San Quentin State Prison dates from the 1850s when a prison ship was anchored off a Marin County peninsula near what is now the Larkspur Ferry Landing. Its prisoners were marched to the top of the hill where they broke stones into the building blocks for structures that still stand today, starting a history of horror and occasional redemption that continues in the old, overcrowded prison complex.
One of the most remarkable examples of redemptive grace in the institution's history took place last Friday with a pair of concerts in San Quentin's Protestant Chapel by Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill (above) of music written by California composer Henry Cowell during his four years of imprisonment in San Quentin from 1936 to 1940. Cowell was sent there on an indefinite sentence of up to 25 years on a morals charge that stemmed from a naive confession to Redwood City police that he had engaged in homosexual activities after being blackmailed by a pair of neighborhood teenagers. San Francisco Examiner reporters of the time tried to extort hush payments from the composer as public relations consultants, and when he refused, the full scandal artillery of the Hearst press was unleashed in a series of sensational articles about perverted sexual predators. Cowell became California's version of the English mathematician Alan Turing, and it was only through the efforts of influential friends that the composer was paroled to his fellow composer Percy Grainger after four years in San Quentin.
Cahill has long championed the music of Cowell, much of which remains unpublished and unplayed, even though he may be the most essential American composer of the 20th century in terms of his influence. In the program notes at the San Quentin concert, Cahill writes:
"Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was born to a poor family and raised by a single mother in rural Menlo Park. Without formal musical training, he began to experiment at the piano, strumming on the strings and playing with his fists and forearms, and combining these effects with evocations of Irish myths and legends. His book New Musical Resources, with its theories of harmony and rhythm, had a profound influence on 20th century music. Among his students were John Cage, Lou Harrison, George Gershwin, and Burt Bacharach. He was one of the first scholars and teachers of "world music," studying the music of Japanese, Indian, Iranian, Irish, traditional American and Native American cultures. While at San Quentin, Cowell taught music classes to over a thousand students, conducted the band, started an orchestra, and composed remarkable piano pieces, many chamber works, and a variety of music for the prison ensembles and solo musicians."
Not much was known about Cowell's time at San Quentin until the 2012 publication of Joel Sach's long, academic biography, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music, and the stories are heartbreaking. The composer was essentially a gentle saint who appraised his situation and decided to simply make the best of it, studying Japanese and Spanish, writing music and articles in the pitiful amounts of free time allowed, and creating a music education department at the prison that flourishes to this day. His first year involved hard labor at a jute mill making cloth. According to the Sachs bio, "Having spent years training himself to play difficult simultaneous rhythms, practicing even on the subway, Henry adapted the physical movements required by the jute machine as exercises in irregular rhythms. His jerky gestures quickly attracted attention, which is the last thing a prisoner wants. Co-workers began questioning his sanity; supervisors could report him for inexplicable behavior. Eventually he stopped."
Later that first year, Cowell applied to the Education Department being led by Dr. H.A. Shuder, and was assigned to teach a course in music appreciation. The class became so popular that another course in advanced harmony was added, and Cowell eventually joined the prison band. "When the band leader, violinist John Hendricks, told him that they played like different men under Henry's baton, he felt really pleased, although it was sometimes hard to detect the improvement. Soon he was named concertmaster. Being respected by Hendricks was in every way a good thing. A murderer in for life, he was a member of the prison elite and, according to Henry, he was actually a good man and protected Henry against sexual assault." Dr. Shuder wrote to Cowell on his 40th birthday in 1939, "There are no words adequate to express my appreciation of your fine service to me and to the men. If I thought that you were made up a little more of the spirit of the missionary, I would suggest that your participation here was in keeping with a high purpose as I am sure that it is assisting in a noble cause. Let me thank you once again most sincerely for your many contributions, for your refinement of spirit, and for the fine example which you are."
