Ives, Cowell, Bartók – The Historic Meeting

The Fletcher Session – 1943 by Steve Layton

A unique meeting of the minds occurred in 1943. Charles Ives had just made some private recordings of himself playing a few of his pieces and songs. Fellow composer Henry Cowell had heard and played some of these for Dr. Harry Fletcher of Bell Laboratories, who was working experimentally at the time on the creation of stereophonic recordings. A dinner and meeting between the three was arranged at Dr. Fletcher’s apartment, and Fletcher had the idea to invite his recent acquaintance, famed refugee composer Béla Bartók, to the dinner as well. Bartók was feeling quite cut off in New York City, and was already suffering from the leukemia that would end his life in less than two years.

After the meal and chat, the three composers were shown Fletcher’s small home studio, which contained among other things a baby grand piano, a smaller box piano, a kind of celesta, and some of the new stereo recording equipment that cut masters directly to a large 16″ disk (there was no magnetic tape in the U.S. then). It’s not known who first suggested it, but all three of these leading modern composers agreed to sit down and play together for an impromptu test of the stereo recorder. They simply improvised freely, listening to and playing off each others’ ideas. As part of the ‘game’, each agreed to mostly use only one of their hands while playing!

Bartók, Cowell, Ives — The Fletcher Session, 1943 …(Steve Layton, feat. Adam Kondor & Benjamin Smith)

Cowell remembered that while listening to the disk afterward, he was immediately struck by the strange and yet cohesive nature of what had been played. He asked the others if they might agree to let him take this recording and issue a small run of copies for distribution. Ives couldn’t care less, but Bartók — whose perfectionism was legendary — was very adamant that this was only a small game among friends and should be kept private. So the disk remained among Dr. Fletcher’s possessions until and even after his death, to be only recently rediscovered in the Fletcher Archives of Brigham Young University.

Given the offhand nature of the session and the subsequent disposition of the disk, it’s not surprising the recording quality is only fair. But it is truly a unique document of a historic moment, a meeting that had never happened before, and would never happen again.

(the names in this article are true, everything else is fiction).

Article was submitted at ImprovFriday.


3 thoughts on “Ives, Cowell, Bartók – The Historic Meeting

  1. I just posted this for Steve. He doesn’t have a blog (except S21 of course). The recording is Adam Kondor and Benjamin Smith, two separate recordings, mashed up with treatment by Steve Layton.

  2. Gee, I’m more convincing than I thought! Sorry Heather, it all sprang from my putting together a couple friend’s improv (though Adam is Hungarian 🙂 … The sound quality of one of the tracks was definitely lo-fi, so I went with that and made the whole thing “antique”. Something about some of the progressions Ben did reminded me a bit of Ives, and I knew about Ives’ 1943 recordings. Bartok & Cowell were around then too, and I already knew about Harry Fletcher’s early stereo experiments. So everything just plausible enough to feel that it could have happened — except it didn’t. Consider it a Borges story in sound 🙂 …

    If you go to the ImprovFriday site:


    You can hear all the source tracks in their original splendor.

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