In Conversation with Michael Hicks

Michael Hicks

An interview with the author of Henry Cowell, Bohemian

AMANDA MACBLANE: You have quite a diverse range of scholarship that you’ve been working on over the past several years. I noticed your first books were about Mormonism and music and sixties rock. So what led you to Henry Cowell?

MICHAEL HICKS: Well, I think it’s an interesting story. [laughs] First of all, I grew up right near Stanford, his environs. We actually heard about Henry Cowell in grade school, learning about local history. The name came up, not much about him beyond that. So I knew of him from the area and I, of course, became acquainted with his music later on, but what happened that led to the book was that I was working on an article that was in American Music. I was researching John Cage and his studies with Schoenberg, and I was at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. I was looking at various files related to Cage and I thought, well, let me look at the Cowell file. And all there was in the Cowell file was a letter of recommendation from Schoenberg about Henry Cowell, and it written on the back of it was: “Written to help Henry Cowell get out of prison.” I had never heard that he had been in prison, and so that was what got me started on trying to understand that story. Eventually, I got the court records and I talked to the prosecuting attorney, so I ended up writing an article about Cowell in prison. But the more I went into that, the more things came up in his life that were fascinating, and so I sort of left Cage behind and really got into Cowell’s life.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What made you focus on the early part of his life?

MICHAEL HICKS: All the things for which he’s best known really come from that early part and, in some ways, I was thinking along the lines of “the child is father to the man,” and it seemed to me that there was a lot to know and understand about him from the formative years. And those were the years that I felt were the least understood in some ways, and most neglected, because the prison experience had kind of obscured them, and he went as far from his California origins—at least the environment in which he grew up—as he could possibly get geographically and, to some extent, temperamentally and professionally. And I just felt that there was something about that part of California that was not really perceived by people on the East Coast, if I could put it that way. There’s just things that are peculiar to that environment that I felt I understood having grown up there that I could relate to and think about and write about that I couldn’t with respect to his post-prison years that he spent primarily in New York.

AMANDA MACBLANE: In a lot of ways, not only is it a biography of the early years of Henry Cowell’s life but also it seems to be a biography of that area of the country.


AMANDA MACBLANE: I feel that I learned not only so much about Henry Cowell, but also about this scene that was going on in the Bay Area and you’re right. Considering so many of our music schools are on the East Coast, it never really gets explained very well.

MICHAEL HICKS: I had a colleague who said, “I felt through a lot of this book that I was reading about Michael Hicks as much as Henry Cowell,” and I actually liked that comment because I think all writing is to some extent autobiographical, and I did want to convey some of the flavor that I grew up with in that area and the sociology of it all There are many people that will refer to California as though it were an adjective instead of a noun, and I think that that’s true. I think that people from California, and certainly from that area of California, feel that and want to convey it. My mother is from that area—well, not from that area, but from Southern California, and my grandmother too. There’s a whole family history, I guess. So yeah, the cultural side of it just naturally came through.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I know in your introduction you state pretty firmly that the last thing you wanted to do was write a posthumous autobiography of Henry Cowell, and I feel like a lot of biographies of composers I’ve read really do rely heavily on the materials that the composer has written. What I really enjoyed about this book is you try to get so many different perspectives on Cowell, not just how he sees himself—which the book clearly points out was not how everyone else saw him. What do you think were some of the most surprising things you found out about Henry Cowell through this approach?

MICHAEL HICKS: It’s difficult to say because I was really reading these things and researching for a long, long period of time, and, as you suggest, I didn’t really have access to a lot of his own thoughts, although he certainly wrote lots of letters to other people. All of the initial surprises had to do with the prison years and his life related to the trial, the state of sexual prosecution in California and particularly in the Bay Area of California. That was all surprising because it seems like just the opposite of the leniency that one would expect. But I think the thing that surprised me the most was that people and critics throughout his career, pretty much said a lot of the same things that I say about him and that Joscelyn Godwin said about him: that his music was very traditional in lots of its ideas. And the idea I was interested in was the idea that was articulated maybe best by Charles Seeger: that at a certain point Cowell wasn’t really interested in being a composer but in writing notes, that that was almost therapeutic for him in some way or there was a need just to be writing and getting ideas out there. But he never reached the level of refinement that many of his students and those that he inspired did through the years. So he was full of ideas. He got them out as fast as he could, but the actual musical results didn’t get the revision or refinement or development—that’s the word used most often, that the ideas are reiterated and slightly varied and so on within a piece. But it surprised me that people said that about his music from his first recital onward, and that seemed perceptive to me.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I get the feeling that it was exactly that unrefined quality that allowed people to connect to his music, which even by today’s standards can be very difficult. In many ways, had he been more refined, had he grown up somewhere where he had conservatory training, the music would probably never have come out the way it did. And secondly, I don’t think people may have felt as comfortable as they did hearing it and reacting to it if they felt that it was something above them.

