Mode's Dancing with Henry, recorded in 2000, was the first disc since two releases in the 1980s by the New York-based ensemble Continuum to expose a substantial amount of previously unrecorded material from the wealth of unpublished pieces that exist for Henry Cowell. Most of the music was written for choreography in the 1920s and 1930s in the more experimental vein of Cowell's style. The Suite for Small Orchestra (1934), Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1934), and Four Combinations for Three Instruments (1924) all demonstrate Cowell's interest in dissonant counterpoint as gained through his early studies with Charles Seeger, though the woodwind suite does betray an awareness of French practice in terms of scoring for winds. The Heroic Dance (1931), Reel No. 2 (1934), and Dance of Sport (1931) are all representative of Cowell's interest in rhythm, though only Reel No. 2 makes use of percussion, and then very lightly applied. The Sound Form No. 1 (1937) and Ritournelles from "Marriage on the Eiffel Tower" (1939) are written in short braces of measures that can be shuffled around by the performers to facilitate choreography, a clear predecessor to minimalistic techniques. The incidental music for Alice Pike Barney's never-performed play Atlantis (1926) is something in a class by itself; three singers moan and grunt their way through a textless fantasy based on a mythical vision of monsters, goddesses, and a Sea-King. The voices are sewn into a fabric of polyphony supplied by a small orchestra; it is a completely bizarre and far-out creation that has the dual qualities of being both amusing and awe inspiring.
The California Parallèle Ensemble under Nicole Paiement and other groups listed as performing this music were organized to facilitate the recording. However, the ensembles were organized within the University of California at Santa Cruz's music department, which is under professor Leta Miller, who supplies the notes and plays flute here, and whose members are experts in interpreting American modernism of this period and has well served composer Lou Harrison's work. One remarkable aspect of Cowell's experimental instrumental music is that, though the compositional techniques are pioneering, the music is overwhelmingly gentle, even playful in tone. It is redolent of California and its culture, an aspect of Cowell's activity that often goes little recognized, but he may have been the first "California composer" in the modern sense, looking forward not only to Harrison and Terry Riley, but to Brian Wilson, as well. For those seeking a more extended entryway to Henry Cowell's compositional activity beyond his piano music and symphonic works, Mode's Dancing with Henry will be a revelation.