Sidney and Henry Cowell

by Peter Stone

Male artists tend to be better known than their wives, even when the latter have had distinguished careers in their own right, and composers tend to be better known than musicologists. Although this situation is changing, it is still the case with Sidney William Hawkins Robertson Cowell, an internationally known ethnomusicologist, and her husband, pioneering American composer Henry Cowell. Both of them were associates of Alan Lomax, and it was probably more through Sidney Cowell than anyone that Lomax first became familiar with the musics of the diverse ethnic enclaves of the United States.
Sidney Robertson Cowell

Photograph of Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1926. Library of Congress.



Born June 2, 1903, in San Francisco, to Charles Albert and Mabel Morrison Hawkins, the precocious Sidney took music lessons at an early age a nd traveled throughout Europe with her parents on summer vacation. She received her BA in Romance languages and Philology from Stanford University in 1924, when she married medical student Kenneth Greg Robertson. That year she enrolled in the École Normale de Musique in Paris where she studied piano with Alfred Cortot in 1925, attended courses in psychiatry at the University of Paris as interpreter for her husband and took seminars with Carl Jung in Zurich. Back in the States, she taught at the Peninsula School for Creative Education in Menlo Park, California, from 1926 to 1932. During that time, she studied counterpoint and analysis with Ernest Bloch and the music of non-European cultures with Henry Cowell (whom she had known in California since she was 14) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where, in 1927, she became a piano student of his. The two of them had traveled in the same circles and both knew Charles Seeger.

In 1934 Sidney divorced Kenneth Robertson. From 1935 to 1936 she directed the Social Music Program at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side in New York City. She became an assistant in 1936 to Charles Seeger, technical advisor of the Music Unit of the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. (later the Farm Security Administration). Seeger had begun to collect folk music in Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. To train Sidney on the new portable sound recording equipment, which used an acetate coating on aluminum discs, he assigned her to work with John Lomax, with whom she went on a two-week trip to western North Carolina.

They traveled with Frank C. Brown, a well-known folklorist at Duke University. Sidney did the driving, since, as is well known, John Lomax did not drive. The progressive Sidney greatly disapproved of the elder Lomax's personality and conservative politics and conceived a life-long dislike for the older man — when disagreements arose Alan Lomax acted as mediator. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more crusty and idiosyncratic group of independent thinkers and non conformists than the Seegers, Cowells, and Lomaxes, thrown together by their shared love of adventure, unusual music, and a capacity for hard work.

As Resettlement Administrator in Appalachia and the Ozarks in 1937, Sidney recorded music she heard in dance halls, lumberjack camps, and black American chain-gang road groups with John and Alan Lomax. As regional representative of the Special Skills division, she worked briefly to help integrate new communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, recording Finnish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and Swedish music at the Fourth National Folk Festival in Chicago in 1937, thus amassing for the Upper Midwest what appear to be the first documented examples of ethnic musics from communities other than the African- and Native- American. She likewise recorded Gaelic and Serbian music in Minnesota. From 1936 to 1957 she traveled throughout the US, often on her own, collecting folk songs and following Seeger's guidelines.

Henry Cowell

Photograph of Henry Cowell as a young man (ca. 1916–19).

Early in 1938, the Music Division of the Library of Congress endorsed Sidney's California Folk Music Project, which was co-sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley and officially approved by the WPA. The study resulted in The Gold Rush Song Book: Comprising a Group of Twenty-Five Authentic Ballads As They Were Sung By the Men Who Dug for Gold in California During the Period of the Great Gold Rush of 1849 (San Francisco: The Colt Press, 1940) compiled with Eleanora Black. Unfortunately, in because funding was redirected to collect Asian music, the Project was forced to close down in 1940. That year was to be turning point in Sidney Robertson's life, which from then on became closely intertwined with that of composer Henry Cowell, just paroled from prison.

Henry Dixon Cowell was born on March 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, California. Musical thinker, innovator, theorist, writer, pianist, teacher, and publisher; provocateur par excellence; propagandist and impresario who promoted and explained not only the new music of other, fellow composers within the Western tradition but the exotic musics of the world: these roles perhaps bear greater weight than does his own music. A sought-after piano pedagogue at New York's New School for Social Research, where he taught, among other courses, one in percussion in 1934, Henry Cowell would eventually teach at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, Mills College, Peabody Conservatory, and Columbia University. His private students included John Cage, Lou Harrison, and briefly, George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach. Long after Cowell's death, the late composer Henry Brant said, "We all owe a lot to Henry Cowell; he sacrificed some of his own potential music to further that of others."

