Music: Bad Boy at 60

Early in World War II the Shah of Iran wrote to his friend Franklin Roosevelt and asked him to recommend a composer who could set Walter Camp's "Daily Dozen" physical exercises to Persian rhythms for use by the Iranian army. The U.S. State Department knew just the man: Composer Henry Cowell, then doing a stint as music editor of OWI. Cowell polished off the job in a few days, saw thousands of his records pressed and shipped off to Iran to ease the deep, daily kneebends practiced by the Shah's sturdy troops.

All through his career, Modernist Cowell has written music on...