Substituting a New Order
Documents in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Library of Congress, and Fogelman Library at the New School for Social Research demonstrate Henry Cowell's tireless efforts on behalf of dissonant counterpoint, a systematic approach to using dissonance based on subverting the conventional rules of counterpoint that has heretofore been exclusively attributed to Charles Seeger. From the mid 1910s to the mid 1960s Cowell -- who is better known for developing extended techniques for the piano, promoting and publishing ultra-modern music, and teaching world music courses -- was actively involved in the development and dissemination of dissonant counterpoint through his composing, writing, and teaching. During his studies at the University of California, Berkeley from 1914 to 1917, Cowell participated in the early development of the technique as evidenced by exercises written in his personal notebook. From the late 1910s to the mid 1950s he discussed the method in his book New Musical Resources, several published articles, and program notes for three 1926 concerts in the United States and Europe. Cowell also shared dissonant counterpoint with his colleagues, many of whom used the technique in their compositions and also advocated on its behalf, including John J. Becker, Johanna Beyer, John Cage, Ruth Crawford, Vivian Fine, Lou Harrison, Wallingford Riegger, and Carl Ruggles, to name only a few. Cowell's teaching not only included private lessons but also extended to his college classes, which reflects a much wider dissemination of the compositional method than scholars have previously thought. Jeanette B. Holland's class notes from Cowell's 1951 "Advanced Music Theory" course at the New School provide further insight into dissonant counterpoint and Cowell's classroom teaching. Finally, Cowell used the technique in compositions that span nearly fifty years of his career and encompass a variety of genres. In contrast to characterizations of the composer as an undisciplined bohemian, the picture of Cowell that emerges from these newly discovered archival documents reveals a systematic and tenacious theorist and composer, who valued tradition and advocated the practical application of new theoretical ideas. Additionally, dissonant counterpoint, which is often eclipsed in historical surveys of twentieth-century music by better-known compositional techniques such as Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, was in fact an essential tool for American composers during the first half of the twentieth century and used in a variety of musical works.