MICHAEL HICKS: I agree with you. He was so direct and so spontaneous that it communicated to diverse groups of people. The earthiness and—I don’t want to say crudeness—but the matter-of-factness of his life and the almost blue-collar circles that he traveled in sometimes comes through in the music. So I do think that a lot of people relate to it in the music and I think that’s why his music really lives today with a lot of people. I’ve sent some of Cowell’s music to essentially rock-oriented writers and they just go wild over it. They just love it—the ones I’ve sent it to at least—because it speaks, it has that same sensibility, I think, that same directness, and, as you’re suggesting, unembellished quality to it. And so the “undeveloped-ness” of it really is an attractive aspect to a lot of listeners.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Especially because I do feel that people were afraid of much of what was created, particularly in the 20th century, because they were trying to listen for more than the music. They felt like they were missing something because it was so heady, so much about systems of thought and very intellectual. I feel like it turned a lot of people away, but with Cowell’s music there’s something really intuitive about it.

MICHAEL HICKS: Well, I think too—and clusters are the embodiment of it—he loved sound, and people really respond to that because everybody knows that sound. Every child loves that sound, because it’s instinctively loveable, to splash your hands on the keys and hear that great ringing sound of all the pitches and the partials, and he didn’t feel that he needed to do a whole lot to that to present it to the world, other than to say, listen to the beauty of this sound.

AMANDA MACBLANE: He didn’t have to right an essay about it.

MICHAEL HICKS: Yeah, and people respond to that because it is, as I say, something that children have. He was very child-like in many ways and was not afraid to—and I think was one of his great triumphs and legacies—to say these things that are instinctive to children. They’re instinctive for a reason; there’s something of the essence of humanity in them. So I think clusters are the embodiment of that instinct.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I loved the story where the family gets the piano, this old piano that is never in tune. But he didn’t need anything that was perfect, because what he was striving for wasn’t anything that was perfect in a traditional sense.


AMANDA MACBLANE: Now you’d mentioned the archive a little while ago, and I know that you had handed the manuscript in right before the archive was opened. So when you went into the archive, how did that change your perspective on what you’d just completed?

MICHAEL HICKS: As I say in the “Introduction,” a lot of it just confirmed things that I had intuited. A lot of the things I saw in the archive gave me a lot more knowledge. For example, his affection for and specific attempts to emulate the music of Leo Ornstein was something that I gathered in sort of off-hand ways through other material, but it was so blatant in the archive, when reading his letters from New York and reading Lewis Terman’s account of having dinner with Cowell after he came back from New York in the fall of 1916. And then there were some things in the archive that actually stood some of the ideas I had on their heads, but just little factual matters and some dates and that sort of thing. But I think that really, for me, the wonderful thing in the archive was to just see his handwriting as a child, to be there up close with the holographic materials. You really can feel the spirit of the era, the spirit of the people involved. You know, reading things that were written from his father to him and so on, just to get a sense of the tenderness, the innocence that was so much a part of what we’ve already talked about and their approach to life in many ways. So it was really just feeling the vibes almost of that sort of contact that one can feel, even across broad distances and time, by being close to the things that actually came from someone’s hand.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Were you able to go in and refine the book at all after you’d gone into the archive?

MICHAEL HICKS: Oh, I did a lot! And there’s a lot of things cited in the book, again, especially letters from the early years, that gave wonderful quotations and just the perfect fact or example of something. And being able to tie some of these relationships in his life together in a more personal way, or reading the letters that the woman he said that he would marry, Frau Schmolke, and she certainly loved him, reading her letters to him and so on, and just seeing that side of his life, which was totally obscure in any other accounts.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I absolutely love the photographs in the middle of the book.


AMANDA MACBLANE: There’s such a massive collection of them. I especially love the one where he’s little with the violin. He’s so disheveled.

