Composer and pianist Henry Cowell, born in California 100 years ago, didn’t just break the rules–he wrote new ones. He forever broadened the role of the piano, treating it as an instrument whose strings could be strummed and plucked as well as struck. He encouraged performers to improvise on his scores, some of which were notated in a system he devised himself. He embraced the musical traditions of other lands and was among the first in the West to incorporate Asian instruments into a European mix. And he questioned the very idea of what music ought to be, not only through his works but in provocative writings, championing advances ranging from tone clusters to chance music. An indefatigable experimentalist in the mold of Charles Ives (who became a close friend), Cowell shunned the mainstream and vice versa; his influence comes to us through later American freethinkers, from Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch to Cowell’s pupils Lou Harrison and John Cage. This partial retrospective of Cowell’s chamber works, organized by Northwestern music theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson, barely scratches the surface of his thick catalog, but it does offer enough pivotal examples to give the flavor of the trailblazer’s often evolving aesthetic. Tides of Manaunaun, a piano piece he composed in 1917 at age 20, is one of his earliest uses of clusters. Three later pieces from the same period, most notably Aeolian Harp, trace the origins of the prepared piano. Cowell’s Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano (1962), written three years before he died, is almost a career summary in itself. But most indicative of Cowell’s political and personal anguish are the Three Anti-Modernist Songs–“A Sharp Where You’d Expect a Natural,” “Hark! From the Pit a Fearsome Sound,” and “Who Wrote This Fiendish Rite of Spring?”–which he wrote in the 40s while serving time in San Quentin for sodomizing a 17-year-old boy. (The evidence that put him there was later found to be false, and he was fully pardoned.) The words are taken from reviews lambasting Stravinsky and Wagner, and there’s no mistaking with whom Cowell identifies. Most of the performers in this concert–soprano Katrina Lenk and pianist Jennifer Crane, among others–are Northwestern grad students specializing in new music. Holm-Hudson also performs, and will talk about Cowell’s life at 7 PM, half an hour before the concert begins. Thursday, December 4, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 South Campus Dr., Evanston; 847-491-5441 or 847-467-4000. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Holm-Hudson photo by Marc PoKempner; Jennifer Crane photo by Marc PoKempner.