Classical Music Review: New Releases

Henry Cowell - Dancing with Henry.  Suite for Small Orchestra; Heroic Dance; Sound Form No. 1; Three Ritournelles from "Marriage at the Eiffel Tower" (Josephine Gandolfi, piano); Reel No. 2; Dance of Sport; Suite for Woodwind Quintet; Four Combinations for Three Instruments; Atlantis. The California Parallèle Ensemble; Nicole Paiement, conductor.  Patrice Maginnis (sop.), Wendy Hillhouse (mez.), Leroy Kromm (bar.) on Atlantis.  mode 101 (62'42).

As you can glean from the title, this collection focuses on Henry Cowell's collaborations with choreographers.  Traditionally,  collaborations between dancers and composers are rife with problems of hierarchy.  Which takes priority, the music or the dance?  Choreographers often have specific needs in terms of rhythms and durations, but those needs can often be constraining to composers' creativity.  Cowell came up with the idea of using flexible musical forms, which maintained the integrity of the pieces while allowing the choreographer to invert, repeat and otherwise manipulate the musical material.

Two of the pieces here, the Ritournelle marked Larghetto (1939) and Sound Form No. 1 (1937) are realizations of this concept.  Like much of Cowell's music they wear their radicalism lightly.  The Ritournelle consists of a 24-measure opening and an 8-measure trio.  It sounds like one of piano miniatures that dot the work of such English composers as Bridge, Howells, or Ireland; however, Cowell designed it to be played either straight through or "abridged" by rearranging measures according to his instructions (one such abridgment is recorded here).  Sound Form No. 1, written for a quartet consisting of flute, clarinet, bassoon, and percussion, can be manipulated in a like manner.  There's a lightness and lilt to the piece that would seem to make it eminently suitable for dance.

The other pieces on the disk have a similar feel to them.  Most were composed in the 1930's, after the sonic experimentation of Cowell's piano pieces, but before his bizarre and unjust imprisonment in San Quentin on a morals charge.  Reel No. 2 (1934) is an early foray into world music, a preoccupation that dominates Cowell's later music.  Heroic Dance (c.1931), a rather mechanistic sounding piece, was written for Martha Graham and it is not difficult to imagine the sort of choreography she might apply to it.  Like the Dance of Sport composed for Charles Weidman in the same year, it suggests that Cowell gave some thought to who he was composing for.  The strangest piece here is Atlantis (1926), a wordless drama involving three singers set in Plato's fantastic world.  Despite a bizarre libretto by Alice Pike Barney, the piece is made to work due to Cowell's integration of voice and orchestra.

Each of the pieces on the collection of "discoveries" is a delight and it would be pedantic to describe all of them, suffice it to say that Nicole Paiement and her troupe have dipped into a gold mine.  Cowell, thanks mainly to his writings, is still one of the most influential of American composers and much of his music remains unheard.

Tony Gualtieri
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