Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores

It Isn't It/ Scherzo


Sinister Resonance

Three Irish Legends


(jump to: Forearm Clusters, Fist Clusters, Palm Clusters, Arpeggiated Clusters, Disappearing Chords, Released Chords)
Henry Cowell has been called “The Cluster Man.” 1  By playing the keyboard with forearms, fists and palms, performers of Cowell's music express not just percussive effects or visual fireworks, but a multitude of melodic, harmonic and programmatic ideas as well. 

The most frequent question asked by audiences is “What do clusters look like in the music?”  Tone clusters, a term coined by Cowell, 2 can be as small as two adjacent keys played at the same time.  There are many ways to notate a cluster depending on the composer’s intentions, but Cowell almost always notates the outer notes and designates whether a cluster should be played on white keys, black keys or both: 

Ex. 1) Black key clusters:

   black-key clusters, sharps        
Ex. 2) White key clusters:

  white-key cluster      

Ex. 3) Both black and white key clusters:

 black and white cluster 1 black and white key cluster 2

Cowell was not the first to use clusters. Who was the first?  It is difficult to say, it depends on how one defines a cluster.  Certainly, large, dissonant chords had been in use for decades prior to Cowell.  What can be said is that Cowell gave us some of the first ways to notate clusters.  Before Cowell, composers would typically write out every pitch to be included in the cluster. Leo Ornstein (1892-2002), a pianist and composer and one of Cowell’s early influences, was one of the first to extensively use clusters.  In the example below, we see Ornstein’s notation, with every pitch in the cluster written out. (For more information on Leo Ornstein see Bio).

Ex. 4) Ornstein, Danse Sauvage, mm. 1-6

ornstein clusters of 4-7 notes written out

Of course, the piano music of the twentieth century is filled with clusters.  There are variations, but many use notated versions similar to Cowell’s.

Ex. 5) Stockhausen, Klavierstüke X

Stockhausen clusters for both hands-outer notes notated onlyStockhausen's description of how to play clusters

Ex. 6) Lachenmann, Serynade

Lachenmann clusters - outer notes notated only, plus instructions for performance by Lachenmann

Ex. 7) Crumb, Makrokosmos II

George Crumb clusters, hand-written, outer notes of clusters notated

Why play clusters?  Clusters are fun!  Everyone has heard children pounding on the keyboard and seen the joy they get from the sounds they produce and the freedom with which they approach the keyboard.  Clusters can give one this same sense of freedom and for some, can even cure age-old tension problems.  To play a full forearm cluster is to completely release your body onto the keyboard, something that we strive for in any number of difficult passages.  With clusters in Henry Cowell's music, pianists can combine their childhood adventures at the keyboard with their musical sensibilities.

Playing a cluster requires different skills than those used in traditional piano performance, and pianists have to relearn to use parts of their bodies.  Audiences often ask, “Do you hurt yourself while playing clusters?”  While I have been known to get a few bumps and bruises, there is no reason that you have to hurt yourself.  I hope that through reading the following suggestions, you will prevent injuries, and use clusters, not only for pleasure, but as a way to open up other, more traditional approaches to the keyboard.

General Performance Suggestions
To play cluster music, you will have to engage more of your lower body than is typically needed to play traditional piano music.   Primarily, you need to be able to bend from the torso both forward, so that your forearms can rest on the keys, and from side to side, so that your forearms can play clusters at either end of the piano.
For cluster playing, I recommend sitting a little further back from the piano and on the middle to front of the bench.  Ask yourself: Can you stand up easily?  Can you lean into the very lowest and highest keys of the piano without feeling like your legs are in the way?

Further, you should feel that your arms are loose at the sides of your body.  When playing a cluster, you must lift from the shoulder making sure the your elbows are not locked either against your side (like a t-rex) or in the air (like a chicken dance).

Also, you will need to use your legs, butt and feet to balance yourself, particularly when playing clusters that use the full range of the keyboard.  For those who have played the organ, you know that you must use your torso to keep your body upright as the feet are needed to play the pedals.  It is a difficult transition for pianists and sometimes requires the strengthening of a few stomach muscles!  Cluster playing also requires lower-body strength.  Instead of simply resting your feet on the floor and pedals to keep yourself upright,  you must now plant your feet and use your leg and butt muscles to keep your body from falling over when leaning in to play clusters. 
(pictures and videos for this section, coming soon!)

Lastly, before starting to learn Cowell's cluster pieces, take his words to heart: "It should be obvious that these chords are exact and that one practices diligently in order to play them with the desired tone quality and to have them absolutely precise in nature." 3

Forearm Clusters
Every person's arm is shaped differently and of different length, but the average adult forearm is suitable to reach most clusters.  If not, adaptations can be applied that will produce a similar if not exact effect as we will see below. The most important goal in playing a forearm cluster is to aim for a clean, even sound across the gesture.

