Saturday, September 1, 2007

Alan Hovhaness (1911-)

Sierra Club


There are certain composers I have always admired very much, but I have always admired nature mostly and the music of the Orient.


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Alan Hovhaness (b. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA, 8 March 1911) was an American composer of Armenian and Scottish descent. Chronologically, part of the generation of composers who followed pioneers such as Henry Cowell, George Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland and the rediscovery of Charles Ives (therefore roughly contemporaneous with William Schuman, David Diamond, Lukas Foss, L. Bernstein, etc); but stylistically a maverick, whose music reflects a love of Western counterpoint and a personal fascination with by Indian, East Asian and Armenian music more obviously than any contemporary musical thought. Hovhaness is said to have begun composing aged four; then studied with Frederick Converse at New England Conservatory and with Bohuslav Martinu at Tanglewood. Despite an early interest in Indian music, his compositions prior to the Second World War tend to suggest a mixture of Baroque structures and late Romantic (particularly Sibelius) melody. The early Exile symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1939) and the String Quartet No. 1 (Jupiter) (1936) - which includes the original version of his Prelude and Quadruple Fugue - are surviving examples of this early period of composition. Rethought his approach to composition while working (as composer, organist and teacher) in Boston (1940-1952); partly in response to criticism of his work by Copland and others at Tanglewood. The imput of the mystic painter Hermon Di Giovanno (after whose work the Celestial Gate symphony (Symphony No. 6; 1959) was written) also became significant at this time. Hovhaness's mature style was first revealed in a work for piano and string orchestra entitled Lousadzak ("Dawn of Light"; 1944); which introduced Hovhaness's quasi-aleatoric Senza Misura technique (often called "Spirit Murmur") to a wider audience.

In this technique, individual sections of the orchestra are instructed to continuously repeat a cycle of melody without temporal reference to other members of the ensemble. Most obviously, this technique (one of the most common components of the "Hovhaness style"), creates a gorgeous sense of rhythmic mystery from which (in Lousadzak) the solo piano slowly emerges. At other times, the technique clearly foreshadows the work not just of modern minimalists such as Terry Riley and John Adams but also the entire Ambient - New Age school of composition. During this period, Hovhaness also lit the first of his legendary carthartic bonfires; and destroyed a large number of early works. While this gesture certainly reflected the depth of his stylistic rethinking, it's also true that the scale and terminality of these bonfires have grown with each retelling, at least one reference claims that more than a thousand works were destroyed in this particular flame. Hovhaness was also able to recycle supposedly destroyed works in later compositions: the Allegretto Grazioso third movement in his City of Light symphony (Symphony No. 22; 1970) originally derives from an operetta written and performed in 1920s. Through the subsequent half-century, Hovhaness has tended to refine rather than fundamentally change his basic musical approach. This doesn't mean his music has been stylistically static, rather, that underlining the differences in his musical texture has been a clear and uniform "voice". Extensive travel throughout India and Asia casts an obvious shadow over much of his music from the fifties and sixties, coloring but not disguising the composer's distinctive palette (Korean Kayageum was written for Korean percussion and strings); while the works of his "retirement" (from the early seventies onwards) have tended to return more to Western models. The basic characteristics of the "Hovhaness sound" are easier to recognise than define; but one of the most obvious "markers" is the strong mystic and religious "feel" to all his works. Another is Hovhaness's distinctly "vocal" style (rather like Chopin, oddly) - even his orchestral work tends to sound as if it's being "sung", an effect accentuated by Hovhaness's regular use of exposed solo lines over transparent string continuo. Again like Chopin, Hovhaness is primarily a minaturist - the longest "through-composed" work of his presently available on disc would be the Majnun symphony (Symphony No. 24; 1973), which in Hovhaness's own recording runs 48 minutes; but even this consists of nine distinct movements played with pause. Hovhaness's music uses consonant harmonies, organised modally or chromatically rather than tonally; and balances out the rhythmless sound of Senza Misura with an almost riotous love of counterpoint. His music is generally and deliberately easy to play; although the exposed solo lines in works such as "The Prayer of St Gregory" can be subtly terrifying for the soloist. Throughout his career, Hovhaness has continued to find musical inspiration in the practical challenges of "Gebrauchsmusik". One of Hovhaness's most famous works - And God Created Great Whales for prerecorded whalesongs and orchestra (1970) - may also fit into this category; having been commissioned by Andre Kostelanetz (a regular patron of Hovhaness's music) to "fit around" a set of pre-existing tapes of whalesongs. In the United States, at least, Hovhaness has generally been considered a popular composer; although in most other territories, his music is usually only available in recorded form. [Adapted from Karadar]

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