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Free Only In His Mind - Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell is a unique study on the effect of incarceration on artistic production. For charges that can be read about here, Cowell spent 4 years in San Quentin Prison, during which time he was so productive he composed at least 60 pieces! Prior to and throughout his jail time, Cowell’s music was so avant-garde, he and his contemporaries were labeled “ultra-modernists.” Using prepared piano techniques, a compositional process he called rhythm-harmony, along with aleatoric writing and chord clusters, Cowell successfully explored all paths.

Then, he was released from prison in 1940, and it all changed.

Now seemingly paranoid and politically tight-lipped, Cowell reverts to... well, normal. As an example, his Mosaic Quartet (1935) is a set of formal “blocks” meant to be performed in an indeterminate order, while his 13th Symphony, ‘Madras’ (1958), despite its rhythmic variety and eastern melodic style, is decidedly tonal and straight-laced. Considering Cowell died in 1965 and wrote more than a thousand works over his lifetime, that’s a lot of music to have written in such drastically different styles.

How exactly his prison sentence influenced his compositions would be purely speculative. Yet, it is fascinating to ponder...

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