Cowell spent his boyhood near San Francisco where, early on, he was exposed to the rich variety of traditional and exotic musics of China and Japan, and the classical music of India. His father, Harry, although born in Ireland, was not a musical influence, but the poet John Varian, a friend and father figure, provided the Irish mythology upon which Cowell later based some of his music. After Henry's parents divorced in 1903, he spent 1906 to 1910 with his mother, Clarissa Dixon, a writer of an Indiana and Iowa farming family, visiting relations in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma, where he heard the Irish and Midwestern airs and dances and folk tunes of his mother's family. Cowell returned to his home in the California foothills in 1910, his permanent home until 1936. His mother died in 1916.

Although Henry Cowell first appeared in public at age six as a violinist, his real career began as a pianist and composer of progressive music in 1912, when he presented a group of his pieces. In 1914 he became a student of Charles Seeger, then in the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley. The first significant notice of Cowell came in San Francisco on March 5, 1916, when he performed one of the first of his many Irish-themed works, The Tides of Manaunaun, which contained perhaps the initial examples of his "tone-clusters," groups of neighboring notes on the piano struck with palm, fist, or forearm. He rolled these atonal clusters in the low registers of the piano to represent the waves of the sea, over which he superposed a folk-like modal melody. I was privileged to witness the diminutive, appropriately leprechaun-like composer perform this and other works of his at The New School for Social Research in the mid-1950s. In ensuing years, Tides was followed by Irish fiddlers' reels and jigs, as well as by works influenced by the Southern tradition of hymns and fuguing tunes that Cowell inherited from his Oklahoman and Kansan relatives. African-based rhythms likewise influenced him, as did the instruments and themes of indigenous peoples and the sophisticated structures of Asian Indian classical music.

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell, Shirmer Publicity photo

Folk music was but one facet of Cowell's interests. The American musical avant-garde, of which he was at the very center, notably international and un-ideological, included Russian-born musical radical Leo Ornstein, New Englander Carl Ruggles, French-American astrologer and mystic Dane Rudhyar, Kentuckian John Becker, Canadian Colin McPhee (an ethnomusicologist whose studies of Bali informed his modernist music), French-born but ardently, even aggressively, "American" Edgard Varèse, and Ohio native, Ruth Crawford Seeger. It was Cowell who convinced Charles Seeger to take on the brilliantly talented Crawford as a student (they married not long after). Cowell also promoted Arnold Schoenberg; Wallingford Riegger, born in Albany, Georgia, but lifelong New Yorker; Chicago-born Ernst Bacon (influenced by American indigenous and vernacular music); Midwesterner Otto Luening; New Yorker, Francophile, and Moroccan expatriate Paul Bowles; Brooklyn-born, French-trained jazz and folk enthusiast Aaron Copland; and New England transcendentalist Charles Ives, among many others.

Cowell founded the New Music Society in Los Angeles in 1925 and moved it to San Francisco the following year, its purpose being to perform concerts of "ultramodern" music by composers predominantly from North and South America. Ives supported concerts of modern American orchestral music that Cowell organized in America and in major European cities. Cowell's quarterly, New Music, founded in 1927, discussed and published their works, and his New Music Recordings, founded in 1934, recorded them. In his role as director of the North American section of the Pan-American Association of Composers, founded in 1928 by himself, Varèse; Carlos Salzedo, French by birth but Basque by affinity; and Mexican Carlos Chávez, Cowell encouraged the music of Brazilian Villa-Lobos, Cuban García Caturla, and French-born Cuban Amadeo Roldán. In 1928, Cowell became the first American composer to be invited to appear in the Soviet Union, where he performed in Moscow, and where some of his music was published.

Sidney Robertson Cowell

Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1948. Library of Congress.

