Doc: In Search of Henry Cowell

A 2-part radio documentary by Guy Livingston 

executive producer: Cathy Peters
sound design: Erik Hense
editing and production consulting: Aletta Becker
commissioned by: Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National show, “Into the Music”

Henry Cowell was a pianist, composer, inventor, and connector. He was good-humored, relaxed but hard-working. Friendly but also shy, he was nonetheless an excellent storyteller. An eccentric bohemian in his younger days, he became one of America’s most respected and famous composers. But Henry Cowell is also a bit of a mystery.  Four years in prison and travels around the world, composer for the Iranian Shah and amateur flutists…he was full of paradoxes. Join pianist Guy Livingston as he goes In Search of Henry Cowell, on Radio National, Australia.

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In Search of Henry Cowell
for Into the Music, ABC, 2015


PLAYLIST; scene by scene


Symphony No. 1 ”Seven Rituals of Music” – 4th movement

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra – 1st movement

Interview with Sarah Cahill: “I love the way that it can still shock people”

Quote from Virgil Thomson (actor): “No other composer of our time”

Interview with Margaret Schedel: “It was like peering into the future through the lens of the past”

Symphony No. 1 ”Seven Rituals of Music” – 6th movement

Critic Redfern Mason (actor) “But Mr. Cowell has not the faintest notion” (from the San Francisco Examiner, Mar 6, 1914)

John Cage (historical audio): “I think when one thought of Henry”

Thesis (Symphony No. 15) Movement 1 – 3rd movement

Henry Cowell (historical audio): “I believe in music”

Symphony No. 1 ”Seven Rituals of Music” – 6th movement

Ostinato Pianissimo

Irish Legends & San Francisco Songs

Tides of Manuanuan, for solo piano, performed by Guy Livingston on the family’s old piano
Henry Cowell (historical audio): “I composed wildly and feverishly in my early teen years”
Old American Country Set: Blarneying Lilt, for orchestra
Henry Cowell (historical audio): “This is a wonderful opportunity to talk about myself”
Beating the Dragon Robe (historical audio), recorded on location in Beijing (Folkways-8883)
Interview with Joel Sachs: “And his mother knew that he should experience opera”
Aeolian Harp and Sinister Resonance, for solo piano
Interview with Sarah Cahill: “I think the fact that he grew up poor”


Anger Dance, for piano solo
Quote from critic (actor) “After Mr. Cowell’s performance” (from the Greenwich Villager, April 15, 1922)
Quote from critic (actor): “In the mid-twenties, Cowell was considered” (Hugo Leichentritt, Musical Quarterly, April 1924)
Henry Cowell (historical audio): “I’ll tell you a couple of little tales”
Slavic Dance, for orchestra
March of the defenders of Moscow, by Mokrousov
Tiger, performed by Henry Cowell
Russian Critic (actor): “I went to hear Henry Cowell at the State Institute” (quoting Slonimsky in Man Made of Music (Sachs) p. 170.
Henry Cowell (historical audio): “Then I was invited to publish something in the state edition”
Tiger, for piano solo
Four Irish Tales – Exultation, for piano and orchestra

Collecting in Berlin

Ituri Forest Pygmies (traditional, curated by Henry Cowell)
Radio broadcast: Music of the World’s Peoples (historical audio)
Interview with Joel Sachs: “There were something like 22 thousand cylinder recordings”
Interview with Joel Sachs: “He actually managed to get a set of recordings”
Ongaku for Orchestra – Gagaku
Sidney Robertson Cowell (historical audio, 1972) “He thought of music as a whole sea of ideas”

Expanded Piano

Sinister Resonance
Henry Cowell (historical audio) “around the idea of an Aeolian harp”
Guy Livingston plays clusters; and inside the piano
Interview: Paul Doornbusch discusses clusters
Henry Cowell (historical audio) “Tone clusters precise in nature”
John Cage (historical audio) “I’m indebted to him”
John Cage (historical audio) “He clearly made connections”
The Banshee
Henry Cowell (historical audio) presents The Banshee


Percussion Music

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: Counter Rhythm
Ostinato Pianissimo


Building a Music Machine & The Secret Rhythmikon

Quartet Romantic
Interview with Margaret Schedel: “The four minute mile”
Golden Rhythmicon software demonstration
Rhythmicon, by Carter Scholz
Study No. 3a, by Conlon Nancarrow
Interview with Margaret Schedel: “I tracked down the Smithsonian”
Quartet Euphometric
The Incredits, by Michael Giacchino
Free Music No 1 (For Four Theremins), by Percy Grainger
Rhythmicon demonstration (historical audio)
Gastev Film: Rhythmicon (historical audio)




All music by Henry Cowell, unless otherwise noted.