MICHAEL HICKS: Yeah. There are some amazing photographs. I do like the photographs and I like being the first one really to present a lot of those photos. And the cover photo I especially like, because it’s an image of Cowell that’s truer to who he really was in those days as opposed to what you usually see in the textbooks when he is usually much older and has that statesman-like look to him.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I love how his feet don’t touch the ground.

MICHAEL HICKS: He’s like a leprechaun almost in that picture. I’m glad you like those because I really, really enjoyed pulling those, and those of course are all from the archive. Well, almost all of them came from the archive.

AMANDA MACBLANE: You’re a composer as well?


AMANDA MACBLANE: I guess I’m going to ask you to take your author hat off and put your composer hat on.


AMANDA MACBLANE: Tell me about your music. What are you working on and what is driving you?

MICHAEL HICKS: Well, my career has ended up being so much consumed—and happily—consumed by scholarship, I just actually have a CD that came out on the Tantara label, which is Brigham Young University’s label and it was in part sponsored by the Barlow Endowment. That CD is called Ritual Grounds. I would say that I’ve been through many phases in the music I’ve written and I am not very prolific as a writer of notes, as Cowell was—I’m sort of the opposite of Cowell in that regard [laughs]. But I usually write music with, I think, a Cowell-esque orientation in that it’s very concerned with sound and sonority and color, but all of my music has either been for solo instruments or chamber groups at this point. My most recent piece, for example, I’ll just say a couple things about it, the piece is called “Rain Tiger” and the scoring is for viola and shadow viola, which is a viola that is separated from the ensemble and is playing very quietly what the principal viola is playing and a little bit later, just a little bit after, so as though almost an echo, but a very imprecise echo. And there are bowls being played with the trilling fingertips in the background through the entirety of the piece. There’s also clarinet and cello and piano, with light gauge chains draped over the strings to give it a sort of sizzling sound, and toy piano and steel drum and maracas. So that kind of suggests the sound world. (Find out more about Michael Hicks’s new CD at the Tantara website)

AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, of course, the best way for me to grasp your music would be to hear the CD. But, the very last thing I wanted to ask is what now? The book came out last year, I’m sure you’re in the midst of a million new things, so…

MICHAEL HICKS: What now? Well, I’m writing a new piano piece, a piece for amplified piano, which amplifies and sends it into overdrive, sort of a fuzz-tone piano. I’m a guitarist initially so a lot of music I write has a guitaristic sensibility about it. And I end up doing lots of follow-ups to the previous books. I just did a thing for the American Guild of Organists convention here in Salt Lake City about Mormon musical history, a couple of sessions on that. And I’m always interested in rock and I get a lot of e-mails and inquiries of about one thing or another relating to rock history…or Mormon musical history. [laughs] And I suppose I’ll get some about Cowell, and I have through the years. And there are so many people working on Cowell stuff, people that want to do movies on him…I actually had somebody that wanted permission to do a movie based on my article about his prison years.


MICHAEL HICKS: They wanted to call it Behind Bars, which is their pun!

AMANDA MACBLANE: Right! [laughs]

MICHAEL HICKS: But that never happened and funding for films like that is of course pretty dicey.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Yeah, here at the American Music Center we’d all be in the front row though!

MICHAEL HICKS: Yeah, of course. So actually I’m writing lots of poetry lately. I’m studying and trying to get better at poetry, that’s something that I’ve studied through the years from time to time. So I think I’m actually in a more creative mode than a scholarly mode recently, but I do hope that people sense me as a composer, even in the scholarly work. Somebody wrote a review of the Cowell book and said it had an almost pulpish quality to it, that in the reading of it, it carried you from one adventure to the next. And I was really pleased with that, some people maybe wouldn’t be; I know some scholars wouldn’t be, but…

AMANDA MACBLANE: It does read like a novel. I feel like I gained so much from it just because it made me want to read it.

MICHAEL HICKS: Well, I’m so pleased at that, because to me every act—scholarly or not—is a creative act. So I’m always thinking about structure and flow and the things that a composer thinks about.

AMANDA MACBLANE: If only more scholars thought like you did! [laughs]

MICHAEL HICKS: Well, there’s some, but right now I think that I just overdosed so much over the years on archives. I have archives now in my office—files and files and files of things that didn’t fit in with the structure of earlier pieces of writing, so even if I was to spend my life, from a scholarly perspective, just going through those and bringing out new things, that would probably satisfy my scholarly side for some years anyway!