

Cowell began as a highly imaginative experimentalist composer, particularly for piano. He invented using your palm or entire forearm to play washes of "tone clusters" and dogging the sustain pedal and playing by directly rubbing and plucking the strings. (This piece was played on radio in the 1930s with a large prize offered to any listener who could guess the instrument. No one did.)

Note the pieces' title references to Irish mythology. This interest in his ancestral culture was a root of Cowell's lifelong devotion to ethnomusicology - another was spending childhood time in San Francisco among Chinese and other Asians - and his later music grew more folk-oriented: conservative and accessible on the surface, but still quirky and imaginative. Some of it was pure Americana, and some based on his foreign travels.

But I'm a symphony collector in particular. Cowell wrote 20 symphonies, most in his later years. Seven of these were commercially released in the LP era. I have all of those, and CDs of a few reissued in that era. But that leaves a large gap.

Imagine my delight, then, to discover that - with the latest added quite recently - not only are all seven of those on YouTube, so are more recent performances of two, plus additional recordings - some old vintage radio tapes or private LPs, some recent performances - of five others. This includes the two performed at the American Symphony Orchestra concert five years ago that I considered traveling to New York to attend, but didn't.

The YouTube search results for Cowell symphonies are kind of a mess, so before I ripped recordings off them all - which I wanted in case they disappear later - I made a little web page listing of all of Cowell's symphonies, with links to the recordings.

Which ones should you listen to, if you care for any? Definitely Nos. 4 and 11: they're the best, and they're also the ones with two recordings each. In each case, however, the older recording (listed first), though of poorer sound, is the better performance. Of the five previously unavailable symphonies (2, 8, 9, 13, 14), all new to me, the brightest discovery is No. 9, despite the dreadful (especially at the beginning) sound quality.

So now I have 12 (well, 11.5) of Cowell's symphonies on record. Will we ever complete the set?

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