Cowell playing the shakuhachi for Edgard Varèse ca. 1948.
Henry Cowell had often said that he wanted to live in the “whole world of music.” When he was a child he had been inculcated with a musical world view that was simple and unassuming.  It fostered a belief that all music was of equal value and that a composer could and should integrate components of any of these world musics into his or her own compositions.
Photographer unknown. Caption by George Boziwick.


Henry Cowell lecturing and demonstrating various instruments “during a night visit to the Brooklyn Museum, which occasionally allowed [Cowell] to bring his Music of the World’s Peoples class to examine and even to play some of the duplicate instruments from Africa, Polynesia, Central America and the Orient after regular museum hours.”
Photos by Mia Brest. Caption by Sidney Robertson Cowell


Conductor Thomas Scherman and Henry Cowell with the five tablas presented for the first U.S. performance of Cowell’s Symphony no. 13, Madras, 1958.
Photo and caption by Sidney Robertson Cowell





Henry Cowell with Maro (piano) and Ahahid (violin) Ajemian, trying out percussion part for Set of Five, commissioned by the Ajemian sisters in 1952.


Production Team: Guy Livingston, Aletta Becker, and Erik Hense.
Advisors: Lisa Ball, Marilyn Smith.
Interviewees: Chris Brown (Mills College), Sarah Cahill (pianist), Paul Doornbosch (Associate Dean at the Australian College of the Arts), Ned McGowan (composer), Leta Miller (UC Santa Cruz), Dr. Suzanne Robinson (Melbourne Conservatorium of Music), Joel Sachs (Juilliard School), Margaret Schedel (SUNY Stonybrook), Andrey Smirnov (Theremin Centre, Moscow).
Financial Support: The David and Sylvia Teitlebaum Fund, Inc., and Radio National’s “Into the Music”.
Mixed and edited at WOTH Studios, in the Netherlands
Voiceovers: Guy Livingston’s voice was recorded on a CDC E100S microphone by Abdel Mouzoune (Studio Henry Miller).

Music and words of Henry Cowell: courtesy of The David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund, Inc. as successors to the Estate of Henry and Sidney Cowell.
About the Estate: “Henry Cowell is one of the founding fathers of American Music, though his work is not as well known as we feel it should be. The Estate includes almost one thousand compositions, two books, many published articles, recordings of his pieces and music of the world’s people’s, and copious correspondence. Our mission is to make this work better known by encouraging performances of his music and that of other experimental composers in which he would be interested.”

Charles Amirkhanian, Meryl Axtens, Peter Berlin , George Boziwick, Frank Brickle, Composers Guild of New Jersey, Peter Garland, Ev Grimes, Eelco Grimm, Paul Herzman, Jonathan Hiam, Michael Hicks, Philip Gregory Kent, Phlyssa Koshland, Laura Kuhn, Sherre DeLys, the McGoldrick Family, Nora Mulder, Frank J. Oteri, Cathy Peters, Hiroko Sakurazawa, Evan Schwartzman, Camille Serchuk, Maria Sperling, Remy Taghavi, Paul Tai, Robert Taibbi, Richard Teitelbaum, John Paul Young.

Marcos Pujol: voice of Virgil Thomson and the American Critics
Istvan B’Racz: voice of the Russian Critic

Archival Audio:
Rhythmicon samples courtesy of the NYPL, the Library of Congress, and the Theremin Centre, Moscow;
John Cage interviews (1972) by permission of the John Cage Trust and the David and Sylvia Teitlebaum Fund, Inc.;
Sidney Robertson Cowell tapes (1972) by permission of the David and Sylvia Teitlebaum Fund, Inc.;
Live performance of the Madras Symphony recorded by the Juilliard School Orchestra on January 25, 2010 in The Peter Jay Sharp Theater at the Juilliard School, conducted by Joel Sachs, with Ray Speigel on tabla.
used with kind permission of The Juilliard School;
Voice of Henry Cowell (“A Musical Autobiography”) used by permission of Other Minds, with thanks to Charles Amirkhanian and Adrienne Cardwell.

Jonathan Manton at The Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound;
Libby Van Cleve (Director) , Anne Rhodes, and Vivian Perlis at OHAM (Oral History of American Music, Yale University Library);
National Public Radio;
George Boziwick and Jonathan Hiams at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPL), Music Division;
Frank J. Oteri at the American Music Center.

Letters and Quotations:
Thanks to the NYPL, the Cowell Estate, and Oxford University Press for permission to quote from Cowell’s letters and from Man Made of Music, the extraordinary new book by Joel Sachs.
Additionally, we could not have reconstructed Cowell’s musical interests without the help of Leta Miller’s brilliant series of articles on Cowell, Harrison, and Cage.

Photographs on website:
Reproduced by permission of The David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund, Inc.
Captions by George Boziwick and Sidney Robertson Cowell.





