Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores

It Isn't It/ Scherzo


Sinister Resonance

Three Irish Legends

Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores to Dynamic Motion*

Jump to: (What's This, Amiable Conversation, Advertisement, Antinomy, Timetable)

Dynamic Motion
Dynamic Motion was written in the fall of 1916 while Cowell was in New York City attending the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School). Although works like The Tides of Manaunaun seem to be better known today, Dynamic Motion was quite popular in the early twentieth century.  Its use of massive tone clusters shocked audiences and gave Cowell early notoriety.  An oft-quoted quip from 1922 states, "At the finish of [Dynamic Motion] three women lay in a dead faint in the aisle and no less than ten men had refreshed themselves from the left hip." 1

Cowell has said that the work was inspired by the New York City subway system.  It is difficult to find direct musical references to the sounds of subway stations, but perhaps Cowell used this imagery to help audiences deal with the "high power dissonances." 2

Performance suggestions
The diamond shaped notes in m. 1 are now a common feature of classical music and indicate notes that should be depressed silently.  Prepare these in advance so as to avoid any audible pitches.  Be sure to spend some time on the instrument you plan to use in performance as each piano has its own surprises.

M.7 can be difficult for smaller hands.  Try catching the chord in m. 6 with the sostenuto pedal and dividing the RH chord in m. 7 between the hands.

Dynamic Motion features many of Cowell's tone clusters: forearm clusters, fist clusters, palm clusters and arpeggiated or rolled clusters. (For more information, see page on clusters.)  Although clusters often lend themselves best to percussive and visual effects, it is important to maintain the melodic and rhythmic integrity of the music.  In mm. 18-20, the cluster rhythms are clearly an echo of the rhythm in m. 17.  Be sure to separate the clusters so that the audience can hear this continuation.

In mm. 19-20, the RH plays the music on staves one and three: the clusters on the top stave and the bass clef notes on the bottom stave.  While playing the clusters in stave one, let your hand droop over the black keys so that you can reach the notes in stave three.

In m. 21, play the rolled chords before starting the sextuplet gestures.  Experiment with dividing the gesture between the hands.  Put a slight accent on the beginning of the two-note group so that we can hear the arrival of beat two.

In all of the editions I have found, there is a missing treble clef in m. 22, second stave.

In m. 22, take time to prepare the silent cluster before the measure begins.  It is difficult to play as notated, and if you prepare it before m. 22, you will have time to divide the notes of the second stave between the hands.

In m. 29, beat 3, there is a mysterious note in the RH.  Should the first sixteenth note dyad be E-flat and F-flat?  As it is written, E and F-flat, the interval is an augmented seventh (or an octave).

The "x" notation in the LH from mm. 25-32 is explained at the bottom of the page, "Lay left hand on keys, then press left hand down with right fist." 3 Perhaps Cowell thought that pressing your fist onto your left hand would produce more sound, but it is not his most effective gesture.  I have found this to be more of a visual effect.  Experiment with other ways of playing the cluster that help you to get a clean sound, a consistent crescendo in mm. 25-28, and a constant fff in mm. 29-32.  Try playing palm clusters without the aid of your RH fist.  Also try dividing the cluster between the hands and playing with the fingers. 

I use two different methods to calculate rhythms such as the five against four in m. 42.
A) I take the lowest common denominator between the two numbers, in this case twenty, and draw the rhythm accordingly:

Ex. 1)

B) I use a calculator: 5/4=1.25.  Therefore, in order to play a set of four sixteenth notes against a quintuplet, I place the sixteenth notes after every 1.25 notes of the quintuplet.  Remember that the first quintuplet note would be counted as zero.

Ex. 2) Dynamic Motion, m. 42

The second half of m. 52 is hard to hear because of the previous cluster.  Try flutter pedaling through the measure so that we can hear these small clusters.

In m. 55, be careful when attempting large clusters of white and black keys.  Here you will be much more injury prone.  Before you attack the keys with the full weight of your forearms, experiment with what cluster length and make-up is easiest for you to reach.  No one can reach every black and white key between the notes given.  Do what works for you and helps you to get a big sound.  Also see clusters.

In m. 60, I set the cluster with two hands using RH for black keys and LH for white. Once the RH has its own melody to play, I slide the LH back up to catch the black keys.

In mm. 63 and 65 you will have to let go of a couple of LH notes (B in m. 63 and B, B-flat and A in m. 65) to play the RH gestures.  Reset them silently afterwards.

What's This
In Cowell's words, "What's This? was composed as an encore to Dynamic Motion. The thought was that probably if you played Dynamic Motion you wouldn't get an encore so you better have one ready to play anyway.  And since it is a curious little bit, people very often would ask me, "What's that?" to which I of course replied, "What's This?" 4

Performance suggestions
M. 5 is difficult, particularly for small hands.  I have used two approaches.

1) Try playing the high C on beat three with the LH and then quickly returning for the triplet notes.  Several fingerings work for the RH notes.

2) Play the RH and LH as written.  For the 32nd notes on beat 3, try 1-1-2-3 for the fingering.