After Cowell's release, Dr. Shuder wrote him, "The Music Department in San Quentin is not a Music Department without Henry Cowell. It was his and without him it just isn't. There will never be another who can take your place." In truth, the work fostered by Cowell continues, and arts education is a powerful force at San Quentin, as channeled through various groups like the William James Foundation which helped organize these concerts. Friday morning started with four inmates who have been studying in the keyboard class of Trish Allred (below left) playing one song a piece, and their contributions were extraordinarily moving. Gino (two photos above) sang his own composition about Christian redemption while Luke above confessed that he was a beginner and that his name was "Abject Fear." Though he stopped and started throughout his piece, his singing voice was beautiful and his friends in the audience were encouraging in their shout-outs.
Robert above played a composition of his own with grace and determination, and he reminded me of a letter sent by Cowell to musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky:
"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. In a group of about fifteen or so, one will find one or two who really do have a strong or stronger moral sense; ten or twelve who seem to be rather childish, good-natured morons; and one or two really "tough eggs," bad men of whom one has to be careful. I cannot convey to you how extraordinary is the experience of being thrown in with such a motley crew."
Jasper above played and sang an American song standard with such expertise he could have been a professional musician in a jazz ensemble. Sitting onstage behind him, Sarah looked amazed. In an email later in the weekend, she wrote: "I told Jasper that his dexterity was astonishing and also the way his chord progressions are surprising and inevitable, which is such a great combination. I think he probably has not much more time on a keyboard during the week than Cowell did, and he had one hour a week, each Sunday. I also asked him about the Buddhist beads on his wrist and his star of David necklace and yarmulke, and asked him if he felt that was a contradiction. He went into a very eloquent description of his spiritual beliefs and how several strong faiths can coexist. Every encounter I had with each of the men was so surprisingly direct and honest, not about what they had done (although a friend did ask, and most were there for murder), but about how they respond to music, how they remember their mothers playing piano in their childhoods, what piece they responded to. Several of the men talked about Buddhism and meditation as having made a transformative difference in their lives. One of the inmates told me that staring down the barrel of an AK-47 was not nearly as scary as coming to terms with himself being responsible, rather than his parents or the judge or his friends or anyone else, for the crimes he had committed."
Sarah then began her program of Cowell's music while she and the audience of prisoners and a few outsiders were filmed by inmates for SQTV (San Quentin Television) and their surprisingly well-written monthly newspaper, the San Quentin News (click here). She started with the three-movement Celtic Set which is a gorgeous fantasia on Irish tunes, The Lover Plays His Flute from Amerind Suite, and the complex Rhythmicana with shifting time signatures every other bar. As usual with all her concerts, Cahill offered straightforward, illuminating explanations of the music, and gave an example beforehand of why Rhythmicana is so challenging to play. The audience looked completely absorbed.
Joining Sarah were the Ives Quartet, playing Cowell's Fourth String Quartet, "United," which the composer wrote in the Redwood City jail while awaiting his eventual transfer to San Quentin. It's an amazing work that was a new attempt at simplifying his complex musical thoughts. Cowell wrote: "The Quartet should not only be easy to understand without following any known pathways, but it should be understood equally well by Americans, Europeans, Orientals...or by anybody from a coal miner to a bank president." Or a prisoner.
After the quartet, there was a sing-along on three Mother Goose Rhymes as arranged by Cowell, and the concert ended with High Color, a fabulous example of the composer at his most virtuosic. The inmate audience was spellbound by the forearm clusters, and asked a number of questions about how in the heck did Sarah do that afterwards.
Throughout the morning, I kept unaccountably bursting into tears, partly because the spirit of Henry Cowell was so palpable. His greatest fear while in prison was that his music would be banished and forgotten, but instead it is being resurrected, and hearing it at that location was something of a mystical experience. Obviously, I was not the only one who felt that way, because the lightly attended morning concert was filled to the brim for the evening reprise, as word spread through the cellblocks.