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Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 – December 10, 1965) was an American composer, writer, pianist, publisher, teacher and the husband of Sidney Robertson Cowell. Earning a reputation as an extremely controversial performer and eccentric composer, Cowell became a leading figure of American avant-garde music for the first half of the 20th century — his writings and music serving as a great influence to similar artists at the time, including Lou Harrison, George Antheil, and John Cage, among others.
Cowell was mostly self-taught and developed a unique musical language, often blending folk melodies, dissonant counterpoint, unconventional orchestration, and themes of Irish paganism. He was an early proponent and innovator of many modernist compositional techniques and sensibilities, many for the piano, including the string piano, prepared piano, tone clusters, and graphic notation.
Cowell's music was often met with hostility and derision from critics and audiences alike. He was arrested in 1936 on obscenity charges for his piano piece "The Banshee", which was deemed to be "lewd and lascivious". However, Cowell's music also had many supporters, including the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who premiered several of his works.
Cowell's influence on 20th century music was profound. He was a mentor to many young composers, and his ideas about music were widely debated and discussed. His music is still performed today, and he is considered one of the most important and influential composers of American music.