M. 6 poses similar problems.  I like to divide the 32nd notes on beat one (D-E-C-sharp) between the hands.

Amiable Conversation
Cowell states that "Amiable Conversation is just that, although one admits that it was suggested by overhearing a low-voiced and a high-voiced Chinese in conversation in a laundry.  So, not knowing the subject of the conversation one was attracted to the different qualities of the voices and the fact that the thing got much more animated as it  went on and little bit higher-pitched all around." 5

The melodic lines are clearly meant to convey the "conversation,” the right-hand the “high-voice” and the left hand the “low-voice.”  Except for the passing tone in m. 17, both melodic lines use a pentatonic scale.  As Cowell was exposed to a variety of musics, including Chinese music, while he lived in San Francisco, perhaps we can assume that Cowell use of the pentatonic is a deliberate reference to Chinese pentatonic music.  Further, I often imagine the underlying forearm clusters as a laundry machine in spin cycle, a sort of accompaniment to the conversation, driving it behind the scenes. 6

Performance suggestions
Take special care with the forearm clusters.  Make sure you are not playing predominantly "fist" notes (bottom half of the cluster) or "elbow" notes (on the top half of the cluster).

AUDIO: mostly fist - mostly elbow - as written

Experiment with tilting your arm towards the sound board to reach more of the middle cluster notes.  For more suggestions, see forearm clusters.

"Advertisement...I think the title explains itself.  The piece might be said to be a satire on repetitious advertisement of a raucous nature." 7 Of course, Cowell had no idea how raucous advertising would become.  Yet, even at the turn of the 20th century, advertising was quite prominent.   In a New York Times editorial of 1904 entitled, "Subway Station Advertising; Methods Suggested for Doing Away with It," the author gives instructions on how to rid the subways of advertising, calling it, "unsightly and dangerous." 8

Ex. 3) Hosiery ad from Dec. 1917       Ex. 4) Victrola ad from Dec. 1911

Performance suggestions
The first two measures feature a disappearing chordA disappearing chord occurs when a performer first plays a chord and then releases it, one note at a time.  As the sounds fades away more slowly than if the chord was to be released all at once, the effect is that of a chord disappearing.  In Advertisement, one depresses the notes in the chord in the same manner you release them, one by one.  Remember that the rhythm of the release notes should be as quick as the depressed notes.  Try giving a little accent on each of the notes in m. 1, so that the released notes are more audible. The notes in mm. 1 could also be notated as follows:

Ex. 5) Advertisement, m. 1, rewritten

Ex. 6) In mm. 4-20 of Advertisement, Cowell uses written-out clusters, that is, each note of the cluster is notated,

rather than masses of sound denoted by outer notes.

The written out clusters, such as those in Ex. 6 take a little patience to sight-read the first few times, but they get much easier quickly.  Notice that many of the clusters move chromatically.

From the beginning of p. 2, the LH clusters act as a twisted sort of waltz.  I like to think of this as the dance of advertising executives trying to get us to purchase their products.  Accentuate the down-up-up gesture of a waltz so it may be heard under the RH. (AUDIO)

Some of the rhythms on pages two and three are difficult.  Below are composite rhythms for mm. 29-30, 34-35, and 41-45.  Also see the two-stave versions (reduced from three staves) for mm. 29-30 and 34-35.  First practice these rhythms away from the keyboard.  Try tapping the rhythms on your lap with the respective hands. 

A composite rhythm shows all of the beats sounded in a given length of time.  In other words, if one could only hear the combined rhythm of a passage (excluding pitch, ties, duplications) this is what we would hear.

      Ex. 7) Composite rhythm mm. 29-30


Ex. 8) Two-stave version of mm. 29-30

      Ex. 9) Composite rhythm of mm. 34-35


Ex. 10) Two-stave version of mm. 34-35

Ex. 11) Composite rhythm mm. 41-45

In the final Presto section, be precise with your cascading fist clusters.  Either aim for all the top RH notes (A-sharp, G-sharp, F-sharp, D-sharp, C-sharp, repeat) or the bottom LH notes (F-E-D-B-A, repeat).  For more information, see fist clusters.

In Cowell's words, "Antinomy is a set of variations based on the oldest theme that I can remember composing when I was 11 years old, but Antinomy was written in about 1914 and it is an experiment in using this rather modal diatonic tune in a set of rather, oh shall we say, dissonant variations, some of them are with secundal chords then called tone clusters, and this rises to a pitch so that in the final variation, both of my forearms play every tone they can possibly reach in the chromatic scale, all at the same time, and as loudly as possible sometimes using scales and arpeggios with 16th and 32nd tones and it was about this that the London Times, which is always right, said that this was the world's loudest piano music and that I was the world's loudest pianist, but of course that was a lot of years ago and I don't suppose I am now." 9

Merriam Webster gives two definitions for the word “antinomy,” “1) a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles, and 2) a fundamental and apparently unresolvable conflict or contradiction.” 10 While the word is not in frequent use today, it does figure prominently into the world of academic philosophy, particularly Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. 11 Cowell was very well read, having achieved an adult reading level by the age of eight, 12 but there is no current evidence pointing this piece to Kant or any other prominent scholar.  Perhaps we can take the word literally.  If an antinomy is a contradiction, maybe Cowell meant the work to represent simply that.  There are many contradictions to be found, such as the inherent contradictions between playing “traditional” music on the keyboard and the more “experimental” music of his tone clusters.

