Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores

It Isn't It/ Scherzo


Sinister Resonance

Three Irish Legends








"Henry once came back from a Midwestern concert tour with a clipping from the advertisements section of a newspaper from Columbia, Missouri. It read: PIANO LESSONS: Plain, 50c. Crossing hands, $1." (Sidney Cowell)

It Isn’t It/Scherzo (1922)

This rarely mentioned work, written in 1922, showcases a variety of Cowell’s tone clusters and other innovations.  The score can be found in two locations: the New York Public Library (NYPL), which has a copy of the holograph score and in the Parisian magazine, transition, which first published the work in 1936. 1  

transition was founded by Eugene (1894-1952) and Marie Jolas (1893-1987), patrons of the arts (Eugene was a poet, and Marie a one-time music student) and parents of the composer Betsy Jolas (b. 1926). The journal ran from 1927 to 1938 and published works by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, including the first excerpts from Finnegan's Wake, and art by Picasso and Miro among others. 2

The manuscript bears the name, It Isn't It but the version in transition bears the title Scherzo. 3 The publication of Scherzo, in the Fall issue of transition in 1936, coincided with Cowell’s arrest and incarceration at San Quentin.  Perhaps we can cite this as a reason for the work’s lack of recognition.  Although I find the piece charming and a good demonstration of Cowell's cluster usage, others disagree.  Michael Hicks notes, "Cowell apparently learned that he could create whole works simply by transposing his basic cluster techniques into disparate registers and then juxtaposing them with more conventional passage work...[H]e tended to give such new works offhand titles, drawn from casual speech or jargon: It Isn't It, Conservative Estimate, Well? and Seven and One Fourth Pounds.” 4 In a review of a recital Cowell gave in Amsterdam in 1929, the author wrote, “Mr. Cowell of course played only his own compositions with the attractive names “Advertisement,” “Exultation,” “It Isn’t it.”  The latter seemed to me the only one which was properly chosen.” 5

Performance Suggestions
Cowell uses many of his trademark clusters in It Isn't It but does little to explain the performance practice in the score.  The only clue is contained in the handwritten footnote on the first page:

Ex. 1) It Isn’t It p. 1 (p. 141 in transition)

"*Solid lines indicate that all chromatic tones between the two outer limits given are to be played simultaneously. Owing to the size of such tone clusters, the flat of the hand or the entire forearm may be used to play them."

For other markings, such as the "X" or "+," first seen over the clusters in m. 4, Cowell gives no explanations.  Many of his published piano collections include an "Explanation of Symbols" page including the edition published by Breitkopf and Haertel in 1922. 6 Perhaps Cowell assumed that those interested in his music could reference that edition, which states, "The symbols X and + indicate the use of the fist.  When playing in this manner, the wrist should be relaxed, with the fist half-opened, not clenched tightly.  The tone quality produced by the fists is different from that produced by the fingers.  If desired, the melody tones may be brought out with the knuckles of the little finger in the playing of clusters." 7

The RH notes in m. 20 are difficult to read (Ex. 2) and I have interpreted them as follows (Ex. 3):

Ex. 2) It Isn’t It, m. 20 (both staves are in treble clef)

Ex. 3) It Isn’t It, m. 20

In mm. 19-20, RH, first beat: When playing the cluster, position your fingers so that you can catch the subsequent chord.  Take special care to make the entire chord sound, as it is easy to accent one part of the hand or the other, just as with forearm clusters. 

In mm. 34-6:  Use fingers to roll the LH chords in mm. 34-35 and forearms in m. 36.  For more information on rolled or arpeggiated clusters, see clusters or Three Irish Legends

In m. 33, it is peculiar that Cowell does not notate the LH fifths as clusters as he does with the LH fifths in mm. 27, 31, 34 and 35.  In my opinion, this is an oversight of Cowell and I choose to play these as clusters also.

In m. 58, RH, there is a puzzling marking: a natural sign coupled with an “o” or “D”.  It is difficult to see, but the RH notes in mm. 58-61 have diamond heads.

Ex. 4) It Isn’t It, m. 58

The diamond heads are meant to mimic a string harmonic marking and have come to signify the following technique: The performer silently depresses the keys so that the written pitches will not be heard.  Instead, as a result of the depressed keys, the performer will  bring out the overtones of the given pitches.  This notation is adapted from the notation of harmonics for string instruments, already standard practice for over a century.  It is misleading as the pianist is not producing harmonics on the keyboard strings, but is producing overtone pitches.  Harmonics are produced by touching the string at a prescribed length, thereby shortening the string and producing a different pitch when the key is depressed.  It is a different piano technique requiring the use of the inside of the piano.  Cowell used this technique notably in his piece, Sinister Resonance.

In mm. 58, LH, Cowell asks the pianist to hold over the notes B-C-E-G from the cluster in the previous measure, even though the previous cluster does not include this B.  It is easiest to just include the B in the LH cluster of m. 57 so that it may carry over to the next measure.  One could also choose to silently depress the B in m. 58 as the other notes of the cluster from m. 57 are released (of course, excluding the C, E and G).  Further, in m. 58 it is not really possible to hold the LH chord for three beats.  You must let go of it in order to play the RH chord in m. 58.  Also, the LH quarter rest is not possible.

In m. 59, there is a missing bass clef in the LH part.

In m. 62, the B-C-E-G are held over just as the LH part in m. 58.
Just as the piece starts in a flourish, be sure not to ritard at the end.

Approximate tempi suggestions:
            Poco Piu Mosso  

Also see: forearm clusters, arpeggiated clusters, palm clusters


         1. The following website, http://www.optosbooks.com/cpCommerce/product.php?p=1611, lists the other entries in this transition issue:

-Cover by Joan Miró (1893-1983), the Spanish surrealist
-The opening chapter of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”
-Two works Dylan Thomas: Poem and the short story “The Mouse and the Woman”
-Two plates by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Rho-Transparent 50 and Fotogramme)
-Works by Piet Mondrian, Cesar Domela, Constantin Brancusi, Paul Klee, and Henri
-Photographs by M.A Root, Matthew B. Brady, Francis Bruguiere, and Henri Cartier-
-A study of the Dada movement by Hugo Ball
-An exchange of essays about painting and reality, written by Louis Aragon, Fernand
   Léger and Le Corbusier
-Stills from Paul Strand’s film “Redes”
-A study by Siegfried Giedion of the pioneering ferro-concrete bridges by Swiss
   engineer Robert Maillart.

         6. Lichtenwanger, 49.