Tuesday, March 8, 2011

100 years of Hovhaness

Today marks the 100th birthday of Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness is one of America's most idiosyncratic musical pioneers who sought a musical reconciliation between East and West - spiritual and mundane. Born near Boston, to an Armenian father and a mother of Scottish ancestry, his upbringing was more or less conventionally American. As a boy he composed in secret, once remarking "My family thought writing music was abnormal, so they would confiscate my music if they caught me in the act." An early musical mentor and personal friend was Sibelius.
The composers receptivity to Armenian culture was reignited around 1940 when he became organist at Boston's Armenian cathedral. Here he was exposed to early liturgical Armenian music as well as the works of the composer-priest Komitas Vartabed. In 1944 a series of works with Armenian titles or subject matter. Essentially comprising Hovhaness's "Armenian period", these bold works have huge monodic melodies over static drones somewhat foreshadowing the Minimalists of the late 1960s. Hovhaness himself described this music as "giant melodies in simple and complex modes around stationery or movable tonal centres". From 1944 too, he introduced his spirit murmur, where musical phrases are repeated over and over by each player independently to produce a buzzing textural blur. This so called ad libitum technique was later used by the European Avant Garde (beginning with Lutoslawksi and Ligeti in the 1960s). The Armenian phase reached its zenith with the 24-movement(!) St. Vartan Symphony.
In the 1950s, Hovhanesss style became more Westernised, but some Armenian (and Indian) influences remained. Noteworthy is his pioneering use of Indian cyclic rhythm concepts. In this decade he achieved widespread recognition, particularly with his Symphony Mysterious Mountain, premiered by Leopold Stokowski and recorded by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony - ironically one of his less exotic-sounding scores.
Following extended visits to India, Korea and Japan during 1959-62 to study the ancient Karnatic, Ah-ak, and Gagaku musical traditions, Hovhaness embarked on musical style incorporating Indo-Oriental idioms throughout the 1960s, a period when his music was at its most distant from Western models. For example, his Symphony No.16 is scored for both a Western orchestra and a Korean traditional ensemble including a solo part for kayagum, a sort of zither. As always, his music remained tonal, or more correctly, modal.
From the 1970s Eastern influences receded somewhat, though Hovhaness remained very prolific, reaching around Opus 450 by the time of his death. His output comprises music in almost every conceivable genre, from large scale oratorios, operas and symphonies down to piano sonatas and solo works for Oriental instruments.
Broadly speaking, Hovhaness wrote highly communicative music which is contemplative, rarely harsh, and often with an implied or explicit mystical theme. Such ideas were very unfashionable in the 1950s and 60s, but since the dawn of mainstream cross-cultural and new age trends in the 1970s he has acquired a growing band of devoted admirers, an audience not dissimilar in its musical tastes to the many admirers of later spiritual minimalists such as Arvo Part and John Tavener.

I first heard Hovhaness' music when I performed his And God Created Great Whales in a region orchestra for high school. I immediately started searching for his music and found the Prayer of St. Gregory, Mysterious Mountain and more on LPs. I was so happy that many of his works were out on Crystal Records, and started collecting them. - TPR Host John Clare

You can read an interview with Hovhaness and Bruce Duffie here.

1 comment:

David said...

Nice to see this Hovhaness article. He always struck me as one of America's somewhat neglected great composers. For info on the centennial celebations there is a tribute Hovhaness centennial website. Quite a few radio stations seem to be playing his stuff too, long may this continue.