Performance suggestions
Musically speaking, Antinomy is one of the most self-explanatory pieces in the set.  Primarily, it requires a certain amount of physical stamina from the performer.

In m. 1, the low clusters are not easy to play smoothly and pp.  As with any cluster music, be sure to spend some time with the piano you will use in performance to help find the best smooth sound. Start with your arms on the keys for more control.

Notice that the Moderato section has a constant sixteenth note pulse in the bottom of the RH.  Even in mm. 42-44, the tied notes are only meant for the outer octaves.  The inner notes should be repeated. 

In sections marked "4" (mm. 45-48, 69-76), you must play clusters and separate pitches in one hand.  (Also see Dynamic Motion and The Voice of Lir).  Practice each line separately, but position your hand as if you were going to play both the single notes and the clusters an octave below.  Accent the top notes so that we can hear them over the clusters. 

Just as in Dynamic Motion, take special care when playing very large clusters that include both black and white keys, such as in mm. 81-end.  I tend to play mostly white keys in this case as the combination of black and white leads to more bruises.  In such a dense passage it is most important to aim for clean cluster sound, focusing on the outer note accuracy as well as giving clarity to the rhythmic gestures.  Also see clusters.

Timetable is an enigmatic piece, missing the programmatic features and/or the visual spectacles of the other works in this set.   While in Dynamic Motion and the other encores, the performer often has to pull the melody out of the clusters; here the melody is a prominent feature.  The melodic line is very transparent and chromatic, often descending in a chromatic scale (for example, the D down to A-flat in mm. 7-8) or rotating around it (C-sharp-G (without the F-sharp) in mm. 10-11).  Further, Cowell often left Timetable off of programs that included others of the Dynamic Motion set and we have practically no first-hand information about the work.  Did Cowell not like the piece?  Did he find it a failed attempt at a different style? 

The title is puzzling.  A timetable suggests something rigid and unflexible, but this piece is fairly free.  Perhaps the repeating LH eighth-note clusters in the B section are meant to convey something more regular.  Yet, I doubt anyone listening to this piece, without knowledge of the title, would guess the name of this work.  Michael Hicks states, "Cowell occasionally titled works after common objects, especially paper ones (Advertisement, Timetable, Telegram).” 13 Beyond that, I have seen no other direct mention of the piece in Cowell literature. There is no note of it in Manion’s book, “Writings about Henry Cowell” and the Lichtenwanger includes nothing more than a very basic annotation.  It is also not on any of Cowell’s recordings (with the composer at the piano).  Perhaps we can take a hint from the lack of information on this work and assume that it was not one of Cowell’s favorites.

Performance suggestions
Many of the difficult features in this piece have been tackled by the previous works.  If your question is not answered here, please look to the previous suggestions for general help.

The opening silent notes should be prepared in advance just as in Dynamic Motion.

The melody should be your focus.  It is hard to pick out, but in most passages, Cowell helps by using specific stemming.

The quiet LH clusters, particularly in the A sections, are more difficult than the bombastic clusters of other encores.  Just as in the beginning of Antinomy, you must work with the piano to find the cleanest sound. 

On the second page, not all of the LH cluster durations are possible.  Use the pedal to get as close to Cowell's notation as possible.

Some of the notation in the RH is confusing.  Below are rewritten versions of measures 21, 26, 28, 29 and 34.  The examples show only newly sounded pitches.  Ties are generally excluded.

ORIGINAL:                      REWRITTEN:

Ex. 12) m. 21:

Ex. 13) m. 26:

Ex. 14) m. 28:

Ex. 15) m. 29:

Ex. 16) m. 34:

(includes end of m. 33)

The rest in m. 39 makes for a long silence.  Give a little accent on the last cluster in m. 38 so that the silent RH pitches will ring a little longer.  Be sure to hear the RH through from m. 36 (the A-flat) to the entrance in m. 40 (the G).

(top)There is some discrepancy as to when Cowell wrote these pieces (see table below). 

  CD/Licht/Hicks a* AMP ed., 1982** Hicks b* Hicks c*
DM Nov 1916 ----- 1914 1914
WT Nov 1917 ----- 1914 ca. 1915
AC Nov 1917 ----- 1914 ca. 1914
Adv Nov 1917 1914, rev. 1959 1914 ca. 1914
Ant Dec 1917 ----- ----- ca. 1914
Dec 1917 1914-1915 ----- -----

*CD refers to Compository Dates that Cowell recorded in a notebook.  "Licht" refers to the detailed catalog of Cowell's works (see below).  Hicks a, b, and c, refers to the table listed in Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell, Bohemian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 80. 
**This refers to Henry Cowell, Piano Music: Volume Two (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1982), 27-46.

         13. Hicks, 167.