If you lay your forearm on a flat surface, either with your fist thumb up, or your palm facing down, you can see that it does not form an even line.  There is a gap at your wrist, which can be a problem in execution. 

Getting to know how your arm works on the keyboard is the key to playing clusters well.  With forearm cluster passages, or any cluster passage, you will need to find your center of gravity.  Just as you must balance your hand to play a large chord cleanly, you must balance your arm so that the cluster sound is accurate from elbow to fist.  In addition to finding how your arm best executes forearm clusters, below are some general suggestions:

Lift your entire arm from your shoulder.  It is easy to get sloppy, resulting in “elbow” or “wrist” clusters (a great way to get bruises).
So that you can hear all of the notes, try playing single forearm clusters with two hands using fingers or palms, to find an even, full sound.  Match that sound with the forearm.
If you are having trouble getting all of the notes to sound, try tilting your arm towards the soundboard, or rotating your arm in various directions.


You can also open your hand to various lengths to reach the notes you need.

photo of a forearm cluster on the keys, fist facing up

photo of a forearm cluster hand flat on keys

As you work towards pitch accuracy, use your elbow as a guide.   Just as you may practice fast chordal passages with your thumb notes, try playing just your “elbow” notes to orient yourself with the outer line of the clusters.

There are a few variations to the forearm cluster.  One is the forearm cluster as a tremolo:

Ex. 8) Tremolo cluster from Antinomy, m. 3

tremolo cluster from antinomy

This example is a two-arm tremolo in the bass clef.  To play a tremolo quietly, begin with your arms on the keys.  Don’t worry if the sound is not even at first.  It is meant to be a little murky.  Be sure to experiment with the piano you will use during the performance.  Every instrument has its own surprises.

I like to call the second variation the “forearm cluster +.”  This occurs when a performer must simultaneously play a forearm cluster with separate single pitches in the same hand and/or arm.  This is one of the few times when the gap in your wrist may be helpful.  In Ex. 9 below, the performer must play octave-length clusters with the left forearm while simultaneously playing single black key pitches an octave above. The gap in the wrist can help the perfomer to “miss” the keys in between the cluster and single pitches.  Also, your fingers are an asset, as one can easily adjust the distance of one’s fingers from the keys.  Be sure to practice the two lines separately, keeping the arm in position as if ready to play both parts. 

Ex. 10 below requires the same technique, simply for the right hand.  Staves one and three are for the RH and stave two is for the LH.  The trick here is not only to “miss” the notes in between, but to leave room for the left hand which must play a white key cluster underneath.

Ex. 9) Antinomy, m. 45


Ex. 10) Dynamic Motion, m. 19

A last usage of the forearm cluster is the “nearly forearm cluster.”  These are clusters too big to play with the palm but too small for the forearm.  With these clusters, one must hang part of the arm off of the keys in order to reach the desired pitches. 

Ex. 11) Timetable, m. 29

Avoiding injury:
In pieces with extensive forearm clusters and loud dynamics, try wearing long-sleeves.  Also, avoid any clothes with buttons or other items that can make extraneous sounds and/or bruise your arm. Take special care when clusters reach the outer rims of the instrument so that you do not hit your elbow on the wood of the instrument.

Cowell works with forearm clusters (with links):
Dynamic Motion
Amiable Conversation

The Tides of Manaunaun

The Hero Sun
The Voice of Lir

It Isn't It

Other Cowell works using forearm clusters:
Piece for Piano
The Lilt of the Reel

Fist Clusters
Fist clusters are often best executed with the fist facing upwards with the thumb on top.  Some pianists play fist clusters with the hand facing down (with the palm on top of the keys) but in my experience, this can be painful on knuckles, especially in loud or fast passages.  Also, this is often unnecessary as the flesh on the side of the hand is adequate to reach all of the keys.

Always use the flesh of your hand, not your wrist; do not let your wrist hit the keys at all. 

The passage below shows a series of cascading fist clusters.  Once performers learn the pattern of the notes, they can aim for a specific top or bottom pitch rather than worrying about each individual pitch within the cluster.  This is not meant to encourage carelessness.  Rather, it is meant to aid in the freedom needed to play quickly.  In each measure, I aim for A-sharp, G-sharp, F-sharp, D-sharp and C-sharp in the RH respectively, (the top notes of the clusters) which helps me to follow the passage at it descends and repeats.

Ex. 12) Advertisement, mm. 52-55

Keep everything pliant as you play fist clusters.  Just as you have firm fingers but remain loose while you play conventional piano music, do not make your fist tense.  Although a fist suggests something aggressive, there is no need for you to tighten your fingers, wrists or forearms beyond what is needed for a full, firm sound.

Cowell works using fist clusters (with links):
Dynamic Motion
What’s This?

