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Fall 2014

Part Concert, Part Séance

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Charlie Haas

Henry Cowell at San Quentin,
a concert by Sarah Cahill and
the Ives Quartet.
San Quentin, California,
January 24, 2014.

Sarah Cahill, whose piano playing is an ideal voice for many modern composers, is also an inspired combiner of music and physical settings. Every summer solstice she produces “Garden of Memory,” a festival where dozens of musicians play simultaneously in the halls and niches of an Oakland columbarium. Listeners wander from a guitar–laptop duet to a wordless improvising soprano to a Nino Rota cover orchestra. The building’s light, acoustics, and hundreds of urns of ashes set the music hovering in the slowest twilight of the year.

A few years ago Cahill thought of an even more acute pairing: a concert at San Quentin State Prison featuring music by Henry Cowell, the influential composer who was sentenced to fifteen years there in 1936 on a “morals charge” as the result of one act of oral sex with a seventeen-year-old boy. In the four years before he was paroled, Cowell composed sixty pieces, taught music courses to his fellow inmates, wrote a book called The Nature of Melody and led the prison band, upgrading their repertoire from “Time on My Hands” to Verdi and Wagner.

When Cowell was a boy, his single mother was too poor to afford a piano, so “For one hour every day I practiced in my mind,” he wrote in How and Why I Compose. “I sat down at the desk and practiced listening…to cultivate my mind to hear sounds which became more and more complicated as time went on.” At San Quentin he was allowed only an hour a week at a piano but he began to write music in his head again; sometimes he would jerk around to the rhythms while he worked in the prison jute mill, till the guards made him stop. He wrote in a letter: “You asked whether the prisoners were of the type portrayed in the movies—I must frankly say that I haven’t seen one! On the surface, they impress one as being a rather rough and ready, good-natured group, something like army men. It is only when one becomes better acquainted with them, that their lack of feeling for ethical behavior becomes evident... I cannot convey to you how extraordinary is the experience of being thrown in with such a motley crew...the whole thing is really an experience which, if not too protracted, one would not wish to have missed.”

It’s a relief, reading Joel Sachs’s biography, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music, to learn that Cowell’s prison years went as peacefully as they did. As an adolescent he was abstracted, asocial, and beaten up frequently. As a young man in the 1910s, he heard unfamiliar music in the air and was surprised that the people around him didn’t hear it too. Of the music he composed on purpose, he wrote that “a lot of new kinds of notes will have to be invented to write this down, as it is impossible, with our present limited supply.” To play the tone clusters in his compositions, he struck the piano keys with his elbows and forearms, or scraped and plucked the strings while leaning over the piano or kneeling under it.

His early concerts were fun for the critics. “One piano sounded like six of them,” a reviewer wrote in 1922. “Cowell played one of his amazing compositions which he calls Dynamic Motion. At the finish of it three women lay in a dead faint in the aisle and no less than ten men had refreshed themselves from the left hip.”

Cowell kept composing and touring, but put as much energy into advancing his contemporaries’ careers as his own. He taught the young John Cage and Lou Harrison, wrote the modern composing handbook New Musical Resources, produced concerts, and started a magazine of scores, New Music Quarterly (“If it will sell, we won’t accept it”).

Sarah Cahill has been playing Cowell’s music since the 1980s. “There’s a deeply spiritual element to his music that I connect with,” she says. “He’s thought of as a naive composer, who might combine a simple Irish folk tune with these effects like chord clusters, but in fact he uses that simplicity as a veneer for something much deeper, a sort of exuberant resonance.” She thought of the San Quentin concert because “I wanted to honor him. To devote himself to other composers, and then to be put in this completely insane miscarriage of justice—and he wrote some really significant music when he was there. Willie Winant, the percussionist, showed me the score to the Chaconne and I said, ‘He wrote that at San Quentin, didn’t he?’ and Willie said, ‘Yes, he wrote that in 1937.’ There’s something about his handwriting when he was at San Quentin. I don’t know what it is exactly, but you can tell.”

Cahill is slight and pale, but any impression of delicacy vanishes when she talks about modern composers, plays their work (listen to her albums Typical Music and A Sweeter Music), or organizes a project. In the case of the Cowell concert, she kept after the prison’s arts coordinators for more than two years. “I said, ‘Here’s this composer who was at San Quentin and I want to come play his music there.’ There was no response and I just kept sending emails and proposals and packages and CDs, and finally they said, ‘Okay, let’s make a date.’”

Along the way, she visited the prison several times. Her husband, the video artist John Sanborn, arranged to shoot the concert but wasn’t allowed to bring his own crew or equipment. “They said, ‘Absolutely not, but there’s an inmate crew, because there’s a radio and video program,’” Sanborn reports,

and you think, “Okay, that’s enlightened, that’s wonderful.” I asked when I could meet with them and they said, “Probably the morning of the concert, because they’re prisoners.” I said, “I’d really like to talk to them beforehand,” and after weeks of correspondence they said, “Okay, you can come in and meet the head of the video crew.”

