Charlie Haas at Threepenny Review:
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 inHow 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.