A tireless musical explorer and inventor, Cowell was born March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California. He grew up surrounded by a wide variety of Oriental musical traditions, consisting of his father's Irish folk heritage, and his mother's Midwestern folk tunes. Already composing in his early teens, Cowell began formal training at age 16 with Charles Seeger at the University of California. Further studies focused primarily on world music cultures. His use of varied sound materials, experimental compositional procedures, and a rich palette colored by multiple non-European and folk influences revolutionized American music and popularized, most notably, the tone cluster as an element in compositional design.

In addition to tone clusters evident in such works as Advertisement and Tiger, Cowell experimented with the "string piano" in works like The Aeolian Harp and The Banshee where strings are strummed or plucked inside the piano. Studies of the musical cultures of Africa, Java, and North and South India enabled Cowell to stretch and redefine Western notions of melody and rhythm; mastery of the gamelan and the theory of gamelan composition led to further explorations with exotic instruments and percussion. Later, Cowell developed the concept of indeterminancy or "elastic form" in works like the Mosaic Quartet (where performers determine the order and alternation of movements).

Cowell's influence is legion, counting among his students John Cage, Lou Harrison, and George Gershwin. Cowell taught at the New School for Social Research in New York and also held posts at the Peabody Conservatory and Columbia University. A plethora of awards, grants, and honorary degrees was capped by his election in 1951 to the American Institute of Arts and Letters.


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | March 10, 2006
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | February 13, 1998
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | November 3, 1996

News and Press

[Concert Review] BMOP looks east for fascinating program

To write a concerto for an indigenous instrument may be an obvious way to create a multicultural piece, but it is not the easiest. Most folk instruments don’t have the power to compete with an orchestra, although electronics can help; most also involve tunings that can’t mesh with the compromises of the well-tempered Western scale.

The Boston Globe Full review
[Press Release] BMOP presents Concertos for Indigenous Instruments

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), under artistic director and conductor Gil Rose, continues its exploration of new orchestral music influenced by non-Western cultures with a program of concertos for Persian, Korean, and Japanese instruments on March 10, 2006 at Jordan Hall.

Full review
[Press Release] BMOP opens its season with the North American premiere of Louis Andriessen's Trilogy of the Last Day

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), under artistic director and conductor Gil Rose, is one of the few professional orchestras in the United States dedicated exclusively to performing and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Since its founding in 1996, BMOP has programmed 46 concerts of contemporary orchestral music, released ten world premiere recordings, and won eight ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming.

Full review