Henry Cowell – The Process of Musical Creation

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þriðjudagur, 29 janúar 2008

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Henry Cowell – The Process of Musical Creation

The American Journal of Psychology, April 1926

There are few thingsmore mysterious to the non-musician than
the process of musical creation. I rarely pass more than a few
days that someone does not ask how I work: “Does it just
come to you,” people usually ask, “or do you work it out by

A popular. . misconception is that in order to be inspired a
composition must have been improvised or played on the in-
strument for which it was written, and that when a composer
writes music at his desk, without recourse to his instrument, he
does so by means of some cut-and-dried formula or purely
intellectual process. I have often wondered how a composer
relying thus on improvisation is expected to write an orchestral
work, when he could, at best, play only one instrument at a
time out of the hundred or more in a symphony orchestra!
The misconception is doubtless caused by a lack of apprecia-
tion of the fact that the most perfect instrument in the world
is the composer’s mind. Every conceivable tone-quality and
beauty of nuance, every harmony and disharmony, or any num-
ber of simultaneous melodies can be heard at will by the trained
composer; he can hear not only the sound of any instrument or
combination of instruments, but also an almost infinite number
of sounds which cannot as yet be produced on any instrument.
Each composer, of course, has his own peculiar mental
processes and way of working, yet I believe that in order to com-
pose seriously he must have the type of mind that is capable of
thinking as accurately in terms of sound as a literary author
might think in terms of words.

In this regard one must distinguish between a composer
and a performer who writes occasionally; for while the former is
an indubitable rarity, nearly all professional instrumentalists
write pieces once in a while, some of which contain much charm.
There is, however, a great difference of quality between the work
of a composer and that of a performer. I have never seen a
performer who had developed the particular type of musical
imagination described above, although many good performers
have it to some degree.

It is doubtful whether any composer can have a well-working
‘(sound-mind” without going through a rigorous process of self-
training to make it so. I will give as an example my own develop-
ment; several other composers have told me they went through
a similar progress.

As a child I was compelled to make my mind into a musical
instrument because between the ages of eight and fourteen
years I had no other, yet desired strongly to hear music fre-
quently. I could not attend enough concerts to satisfy the
craving for music, so I formed the habit, when I did attend them,
of deliberately rehearsing the compositions I heard and liked,
in order that I might play them over mentally whenever I
chose. At first the rehearsal was very imperfect. I could only
hear the melody and a mere snatch of the harmony, and had to
make great effort to hear the right tone-quality. I would try,
for instance, to hear a violin tone, but unless I worked hard to
keep a grip on it, it would shade off into something indeter-

No sooner did I begin this self-training than I had at times
curious experiences of having glorious sounds leap unexpectedly
into my mind-original melodies and complete harmonies such
as I could not conjure forth at will, and exalted qualities of tone
such as I had never heard nor before imagined. I had at first
not the slightest control over what was being played in my mind
at these times; I could not bring the music about at will, nor
could I capture the material sufficiently to write it down. Per-
haps these experiences constituted what is known as an “in-

I believe, had I let well enough alone and remained passive,
that the state of being subject to these occasional musical
visitations would have remained, and that I would now be one
of those who have to “wait for an inspiration.” But I was
intensely curious concerning the experiences and strove con-
stantly to gain some sort of control over them, and finally found
that by an almost super-human effort I could bring one of them
about. I practiced doing this until I became able to produce
them with ease. It was not until then that I began to develop
some slight control over the musical materials. At first able to
control only a note or two during a musical flow lasting perhaps
half an hour, I became able, by constant attempt, to produce
more and more readily whatever melodies and harmonies and
tone-qualities I desired, without altering the nature of the flow
of sounds. I practiced directing the flow into the channels of the
sounds of a few instruments at a time, until I could conjure
their sounds perfectly at will.

As soon as I could control which sounds I should hear, and
turn on a flow of them at will, I was able, by virtue of studying
notation, to write down the thought, after going over it until it
was thoroughly memorized. I have never tried to put down an
idea until I have rehearsed it mentally so many times that it is
impossible to forget the second part while writing down the first.
I shall never forget the disappointment I experienced when
I first wrote down a composition and played it. Could it be
that this rather uninteresting collection of sounds was the same
as the theme that sounded so glorious in my mind? I rehearsed
it all carefully; yes, it was the same harmony and melody, but
most of the indescribable flowing richness had been lost by the
imperfect playing of it on the imperfect instrument which all
instruments are. Since then I have becomed resigned to the
fact that no player can play as perfectly as the composer’s
mind; that no other instrument is so rich and beautiful, and
that only about ten percent of the musical idea can be realized
even at the best performance.

I am able now to produce a flow of musical sounds at will,
and to control just what they shall be. I am therefore able to
work at any time, as the musical flow would continue in-
definitely if I did not shut it off when I have not the time to
work. The flow does not merely ramble on ambiguously, but
centers about a germinal theme, which it proceeds to enlarge
upon. I usually compose around a theme for several months
before it develops into its final form as written. Because of
devoting so much attention to finding the finest form beforehand,
by trying the initial idea over mentally in every conceivable
way, I rarely change a note after a composition is written.
Writing in form, I may add, is not a matter of pushing
certain sounds into an unyielding mold; crudities of form tend
to drop out unconsciously as further experience is gained. The
experience of being in the throes of musical creation is distinctly
an emotional one; there is a mere semblance of the intellectual
in being able to steer and govern the meteors of sound that leap
through the mind like volcanic fire, in a glory and fullness un-
imaginable except by those who have heard them.

The closest observation on my part has failed to reveal what
the exact relationship is, if there be one, between my musical
creations and the experiences which have preceded it, either
immediately or remotely. I can only say that the musical ideas
as they run through my mind seem to be an exact mirror of my
emotions of the moment, or of moments which I recall through

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