Between 1923 and 1933, in addition to American tours, Cowell made five European tours to Germany, Paris, Budapest, and London where he played his own works, seminal explorations of new dissonances, timbres, atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms, and non-western modes. In the early 1920s he became friendly with Béla Bartók, who famously asked his permission to use tone-clusters. In 1923, at one concert, Cowell strummed directly on the strings with one hand while using the other on the keyboard; in Banshee, of 1925, another Irish-influenced piano piece, an assistant depressed the damper pedal while Cowell bent beneath the lid and scraped the piano strings, producing glissandi as one might on a violin, cello, or harp, and effecting scream-like sounds; in yet other works he plucked and strummed strings, produced harmonics on the strings, sometimes thumping the key while stopping the strings with a finger, or sounding them with diverse objects placed atop them, thus anticipating the prepared piano techniques of John Cage. The sonorities of Asia, Indonesia, Micronesia, and the Indian subcontinent were never far away, as in a percussion piece for tuned teacups to be sounded with chopsticks, rather than drumsticks. In the 1930s, he inserted aleatory passages so that the performer could control the form and content of a piece. In effect, Cowell anticipated a music that he would not live to hear.

As a result of his conversations with Seeger, Cowell had begun writing New Musical Resources (New York Alfred Knopf, 1930) between 1916 and 1919, and then revised it in 1930. It described, systematized, and suggested new notations for his new procedures that included tone clusters, free dissonant counterpoint, counter-rhythms, new forms of polytriadic harmony, and shifting accents of such complexity as to be impossible for a single individual to produce on an acoustic instrument. These investigations led him in 1931 to commission Lev Termin (Léon Theremin) to invent a transposing keyboard instrument, the Rhythmicon, capable of simultaneously sounding extremely polyrhythmic patterns proportional to the pitches of the overtone series. It was the world's first electronic rhythm or drum machine with a photoreceptor-based sound production system.

But it would be forgotten until the 1960s when similar devices were to be used for progressive pop music purposes. From 1931 to 1932, Cowell lived in Berlin on a Guggenheim Foundation grant to study non-European musical systems (a discipline within musicology then called comparative musicology, the predecessor of present-day ethnomusicology). He focused upon the musics of South India, Bali, and Java, an examination undertaken with the guidance of Erich von Hornbostel. noted for his systematic classification, with Curt Sachs, of musical instruments, as well as for his recordings of African and Asian music and his system of notating those musics on paper; Professor Sambamoor of Madras; and Raden Mas Jodjhana of Java. And in his own compositions, he began to combine ultramodern materials with those of other cultures. He subsequently used the Indian tablatarang and jalatarang and other Asian instruments in combination with Western ones in Sound-form for Dance for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and Western and Asian percussion (1936). At the same time, he also became somewhat more conservative in some works designed as teaching pieces and music for amateurs. Nothing insular about Cowell!

But in 1936, he was arrested on a "morals" charge — he was bisexual — and sentenced to fifteen years in prison at San Quentin. Some friends, including Ives, broke with him, but most of his friends around the country took up his case. And Sidney Robertson fought long and hard to have him pardoned. He was paroled in 1940. The following year proved to be an eventful one for Cowell. He moved to White Plains, NY, as secretary to Percy Grainger. At this time, Cowell began to introduce the idea of "elastic form," a kind of proto-aleatory concept, a project that Grainger had similarly entertained. Indeed, Grainger had also worked out a means of using a player piano to produce keyboard passages that no performer could possibly effect. Conlon Nancarrow had read New Musical Resources in 1939, and he turned to the player piano to perform the intricate rhythms he devised. The "new music" movement was becoming ever more married to the machine age. Cowell resumed teaching in 1941 at the New School, where in 1930 he had instituted the Composers Forum. He would be in charge of musical activities at the school until 1963, when he retired.

And in 1941 Sidney married him. They moved to Shady, a hamlet close to Woodstock in New York's Catskill Mountains in 1942, the year in which both the judge and the prosecutor came to the conclusion that Cowell ought to be pardoned. Sidney had personally presented Governor Olsen with a letter stating that this "was a case which might have been handled medically from the beginning, but . . . was handled otherwise. . . . Mr. Cowell's rapidly expanding professional activities and our happy marriage seem to me to offer proof that rehabilitation is complete."

