Thursday, June 21, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation - another example

Benito Mussolini
whom I'm connected to via
Adolf Hitler 
I remember the first time I realized there was something to the claim that we are only six degrees of separation from all other humans on the planet. It was when I met the British Commandant for Berlin (I once thought it was the British Commandant – turns out it was somebody else who played chess with Rudolf Hess) and realized I now knew somebody who knew Rudolf Hess, who knew Hitler. I was only three degrees of separation from Adolf Hitler. How ‘bout them apples?

I have loved telling people ever since, when this topic comes up, that they are now at most four degrees from Hitler.

And five from Mussolini.

And ultimately practically everybody on the European continent, of course.

You can see it’s not a stretch at all that we should be within range of anybody and everybody. All you need is to find the connection. Meet one Tibetan and you’re in touch with the Dalai Lama. Or meet the Dalai Lama and you’re in touch with all of Tibet.

So I probably should not be all that fired up about the latest discovery, that I am only three or four degrees separated from Frank Zappa. And Arnold Schoenberg. And the architect who built the Golden Gate Bridge. All through my connection with Olive Cowell (1887-1984), the stepmother of the American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965), whose house I lived in back in the 1960s.

Nations have their golden eras. And many of us waste a lot of time going on about the “good old days,” remembering our high school prom or at least the time you could party all night and go to work the next morning and fake it, or whatever. For me the time to idealize would be the time I got out of the army and began my adult life in San Francisco. I had never held a real job before, never rented an apartment, never been in a sink-or-swim situation financially.

I had saved $3000 during my time in the army and lived on that for a year before it ran out and I had to get another job. 1965-66 was a good time. I learned to cook, played bridge eight or ten hours at a time, rode a bicycle all around Golden Gate Park, marched in anti-Vietnam war protest marches, and used the time to recover my mental balance after the army experience.

A couple close friends from army days were living in Olive Cowell’s house on Forest Hill and when they moved out I used the connection and the opportunity to move in, because it was much easier access to San Francisco State, where I had started an M.A. program in TESL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). I was finally getting things together and planning a career.

The Cowell House
Mine was the lower set of windows
Olive had the house built in 1933 and she and her husband, Harry, had planned ahead. The house was built on a sharp incline with a garage at street level, the main house a floor down, bedrooms a floor below that, and a basement below that, all connected by a staircase and by separate entrances at each level. The bedroom level had been converted into an apartment – two bedrooms, kitchen and bath – which she rented out for "educational purposes" (and a bit of cash) and was actually quite luxurious in terms of space. The house itself was eccentric, as was Olive.  Aggressively “modern” – in what’s called a “Second Bay Tradition” style, all rustic and woodsy. 

street view of the house
Olive was very proud of the house and boasted of the uses she had put it to as a bohemian, with soirées and concerts. It was all wasted on me. I had no idea who Henry Cowell was. I can't remember if she shared the fact that the architect who designed this house had also built the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm sure I would have remembered that.  But then again, I was too busy getting my life started to pay much attention to Olive’s concerns, although I was happy to take advantage of her belief she was doing me a favor, renting to students, as part of her legacy as an educator. And she was doing me a favor. The kitchen sucked and the rooms were dark as hell, but it was quiet and roomy and I loved the trees all around. 

The house today is valued at three and a half million dollars – not a fortune by San Francisco standards, but to be sure a cut well above standard student housing. I also had the run of the house when she was away. She liked having life in the house, and I used to spend hours playing the piano. Again, I had no clue it was Henry Cowell’s piano (one of them) and that I might well be sleeping in his bed.

Olive would bring up his name in conversation, and I knew that he had died not that long before, but she avoided sharing with me the fact that in 1936 he was arrested for having sex with a seventeen-year-old and sentenced to up to fifteen years in San Quentin. He got out, as it turns out, after four years, in no small part due to Olive’s efforts. There is speculation that the prison experience had a devastating lasting effect on his personality and his creativity. He was arguably America’s most avant-garde modern composer in his day, inventing such ideas as playing the piano keys with his entire forearm like a drum and strumming on the strings of the piano, instead of the keys. After he got out of San Quentin, he toned some of that energy down, but still managed to capture the respect and admiration of other musicians for his innovation. John Cage called him “the open sesame for new music in America.” Lou Harrison referred to him as “the mentor of mentors.” All sorts of people lined up – Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Virgil Thompson – to sing his praises. Arnold Schoenberg visited the house.

And while it’s tempting to see in Henry Cowell a repeat of the injustice done to Oscar Wilde – and for the same reason – some have argued Cowell actually put the experience to good use.  He spent his time at San Quentin directing the prison band and teaching music to his fellow inmates, as well as composing over sixty pieces. He also used the time to study Japanese and familiarize himself with Japanese and other non-Western music, an interest he maintained thereafter.

This passing like ships in the night with a well-known composer would not be my only experience. In the late 70s, I lived in Santa Cruz where there was a very active gay group which would hold parties which Lou Harrison would sometimes attend. Lou Harrison, who became known for his compositions for the gamelan, credited Henry Cowell with his interest in non-Western music. I didn’t know it at the time. If I had, I would have mentioned that I had a connection with Henry’s mother and picked his brain on what he knew about Cowell’s sexual history. Harrison was open about his relationship with his partner and musical collaborator, William Colvig.

So much more information I might have picked up, if only I had known to ask the right questions.

But that’s the thing about the six degrees of separation. They mean nothing if you don’t know what the connections are. You can’t do anything with them.

But they keep coming in. I’m a great fan of the photographer Ansel Adams and have three of his Yosemite nature shots hanging in my living room. And there’s the letter to Olive by Virginia Adams, Ansel’s wife, asking if there is anything she can do to help poor Henry in jail. Bert Bacharach is listed among Cowell’s students. Frank Zappa was connected to Edgard Varese who was best man at the wedding of Nicholas Slonimsky. Not familiar names to most people, but if you get into modern music they all show up. All interconnected. Everybody, it seems, knows everybody.

Henry Cowell and Pepper
If you are not familiar with Henry Cowell, and especially if you think that “modern” or atonal or electronic music is a turn-off, let me suggest you have a listen to his musical autobiography. It might not turn you around and may not make you want to bang on the keys with your shoe and call it music. But it may give you reason to give it closer consideration.

I went to a concert of Hawaiian music the other night, and almost enjoyed it. Came closer than ever before. I understand there are people who can't stand bagpipe music, but when I was sixteen I was in a hospital bed for a month with nothing else to listen to and I've loved it every since. Japanese enka used to creep me out. Now I'm a fan. A kind-hearted friend once indulged me when I told him I hated Richard Strauss and loved the music of Grieg by telling me that my musical tastes will mature in time. Today I love Richard Strauss with a passion. Music is beauty and very much in the eye, or ear, of the beholder.

How come I didn’t know about this guy, Henry Cowell?

After all, for more than a year I slept in his bed.

Photo credits:

Olive's house - my apartment was the downstairs section
- view from the street, screen shot from Google Maps
Henry Cowell - screen shot from YouTube video

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