Joel Sachs, A Man Made of Music

David Nicholls, ed., The Whole World of Music: A Henry Cowell Symposium



Rhythmikon – the one that Theremin built in the 1960s in Moscow

Demo of artificial rhythmicon synthesis




A Man Made of Music, Joel Sachs. Oxford University Press 2012.

Henry Cowell, Bohemian. Michael Hicks.

Margaret Schedel, Joel Sachs, Andrey Smirnov, Ned McGowan, Ned McGowan, Suzanne Robinson, Sarah Cahill, Chris Brown, Leta Miller, George Boziwick, Frank J. Oteri.

Original Documents
Manuscript papers in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division, and at Yale University.

The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell
Michael Hicks Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 92-119

Henry Cowell, John Varian, and Halcyon
Steven Johnson
American Music, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 1-27

The Amazing Mr. Cowell
Rita H. Mead
American Music, Vol. 1, No. 4, Music Publishing in America (Winter, 1983), pp. 63-89

Henry Cowell and Modern Dance: the Genesis of Elastic Form
Leta E. Miller
American Music, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 1-24

Henry Cowell and John Cage: Intersections and Influences, 1933–1941
Leta E. Miller
Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 47-112

Cowell’s Clusters
Michael Hicks
The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 428-458

The Cowell-Ives Relationship: A New Look at Cowell’s Prison Years
Leta E. Miller, Rob Collins
American Music, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 473-492

Henry Cowell’s “Ostinato Pianissimo”
H. Wiley Hitchcock
The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Winter, 1984), pp. 23-44

Material for Biography
Clarissa Dixon Cowell
American Music, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 2009), pp. 1-59

Anticipating interactivity: Henry Cowell and the Rhythmicon.
Margaret Schedel.
The Musical Quarterly.


Episode Two, scene by scene

Episode Two: Introduction

Symphony No. 1 ”Seven Rituals of Music” – Presto
Four Irish Tales – The Lilt Of The Reel
Quote from Virgil Thomson (actor): “No other composer of our time”

San Quentin Prison

Four Irish Tales-I The Tides Of Manaunan
Interview with Joel Sachs: The prison sentence
Deep Color
Interview with Sarah Cahill: San Quentin now
Interview with Joel Sachs: “You don’t touch Henry Cowell”
Blues: This Mean Old World, by Snooks Eaglin
High Color
Interview with Joel Sachs: musical activities in prison
Three Songs on Poems of Padraic Colum

Cowell and Grainger: the Australian Connection

Green Bushes, by Percy Grainger
Interview with Suzanne Robinson: “I think that Grainger”
Eastern Intermezzo, by Percy Grainger
Actor (letter of Grainger): “My own compositions I undertake”
Four Irish Dances – Reel, by Percy Grainger
Interview with Suzanne Robinson: “An extremely high opinion”
Free Music No. 1, by Percy Grainger
Ancient Desert Drone, by Henry Cowell, dedicated to Percy Grainger

Compositional Cells

Ostinato Pianissimo
Interview with Paul Doornbusch: “Why cowell is a hero to me”
Interview with Leta Miller: Lou Harrison and compositional cells
Interview with Paul Doornbusch: A letter to Cage from prison

Ms Robertson in China

Beating the Dragon Robe (chinese traditional, collected by Mr&Mrs Cowell)
Fuguing Tune
Interview (historical audio) Mrs Cowell: the pasture song story
The Pasture

Madras Symphony

Sanai Gath: Raga Kaphi, Classical Indian (curated by Henry Cowell)
Interview with Chris Brown: “It felt like a folk music”
Interview with Joel Sachs: The trip to Madras and the drumming prize
Madras Symphony 2nd movement
Interview with Joel Sachs: introduction to the Madras Symphony
Interview with Ned McGowan: “The way he took Carnatic music”
Madras Symphony 4th movement
Interview with Chris Brown: “The whole emphasis was”

Cultural Ambassador to the Shah

Allegretto from Persian Set
Lento from Persian Set

Henry Cowell in Private

Concerto Piccolo III
John Cage (historical audio): “I think when one thought of Henry”
Concerto Piccolo II
Interview with Joel Sachs: tragedy

After Prison

Allegro marcato
Interview with Sarah Cahill: “how naive and radical he was”
Interview with Ned McGowan: “post-prison music and creativity”
Interview with Chris Brown: “an amazing life”
The Trumpet of Angus Og


Adagio from Ensemble for String Orchestra
Interview with Chris Brown: “the good and the bad”
Double Music, by John Cage and Lou Harrison
Symphony No. 1 ”Seven Rituals of Music” – Adagio
Three Legends: The Tides Of Manaunan
Henry Cowell: historical audio from “This I Believe” radio show (1950s)





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