Henry Cowell’s Synchrony

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) used the term Synchrony, because he planned to combine music with the elements of dance and light, and he expected his tone-poem to be choreographed by Martha Graham. Although Graham never used Synchrony, which Cowell completed in 1930 and soon after recast as an independent orchestral piece, the music still testifies to the affinities between modernist expression in dance and in music, so important in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Cowell shared Graham’s desire, to create “something uniquely American.” When Nicholas Slonimsky conducted the premiere of the work in Paris on 6 June 1931, in the first of a series of historic tours that also brought Ruggles, Crawford and Ives to Europe, Cowell declared critical reception to have acknowledged that “a new side of American feeling has been revealed.”

Exactly what Cowell intended the feeling of Synchrony to be is hard to say, since no scenario has surface for this work. Yet perhaps it is no accident that Graham’s dance “Primitive Mysteries” appeared soon after this score was completed; for in Synchrony the slow rhythmically regular tread of the predominant thematic material, underscored often by gongs and drums, and reinforced by dark orchestral colors and murky timbres, exudes the atmosphere of transcendental ritual.

Synchrony opens with a brilliant muted trumpet solo written in the “dissonated” technique that Cowell learned from his first teacher, Charles Seeger. Through careful avoidance of melodic consonance, uniform meter or regular phrase sequences, the trumpet plays a long atonal fantasia. And then the orchestra begins its theme that reappears throughout the work, holding in abeyance most of its batter of percussion instruments, including Cowell’s own invented timber–“piano-strings”–the five lowest strings of a grand piano played on directly with a padded gong-stick. As a piano virtuoso in the 1920s, Cowell had made his reputation as a “first and elbow” pianist, a strummer and scratcher of piano strings, and in Synchrony he continued to explore special orchestral effects. Cowell was an American original, a pioneer who harnessed his prolific musical imagination to acoustical theories and scientific models. Around the same time that Cowell finished Synchrony, his book New Musical Resources was published after many years of gestation. Some of his ideas about the overtone and the “undertone” series, polyharmonies, dissonant counterpoint and dissonant rhythms explained therein find their expression in this work. His massive heterophonic textures occasionally recall his friend and forerunner, Charles Ives, but motivic discipline clarifies and unifies the array of ideas and effects into a whole. Synchrony remains one of Cowell’s most impressive and original adventures.