Festival at Cornish
by Brett Campbell
Drums Along the Pacific: A Seattle music festival celebrates American composers Lou Harrison, John Cage and Henry Cowell and reclaims the city's legacy as a birthplace for American experimental music.
ONE DAY in May, 1938, 21-year-old composer Lou Harrison was at the piano in the parlor of the communal house he shared with other young San Francisco artists when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find a crew cut, freckle faced young man he’d never met. “My name is John Cage,” the visitor announced, “and Henry Cowell has sent me.”
That encounter marked the beginning of a collaboration that would change 20th century music. The two became lifelong friends and artistic collaborators in San Francisco and later New York City, but the partnership really began in Seattle, at what was then called the Cornish School for the Arts. In two years at the little arts school on the city’s Capitol Hill, Cage produced the world’s first percussion concerts (based on ideas he developed with Cowell and Harrison, invented the prepared piano, and created some of the first live electronic music.
This spring, Cornish College celebrated the 70th anniversary of Cage’s landmark sojourn, and his and Harrison’s later residencies at the school, with a festival called Drums Along the Pacific, featuring five concerts of music by all three great West Coast-born composers and presentations illuminating their legacy to 20th century music. The festival, one of the National Endowment for the Arts’s valuable American Masterpieces showcases, not only helped explain how Cage and Harrison’s music, which during the collaboration seemed so similar, diverged so sharply in later years, it also made a strong case for this little Pacific Northwest arts college as a birthplace of American experimental music.
Because of later monumental achievements (Cage in aleatoric music, Harrison in alternative tuning and the fusion of Asian and Western classical traditions), it’s easy to overlook their older mentor’s pivotal contributions. Cowell first won fame in the 1920s as a brash piano prodigy who toured the world, composing and performing wild pieces that required him to strum the strings inside the piano and detonate booming tone clusters. He also launched a quarterly called New Music, published a still important book, New Musical Resources (mostly written 1916-1919), staged important new music concerts in San Francisco, and taught the first courses in what we’d now call world music at New York’s New School for Social Research (where Cage took it in 1934) and the University of California extension in Berkeley (where Harrison signed up in 1935).The Cowell pieces performed at Thursday night’s concert spanned his prolific career, from some of those early radical piano pieces (the first from 1917) to the three Songs from Poems of Langston Hughes, written the year before Cowell died in 1965, so only a few of the pieces really influenced his proteges, whom Cowell considered to be colleagues as much as students. The keyboard music, including the (in)famous The Banshee was played by the great pianist Stephen Drury, whose smooth performances here (whether on the keys or the strings and whether with his fingers or fists) throughout the festival were models of stylistic sensitivity and musical intelligence and coherence.
In fact, all the musicians at this varied concert did a more than credible job of expressing Cowell’s exuberant, embracing aesthetic (so reminiscent of much of Harrison’s work) and in particular the humor that spiced many of his pieces; everyone who knew him noted Cowell’s genial spirit and his gregarious, Irish-American way with a joke and a story, and the musicians all expressed those moments where appropriate, most notably in the sly Three Anti-Modernist Songs, jovially sung by the festival’s other star soloist, the great tenor John Duykers.
Cowell’s pioneering world music influences shone in the late (1957) Homage to Iran, one several delicious works he composed after a 1956 world study tour. Although written for violin and piano, this performance added a Middle Eastern drum (a tradition arising later from unknown sources, according to Cornish percussion professor and festival co-organizer Matthew Kocmieroski in the admirably extensive though consequently tiny-typefaced program notes) and sounded the better for it.
Along with eight more songs, most rarely performed, the concert included three powerful Cowell percussion works played expertly by Seattle’s Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, including the landmark 1934 Ostinato Pianissimo, which Cowell wrote a few months after performing in the premiere of one of the earliest all-percussion works in the Western classical tradition, Edgard Varese’s Ionisation.