Poised over the keyboard, with forearms pounding out thunderous clusters of sound-that is how Henry Cowell (1897-1965) has entered popular imagination. During the 1920s, he crisscrossed the United States and Europe, gaining notoriety for his physicality with the piano and the unorthodox sounds that resulted. But this composer of clusters also wrote singable tunes. The composer of clusters also produced consonance. And, this guru of American experimentalism also respected tradition, whether of the East or the West. Cowell's tremendous innovation went on to influence generations of composers afterwards, from John Cage to Frank Zappa.
These various and contradictory sides of Cowell the composer are most evident in his chamber music. The resulting "Mosiac" is revealed on this 2-CD set, with works spanning his career from his youth in California in 1916 to two years before his death in New York in 1963.
Included are the three famous early string quartets, the open-form 26 Simultaneous Mosiacs (which Cowell wrote after learning of John F. Kennedy's assassination) heard in 3 very different performances, the infamous Polyphonica for 12 instruments, the baroque-influenced Quartet of 1962, and the Asian influenced Return for percussion ensemble culminating in a human wail (its premiere in 1939 was on an all-percussion program arranged by John Cage).