Cult Music


Twentieth century musical composition contains many unique and cultic personalities. Lili Boulanger, Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch and Edgard Varèse all have devoted and/or fanatical followers.

Lili Boulanger was the younger sister of the world-renowned Nadia Boulanger. Lili, who was born in Paris in 1893 and died in 1918 at the age of twenty-four, was known as the “first important woman composer in history”. She produced some of the most beautiful and haunting music of the first decade of this century. In 1913, at the age of nineteen, Boulanger won the coveted “Primier Grand Prix de Rome,” (the first woman to do so). She composed a variety of works including the opera  “La Princesse Malaine,” which was left incomplete at her death. Her cult status can be confirmed by hearing the 1960 Everest L.P. # 6059, entitled “Works of Lili Boulanger,” conducted by Igor Markevitch.

Henry Cowell was born in Menlo Park California in 1897 and died in 1965.  He was one of the great pioneers of experimental musical composition. Like Boulanger, he was a child prodigy: As early as 1911 his radical innovations, such as the use of complex rhythms and dissonance, had begun to appear in such works as “Tides of Manaunaum,” which predates Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” by two years. Cowell’s configurations of piano keys struck with the fist or forearm were called “tone clusters” and were first performed in San Francisco in 1912. His most famous student was probably John Cage, who adopted some of Cowell’s techniques in his own compositions for prepared piano. Henry Cowell said, “I was influenced by Ives, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and lots of others before I ever heard of them.” His cult status was attained by not following any “schools,” and by his fearless search for pure originality. His 1951 Circle L.P. # L-51-101 “The Piano music of Henry Cowell,” on which Cowell performs his own compositions, is VERY hard to find.

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912 [and died in 1997]. A former jazz musician, Nancarrow is best known for his compositions for player piano. Nancarrow constructed a machine that allowed him to compose on fresh piano rolls, punching the notes in one at a time. It sometimes took him a year to complete a composition with only a five-minute duration. Nancarrow’s music has its foundation in the improvisational quality found in jazz and the barrelhouse and ragtime syncopated styles of piano playing. His first compositions were a type of jazz-blues reflection, somehow still related to human piano playing. His later works have been called “superhuman.” Conlon Nancarrow has lived in Mexico since 1940, and his distance from the scene has kept his music fresh, unaffected by trends and fashion.  Nancarrow’s music can be found still on vinyl: look for “The Complete Studies for Player Piano” Volume 1and 2 on Arch Records for a “cultaural” experience.

Harry Partch’s music has been called the “first truly American music since the American Indian.” Partch was born in 1901 in Oakland California, and died in 1974. He was a visionary working on the extreme edge of the accepted musical landscape. Partch is a favorite with many rhythmically oriented composers. His ideas can be found, smoothed out and processed, in the works of such “minimalist” composers as Terry Riley and Philip Glass, but his rhythmical ideas, and concern for a theatrically based musical ritual are probably more accurately located in Punk Rock. Harry Partch developed his own unique musical language based on a system of tonalities called Monophony, which “does not present any tone as any specific tonality…” He invented his own musical instruments to play these non-specific tonalities, with names such as “Zymo-xyl” and “Quadrangularis Reversum.” Try to find his Columbia L.P. # MS 7207, entitled “The world of Harry Partch,” and listen to the unusual sounds you have been missing.

Edgard Varèse was born in 1883 in Paris and died in 1965. Here we have a composer of such cult status that it is impossible to calculate his influence. In the field of percussive composition, electronic music and musique concreté, he is considered the major innovator. Even today with the current interest in “electronica,” we are hearing nothing that Varèse did not hear before. His early training in engineering and mathematics allowed him the understanding to produce sounds seemingly independent of one another. He was one of the first to work with magnetic tape, creating sounds artificially. His 1950 EMS #401 L.P., entitled “Complete works of Edgar Varèse” Volume 1, is quite hard to come by. The same disc, numbered and pressed in red vinyl, is almost impossible to find.

These five composers rejected the played-out forms of musical composition (late romantic, serialism, and twelve-tone) in vogue during the first decades of this century. Exploring new sound architectures and techniques of composition, they approached music non-manneristically and with a true visionary spirit.

Mark Dagley

Originally published in VERY issue #11, 1998