I sit down with the head of the camera crew and in thirty seconds we’re two video guys, talking about hard drives, com-pression codecs, and recording media. We walk through the chapel and I draw the camera setups and try to give it to him, and he says, “If you hand me anything, I go in the hole.”

We get closer to the day of the concert, and I realize nobody’s really producing this thing—nobody’s put together a run-through, nobody’s talked to the sound guy. We get there early. It’s an hour before the concert and there’s nothing. I find the sound guy, who’s also a prisoner, and walk him through it. I write down the order, so-and-so’s going to talk, so-and-so’s going to play. I set up the camera crew’s shots, and they’re really nervous—there’s this outside director, there’s this redhead who’s gonna play the piano, they have no idea what Henry Cowell sounds like, and I said, “Just let it go. Get into the moment. You’re not gonna do anything wrong.”

It’s remarkable that a piano showed up and got installed and a quartet got in there. And the prisoners—you could see that the performance, the music, the whole thing blew them away. But it’s a miracle that it happened.

“I went to a keyboard class,” Cahill says, “which was sort of sad because they had one short keyboard, like a couple of octaves, for a class of maybe a dozen men. But the interesting thing to me was that I was advised not to mention that Cowell’s sentence was for oral sex, because homosexuality is sort of a delicate issue in the prisons and because a woman shouldn’t necessarily say the words ‘oral sex’ to a large group of men behind bars. So we decided I’d just say ‘a morals charge.’ But I spoke to the keyboard class, and we asked for questions after the performances, and none of the inmates said, ‘What was he in for?’ They said, ‘How does he notate the chord clusters? Show us the scores.’ That was tremendous to me.”

San Quentin sits on a point in San Francisco Bay, at the foot of the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge. From the water it’s a monolith, but from inside the gate it’s a massing of architectures, their façades offset to make a storybook street: old hotel, state college, dark castle. Visitors, vetted weeks in advance, go through a battery of ID checks and fingerprinting to the Protestant chapel.

The inmates who come for the music wear their denim uniforms with the occasional yarmulke or Buddhist prayer beads, and mill around chatting with visitors—like Cowell’s “rough and ready” men, but with a hint of community college. The program starts with prisoners from the keyboard class playing pieces they’ve chosen: a jazz solo, a torch standard, an original about sin and reform. One of the singers says, “My name is Abject Fear,” starts his piece, and freezes up. A few inmates in the audience call out, “Beautiful.” He goes on.

What Cahill and the Ives Quartet do for the next hour or two is part concert, part séance. The prison pieces show off the range in Cowell’s music, from spikiness to deep sentiment—you can hear his influence in Bartók and in Ryuichi Sakamoto—and it’s hard to imagine it meaning more than it does in this cinder-block room, with its folding chairs and EXCUSE ME WHILE I GET MY PRAISE ON posters.

Chaconne streams forward as if it’s breathlessly telling secrets. Celtic Set looks yearning toward the water. Hilarious Curtain Opener, written in 1939 for a Seattle dance production, is as blithe as its title, with an Impres-sionist shimmer and a jauntiness that reasserts itself at any hint of discord. It’s a wonder for what can’t be heard in it: three years in prison and the prospect of twelve more. What’s there is eccentricity as armor.

The centerpiece is Rhythmicana, written here in 1938 and painfully alive when Cahill plays it. The first movement is turmoil, the right and left hands overriding each other, the past bleeding. The second movement is a little more peaceful but still sleepless. The Abject Fear man stares into the sound. Finally, in the third movement, the hands come together, delivered into the safety of a chiming melody. We imagine Cowell imagining going home. The room lets its breath out.

“I can’t help but think of the men there as sort of his descendants,” Cahill said weeks later. “Maybe that’s a kind of Berkeley liberal thing to say, like ‘Oh, those poor men, I just want to take them home and give them hot cocoa and they’ll be fine. They’re really not so bad, they’re all reformed.’ Yeah. But it was sort of revelatory to go there and get to know some of them, and it was hard to leave. A man would come up to me and talk about being a changed person after working in the arts programs. I saw them do The Merchant of Venice and it was really moving—that scene where Shylock says, ‘Am I not a man? If you cut me will I not bleed?’ They talked about it afterwards, how a lot of the inmates are seen as subhuman by society, so it’s very real to them. One of them said, ‘Taking responsibility for what I did, not blaming my parents or society or my neighborhood or my friends, but looking into my soul—even staring down the barrel of an AK-47 was not as scary as just looking into my own soul.’ But then John was interviewing some of them on video, and one man said that kind of thing, and when he left one of the crew members sort of rolled his eyes and said, ‘He’s just rehearsing for his parole hearing.’”

Charlie Haas, author of The Enthusiast, is working on a new novel.

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