In his web memoir, "A Farewell to Woodstock," Stanley G. Eskin describes Sidney as an ample, matronly woman, peering through "myopia glasses." A dominant personality, she possessed unlimited self-assurance, was judgmental about people, unpredictable in those judgments, and sometimes downright wrong. For example, according to Eskin, the Cowells insisted they had no connection with the art crowd. They claimed to have driven in once on route 212 from the west and bought their property without realizing it was adjacent to the famous art colony. Sidney was an unlikely spouse, Eskin felt, for the mild-mannered, elfin Henry Cowell, an unmistakable homosexual, but she assumed the role of manager of his career. Henry's health had seriously deteriorated and his heart problems necessitated the complete remodeling of the farmhouse they had bought together. Sidney neglected her own significant professional talents in order to nurse him and advance the cause of his music.
Meanwhile, Harold Spivack and Alan Lomax had assembled the three-volume Checklist of Recorded Songs in the English Language in the Archive of American Folk Song to July, 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1942), to supplement which Lomax and Sidney Cowell compiled American Folk Song and Folk Lore, a Regional Bibliography (Washington, D.C.: Progressive Education Center, 1942).

During World War II, Sidney and Henry traveled as cultural ambassadors for the State Department, collecting music from around the world, for Henry had become Senior Music Editor of the Overseas Division of the Office of War Information. Between 1950 and 1954, Sidney continued her study of songs (begun in 1937) from three generations of members of the Warde Forde family, whom she had followed from their original home northern Wisconsin, to a CCC camp in Shasta Dam, California. This resulted in the 1956 Folkways Records release of Wolf River Songs. Sidney also collected material from the Portuguese fishermen of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and Gaelic Songs from the Hebrides. The Cowells traveled for over a year in Asia in 1956 for the Rockefeller Foundation, assessing grants and collecting for the Library of Congress some of its first recordings of Iranian, Malaysian, Pakistani, and Thai folk and classical music. In 1957, they traveled in Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Japan, and Iran.

In the decade beginning in the early 1950s, Henry was a consultant to and writer for Folkways Records, editing the Folkways series, Music of the World's Peoples (1951–61), and hosting a radio program of the same title, and Folkways' Primitive Music of the World (1962). He wrote reviews for Musical Quarterly from 1947 to 1958. In 1957, he wrote Ongaku, a Japanese-influenced work, followed by his Symphony No. 13, Madras (1956–58), and Homage to Iran (1959).

Sidney's activities as folk music collector meanwhile declined as she became more and more involved with helping Henry with his publishing ventures. She taught courses in American folk music at USC and, with Henry, authored the book Charles Ives and His Music (1955), a biography of the composer who, shortly after their marriage, agreed to talk again with the friend he had rejected a few years earlier. As she relates, "Willing though I was to learn to copy scores and parts, I was too painstaking and slow about it, and Henry got impatient. But I could type. So the typewriter took me from copyist and secretary to amanuensis, editor, coauthor, and (twice) to ghostwriter." ("The Cowells and the Written Word," in A Celebration of American Music: Words and Music in Honor of H. Wiley Hitchcock, Brooklyn, Ruth Crawford Seeger, editor [N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1982], p. 79)

Serious illnesses, including cancer, weighed heavily upon Henry in the late '50s. After his death, on December 10, 1965, Sidney continued to energetically champion his legacy. She arranged to have his music manuscripts, many of which she controlled, placed in the Library of Congress. She could be difficult with regard to personal matters: authors who mentioned Henry's imprisonment might find access to material impeded. But she could also be extremely cooperative, as with the conductor and double-bassist Henry Bloch in his meticulous orchestration of the manuscript of Henry Cowell's first opera, The Commission. Sidney generously contributed their letters and papers to the New York Public Library, assisted by musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock, music critic and editor Shirley Fleming, and by Jean Bowen, the Chief of its Music Division, who had been her neighbor in the Catskills and whose personal reminiscences contributed to this essay.

Sidney Cowell lived alone to a very old age, losing most of her sight. Nevertheless, she continued to promote the performance of Henry's works. Toward the end of her life, she donated to the New York Public Library a marvelous 19th-century tunebook, with shape-note notation, its roots in the Shady and Woodstock area, evidence of her continued interest in vernacular music. She died on February 23, 1995, in Shady. Between 1937 and 1957, she had amassed one of the most extensive collections ever gathered at the Library of Congress. Housed in the Archive of Folk Culture, it contains some of the earliest documentation of ethnic folk music: data gathered while working for the government, correspondence, photos, articles, field recordings (more than 100 hours of songs), and thousands of pages of field notes that include descriptions of the physical surroundings in which the recordings were made, the meanings of the songs for the performers, and their social and cultural contexts.

 

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