It Isn't It/Scherzo

Other Cowell works using fist clusters:
Piece for Piano

Palm Clusters
Palm clusters exist somewhere between fist and forearm clusters.  In Cowell's music, palm clusters are often slower and require a different sort of attack than other types of clusters.  Always spend time with the piano you plan to use in performance.

Below are the opening measures of The Tides of Manaunaun.  This piece, meant to portray “tremendous tides,” must begin with a purposively elusive attack. Start with your hands on the keys for more control.  Although it may seem obvious, experiment with different placements of your hand on the keys.

Ex. 13) The Tides of Manaunaun, mm. 1-2

One further suggestion with palm clusters.  Remind yourself how a hammer hits a string.  Try playing palm clusters while looking inside the piano to see what attack is needed to make a good sound. You may be surprised to find that very little weight is required for the hammer to hit the string. Again, starting with your hand on the key can give you much more control.

Cowell works using palm clusters (with links):
Dynamic Motion
What’s This

The Tides of Manuanaun
The Voice of Lir

It Isn’t It/Scherzo

Other Cowell works using palm clusters:
Piece for Piano
Lilt of the Reel

Arpeggiated Forearm Clusters/Rolled Clusters

Ex. 14) Dynamic Motion, m. 44       Ex. 15) Antinomy, m. 89


Ex. 16) Dynamic Motion, m. 49

It is often not possible to make arpeggiated clusters sound completely smooth. Be sure to roll through your elbow, forearm, wrist and fingers. (AUDIO) (VIDEO)

Avoid hitting the bulk of the cluster with your forearm and then rolling through the edge with your hand.  Start above the keys so your contact is more ambiguous.  If you start on the keys, your attack will be very definite.  Above the keys, you are more likely to start off rolling.

Cowell works using arpeggiated clusters (with links):
Dynamic Motion

The Tides of Manaunaun
It Isn't It/Scherzo

Other Cowell works using arpeggiated clusters:
Piece for Piano

Disappearing Chords
Playing a "disappearing chord" typically involves two steps.  First, you must depress a chord and second, you must release it one note at a time.  As the sound fades away more slowly than if the chord was released all at once, the effect is that of a chord disappearing.   See Ex. 20 below.

Cowell is not the first to use this technique and he may have gotten the idea from earlier composers who used sympathetic resonances.  Pianist Sorrel Hays briefly discusses Cowell’s use of the technique on the liner notes to her Smithsonian Folkways recording.  She discusses Cowell’s piece, Harp of Life, saying, “At the end of Harp of Life, one plays a cluster firmly, then silenty depresses keys and releases the cluster.  The depressed key strings reverberate with a ringing that is sweetly unpercussive.  This is a compositional technique that Robert Schumann hinted at in Carnaval (1833-1835) and in Papillions (1829-1831).” 4 In his article on Cowell’s clusters Michael Hicks writes, “ Sympathetic resonances are produced by silently depressed low clusters (a variant of the technique Cowell had encountered when [Charles] Seeger showed him Arnold Schoenberg’s Op. 11, no. 1, at their first lesson).” 5

Ex. 17) Schumann, Papillions, Op. 7, No. 12, mm. 89-92

Ex. 18) Schumann, Carnaval, Op. 9, "Paganini," mm. 35-37

Ex. 19) Schoenberg, Op. 11, No. 1, mm. 14-16

A disappearing chord is not simply the sympathetic resonances of silently depressed notes, but rather a chord that is first heard and then taken away note by note.

When practicing disappearing chords, play the notes of the chords individually rather than together, then release them one by one in order to hear the precise sounds of each release.

Ex. 20) The Hero Sun, m. 2  (AUDIO)


In Advertisement, the notes are first played separately, instead of as a chord.

Cowell pieces using disappearing chords (with links):
The Hero Sun

Other Cowell pieces using disappearing chords:

Released Chords
Released chords are similar to the “forearm cluster +” but in the latter, both the cluster and the added note require the same articulation.  With released chords, the separate parts require different articulations.  Therefore, one part is “released” before the other.  Both of these examples below are for LH, taken from The Voice of Lir

The released chord in ex. 21 is essentially a percussive palm cluster.  The LH plays all of the notes in staves two and three, between and including the D octave on the second stave.  Then, the player should release all notes in stave three, leaving only the octave. 

In this example, you must use your wrist to release the notes.  After playing the cluster, lift your wrist up to release the inner-cluster pitches, while simulataneously holding onto the octaves.

Ex. 21) The Voice of Lir, m. 15 (AUDIO) (VIDEO)

Ex. 22 shows a method similar to the forearm clusters + above.  However, instead of simply playing both clusters and single notes with one arm, the performer must release the clusters in stave three while simultaneously holding on to the pitches in the second stave.

Ex. 22) The Voice of Lir, m. 19 (AUDIO) (VIDEO)