“Fleeting” #6: Floating and Fleeting

Welcome to my sixth post about Fleeting. This post is about two pieces composed by Henry Cowell which close the first section of the program: Fleeting Sounds. (Please visit here to see the entire program.)

Henry Cowell, I. Floating, Six Ings (1922)

Born in California in 1897, Henry Cowell grew up with limited formal schooling and musical training, but this unusual background probably was a significant part of what shaped him as a musical pioneer, whom John Cage (1912-1992), another influential American composer, once described as “the open sesame for new music in America”.[1] Cowell’s contributions to the twentieth-century music are not limited to the development of the systemic structures for modernist techniques and the use of non-Western musical resources, but also involve the foundation of organizations and publication of scores as part of the efforts to promote works by unconventional composers.[2]Unfortunately, his unusual path also led him to prison where he taught music to more than two thousand inmates.[3]Indeed, as described by Richard Franko Goldman (1910-1980), one of the prominent American conductors and music critics, Cowell “helped two generations to see and think and hear, and he helped to create and build a foundation for ‘modern’ music in America. This is not a small achievement; it is a gigantic one.”[4]   

Floating is one of Ings, a set of characteristic pieces that suggest states of motion, which in a way resulted in “sound in motion”.[5]Cowell composed the following fourteen pieces as the Ings set, and published the first six as Six Ings, and later added the seventh through ninth, publishing the set as Nine Ings:[6]  

  1. Floating (1922) 
  2. Frisking (1922)
  3. Fleeting (1917)
  4. Scooting (1917)
  5. Wafting [no. 1] (1917)
  6. Seething (1917)
  7. Whisking (1917)
  8. Sneaking (1917)
  9. Swaying (1924)
  10. Sifting (1917), lost
  11. Trickling (1917)
  12. Wafting [no. 2] (1917) 
  13. Whirling (1930), lost 
  14. Rocking (1955)

In Floating, the first movement of Six Ings (and Nine Ings), Cowell communicates the elusive floating motion through several elements.

First and foremost, the absence of a clear tonal center conveys a lack of stability. Cowell also communicates the unstable nature of floating by assigning different time signatures for the right hand and left hand, 3/4 and 4/4 respectively.

Another device adopted by the composer is subtle changes added to patterns, which can be found in various aspects. For instance, what the right hand plays consists only of an interval of a major third throughout the piece, but how those major thirds move from one to the next (the interval between two major thirds) constantly changes.

Through the delicate balance of stability and instability Cowell ingeniously captures the nature of floating. 

Henry Cowell, III. Fleeting, Six Ings (1917)

Fleeting is the third movement of the same set, Six Ings (and Nine Ings), composed by Cowell. Cowell uses several devices to convey fleetingness. Firstly, the tonal center of this piece is definitely A, and the key signature also indicates A minor, but the composer cleverly inserts notes that do not belong to the key.

Michael Hicks, the author of Henry Cowell: Bohemian, shares the exchange between Cowell and Rachmaninoff when Rachmaninoff looked at the manuscript of Fleeting

“Cowell recalls that Rachmaninoff looked at it intently with no comment for two hours, upon which he marked tiny red circles around forty-two notes, saying ‘You have forty-two wrong notes.’ Sensing Cowell’s dismay, the older composer added, ‘I too have sinned with wrong notes in my youth, and therefore you may be forgiven.’ Cowell asked what was wrong with those notes. Rachmaninoff replied that they were ‘not within the rules of harmony.’ Cowell then asked if the composers still needed to follow those rules, whereupon the older composer replied, ‘Oh yes, these are divine rules.'”[7]   

We do not know which notes were circled as wrong notes by Rachmaninoff, but it is highly likely that the notes that do not belong to A minor were among them. Interestingly, these “wrong notes” play the central role in creating elusiveness, the main facet of fleetingness. 

Secondly, the composer adds subtle changes to a pattern to create a sense of elusiveness by deceiving the listener’s expectation, a device similar to the one used in Floating as examined previously. Specifically, Cowell slightly changes the number of measures per phrase. 

Thirdly, the tempo change in the middle section, as indicated by Più mosso, also communicates restlessness, another aspect of fleetingness. However, it is important to note that the restlessness quickly returns to the calmness of the beginning section with the tempo marking Allegretto Placido, which displays another sign of fleetingness.   

Lastly, the most significant element that conveys fleetingness is that the piece ends with a half cadence with no resolution, which certainly reminds us of something similar to a creature that manages to escape while the hunter attempts to grasp it.

If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:

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[1]David Nicholls and Joel Sachs, “Cowell, Henry (Dixon),” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.




[5]Michael Hicks, Henry Cowell: Bohemian (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 168.

[6]Nicholls and Sachs, “Cowell, Henry (Dixon),” on Grove Music Online.

[7]Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (New York: New York University Press, 1956), 219-20; quoted in Hicks, Henry Cowell: Bohemian, 96-97.

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