By Andrew Fort
When my two older sisters were teenagers, they rebelled in every possible way: moderate drug use, immoderate drinking, various unsuitable boyfriends. When my parents were home, they engaged them in melodramatic screaming matches. When my parents were away, they threw wild parties. They bought electric guitars and motorcycles. One of them even spent a night in jail.
Even so, I think my parents were completely unprepared for the level of my adolescent insubordination, because my mode of rebellion was far more troubling and difficult to understand than any they had yet been forced to deal with.
It involved 20th Century classical music.
If you’re not familiar with the music of Henry Cowell, he was the composer who pioneered the use of what came to be known as the tone cluster. Playing a tone cluster involves hitting a group of piano keys with a palm, a fist, or sometimes an entire forearm. The sound is dissonant and jarring and for many headache-inducing. This is partly why I liked it.
My classmates in high school either got into Punk, or Goth, or New Wave. In my mind, I mocked the punks with their torn t-shirts and safety pins for romanticizing anarchy. I scorned the Goths and their black lipstick for romanticizing death. And I reviled the New Wavers and their complicated hair styles for romanticizing their cans of mousse. But a special place in my own particular “worst dressed” line up was reserved for the Hessians
—the Heavy Metal fans with long scraggly hair and seemingly endless supplies of identical-looking Iron Maiden t-shirts. Where the other groups were simply misguided, I believed the Hessians were willfully stupid, spending all their time playing air guitar and banging their heads and making “shout at the devil” hand gestures.
My own hair cut and style of dress were carefully chosen to betray no persona whatsoever within my slender financial means other than that of Conscientious Objector in the Style Wars. I think I was smart enough to realize that choosing one’s mode of rebellion from a culturally-sanctioned menu that may as well have been laminated and posted in the school office was not true rebellion. Unfortunately, I was too stupid to realize that rejecting all socially acceptable forms of rebellion would leave me eating my Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems alone in front of the school library, while the Hessians played air guitar in front of the Career Center, and the punks smoked cigarettes in the Large Quad, and the Goths re-applied their black lipstick in various abandoned bathrooms.
My aloneness, I reasoned, was not without precedence. Although Henry Cowell has his admirers, he is not wholeheartedly embraced by Classical music aficionados. He was an adamant modernist, but with a wide Romantic streak. Those who enjoy “classical” music because it is soothing and euphonic dislike the tone clusters and other discordant elements in Cowell’s music. Those who enjoy modern atonal music find in it too much melody and not enough intellectual rigor. He was caught between two camps. He stood alone. This is why his music spoke to me.
One piece in particular caught my fancy. It utilized a variety of tone clusters, including a series of arpeggios in which the performer is required to hit a low note with the elbow of his left hand and pivot the forearm down onto the keys, hitting all of the notes on the way up in succession. The right hand, meanwhile, plays a fragile, vaguely ancient-sounding pentatonic melody on the black keys. To me, this piece epitomized the state in which I found myself. The cacophony of the left hand was the noise of the world around me. The purity of the right hand was my embattled interior self, struggling to be heard.
I had to play it at the school talent show.
What I hadn’t counted on was the drum solo.
School talent shows were generally pretty predictable. Kids with every talent imaginable excepting the social performed. Accordions were involved. This year, however, there was a guy playing a drum solo. A Hessian. And he brought his own fan club with him.
So after the incessant pounding of the skins concluded and they cleared the twelve-piece drum kit to the screaming of the Hessian hordes, I went out onstage in a silver smoking jacket—a misconceived wardrobe choice, I now realize—and took my seat at the piano.
The first thing I heard was, “Hey, it’s Liberace!” I mentally gave the heckler points for being culturally literate enough to make that connection.
The next thing I heard was “Hey, it’s a fag!” I gave this heckler no points.
This was the eighties, and being called a fag didn’t carry even a smidgen of the hip cachet it might today. It was an outright slur. The best response, I reasoned, was to wow potential detractors with talent. So I played.
Even as I played I think I realized what the audience must have been witnessing: a gangly, pimply teenager in a silver smoking jacket pounding indiscriminately with one hand and tinkling a fey melody with the other.
And it didn’t rock like the drum solo had.
I left the stage to scattered, listless applause and more than a few intensely focused jeers.
I didn’t win a prize.
The next day, I was back to eating my Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems alone in front of the school library, my interior self feeling more embattled than it had before. The Hessians were over on the brick wall by the career center, playing air guitar. The guy who had won first prize was playing air drums.
I was puzzled by the world’s indifference. Something had struck a chord–or perhaps a dischord–in me, and I was hoping that same something might resonate with someone else.
Could it have been that the entire world was composed of idiots? Even I could see the flaw in that theory.
Yet I felt as if I had remained authentic to myself. I think that’s why teenagers rebel: they sense some inauthenticity in their surroundings and are drawn towards something they consider to be more authentic. This was why the Goths put on black lipstick. This was why the New Wavers adopted hair styles approximating the shapes of manta rays. This was why the Hessians wore the same ripped Iron Maiden T-shirts day after day.
And this was why I loved Henry Cowell.
I remember, at the time, trying to equate the percussive cacophony of the drum solo with the percussive cacophony of the Cowell piece. Could it have been that Hessians were not complete idiots? That there was some merit to head-banging? At some point I realized
that the arm motion I used to play that rolling tone-cluster arpeggio looked an awful lot like the arm motion used in hitting a snare, or a hi-hat. My drumstick was a half-eaten package of Hostess Chocolate Frosted Donette Gems. And my right foot, pedaling the piano, might as well have been playing a kick drum. And I remember opening my eyes to see the leader of the Hessian Hordes making approximately the same motions I was.
Was he looking at me? It appeared he was.
And was I playing air drums?
It appeared I was.
And when he signed “shout at the devil” at me, was I just a little pleased?
It appeared I was.
Henry Cowell, The Tides of Manaunaun