Henry Cowell and modern dance: the Genesis of elastic form

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Author: Leta E. Miller
Date: Spring 2002
From: American Music(Vol. 20, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,778 words

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It is not an exaggeration, I believe, to claim that the great patron of twentieth century music has been the art of dance.

William Schuman

Although dance studio accompaniment provided a stable, if not lucrative, source of income for many twentieth-century American composers, the job could easily become tedious. Even John Cage, whose creative life was intertwined with dance from the 1930s until his death in 1992, found studio accompaniment quite intolerable. In 1939 he wrote to Lou Harrison: "I have the possibility of a job in Taos this summer.... I wouldn't get paid very much if at all; but it would be a step away from [dance] accompaniment--drudgery which I hate." (1) (It is tempting to speculate that Cage's impatience with studio work contributed in some measure to the composition method he ultimately worked out with Merce Cunningham in which sound and movement components were developed independently.) There was also a stigma associated with the label "dance composer." In 1940 Harrison wrote to Henry Cowell: "I never imagined this damned dance-curse I have would pop up in N.Y.! ... This is one reason I am giving up dancers--critics and musicians are trying to make a new Delibes of me!" (2) At the same time, the job occasionally generated important-- even revolutionary--musical developments. While Cage was playing for one of Bonnie Bird's classes at the Cornish School in Seattle, for instance, a metal rod rolled into the piano, prompting experiments that led him to the prepared piano. (3)

Despite potential pitfalls, Henry Cowell composed numerous works for contemporaries in the modern dance world (Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Bonnie Bird, Erick Hawkins, Marian Van Tuyl, Tina Flade, May O'Donnell, Jean Erdman, and others), turning a potentially dreary job into an opportunity for interdisciplinary exchange of aesthetic ideas. (A selection of Cowell's dance works is given in Appendix A.) Mary Anthony recalls Cowell's memorable persona at the Hanya Holm studio in the 1940s:

Henry's shaggy grey eyebrows arched in constant anticipation of the reward of being joyously alive.... He either wore the same suit or had many versions of one suit--all a little too small.... His coat was always closed by one button that seemed about to pop off.... He spent so much of his time sitting crosslegged--either on the floor or a chair--that when he stood up straight [his pants] ... bulged forward at the knees. Not that Henry stood still very often. I have the memory of him bounding like a wooly kangaroo from drums, to gongs, to piano, to center of studio to perform a few dance steps and then back to the drums to make a point. (4)

Modern dancers in Cowell's time were grappling with the problems of "interpretive dance"--that is, developing choreographies to previously composed music--a process that potentially cast movement in a servile position to sound. Some choreographers dispensed with music entirely, dancing in silence. Others constructed their choreographies first, and then brought in a composer to write the score. Cowell,...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Miller, Leta E. "Henry Cowell and modern dance: the Genesis of elastic form." American Music, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, p. 1+. Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.
  

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