PREVIOUS NEXT UP TOP
Slonimsky, Nicolas, A Life Story, Oxford University Press, Inc., 200 Madison Avenue, New York New York 10016, Copyright 1988 Nicolas Slonimsky. excerpts Typed by Barb. Golden, November 20 1994. 826w

I began receiving offers of new scores from composers. One of the important contacts I established at this time was with Henry Cowell, a musician of unique originality who had just begun publishing his important series "New Music Quarterly". Cowell hailed from California, the state of natural wonders not constricted by the fashions (social or artistic) of the effete East. He was a Jack London type -- in fact, his father and London were close friends. Cowell never wore a necktie, at that time an indispensable part of male attire, and he ignored the necessity of having his trousers pressed or shoes shined, social embellishments deemed essential for success.

Cowell gave me the score of his "Sinfonietta", written in dissonant counterpoint and ending with a tone-cluster consisting of dissonantly arranged and closely arrayed notes. Such procedures, common in the wilds of California, I thought, might not be acceptable in the music corridors frequented by proper Bostonians. So much the better, I decided; I liked to shock people. p.114

I continued my series of concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. On 11 March 1929 in Jordan Hall, Cowell was soloist in the first performance of his "Suite for Solo String and Percussion Piano with Chamber Orchestra", a suite comprising three movements: 'The Banshee', 'The Leprechaun', and 'The Fairy Bells'. 'The Banshee', portraying a wailing Irish spirit that predicts death in the family, was to be performed on the bare strings under the lid of the grand piano. There was a gasp in the audience when Cowell got under the lid and began to tickle the naked strings. He also tapped piano strings with rubber-headed drumsticks, plectrum, pencil, and a darning egg. The latter implement inspired the headline writer in the Boston Post to say: 'Uses Egg to Show off Piano.' This headline became Cowell's favorite, and he never failed to mention it in his lectures and seminars.

Among Cowell's other tricks was playing a descending scale on the keyboard with his left hand while stopping the piano string with his right hand. He did this so cunningly that a visual downward scale sounded like one ascending. Cowell possessed a weird singing voice ranging from basso profondo to the highest treble in falsetto. He could even sing in quarter-tones. p.117

Cowell found a kindred spirit in Theremin. He asked him to manufacture an electric instrument that would produce a series of natural overtones up to the sixteenth partial, with the specification that each of the partial tones would carry beats numerically proportional to its place in the overtone series. thus the fundamental tone occupied a complete rhythmic unit, the octave above had two beats per time unit, the next partial tone (a fifth above the octave) had three beats to a time unit, and so on. When all the overtones were sounded together, the effect was that of accelerating ascending scales alternating with decelerating descending scales in the upper register of the series, sounding to untutored ears like an Indonesian gamelan. Its power was generated by cranking the rheostat; when cranked a little faster, the pitch of the entire column of overtones went up with fantastic effect.

Cowell called this instrument Rhythmicon, and composed a special Rhythmicon concerto. He wrote it in the hope that I would present it at one of my European concerts. The Rhythmicon was capricious and subject to fits of musical distemper, however, and I was not sure that the voltage could be adjusted to the European current. There was also the problem of money for its manufacture. Cowell approached Ives, who in turn apprised me of his thoughts on the subject in a letter from New York in January 1932

I had a long talk with Henry about the Rhythmicon situation. It relieves my mind to know especially that the new instrument would really be nearer to an instrument than a machine. There will be a lever that can readily change the tempo, with pedals and tones, etc. It was not so much the question of having one made, but whether it is yet time to present it in Paris. I sent the remitted check to Mr. Theremin yesterday, and he has started the building. It will be yours and Henry's. I just want to help, and sit under the shadow on a nice day.

Like many a futuristic contraption, the Rhythmicon was wonderful in every respect, except that it did not work. It was not until forty years later that an electronic instrument with similar specifications was constructed at Stanford University. It could do everything that Cowell and Theremin had wanted it to do and more, but it lacked the emotional quality essential to music. It sounded sterile, antiseptic, lifeless__like a robot with a synthetic voice. p.151-152


TOP OF DOCUMENT