Wednesday, November 05, 2014


So if you're sitting in a restaurant after a concert with a crowd of Newmusiclanders, nothing will likely stop the conversation sooner than mentioning in passing that you happen to like a piece by Alan Hovhaness. Sure, he composed a lot and he composed not only for virtuosi (Stokowski and the Ajemians, to begin with)  but much for semi-pros, locals, and other amateurs, and yes, you can recognize the reuse of similar techniques again and again in his catalog*, but he was a freelance composer composing practically and pragmatically, composing not from a masterpiece ethic but composing repertoire to be played, and when he was on his game, he could be very inventive indeed, coming up with remarkable (and remarkably robust and efficient, in terms of performance practice) ways of making striking music.

But his music has had a reception problem, not a musical problem. Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York, and was something of an outsider even there, and then, when he settled in Seattle, would remain decidedly outside of the NY sphere. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that his influences (Sibelius, the reimagined Armenian music of Comitas, Handel) were off-fashion, and his friendships (Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Brant, but also Hanson**) were as well, and that he was prematurely (and thus, like Cowell, often superficially) a "world music" composer, thus the stickiness of the orientalist and Armenianist labels.

But inventive he was: above and beyond his modal and metrical experiments, in moving from strict canon to loosely canonic to the textural use of non-coincident repetitions he was ahead of a game that Ligeti and others would famously play later. His Noh-inspired chamber operas, The Burning House and Pilate predate Britten's Church Parables. All that said, here's Hovhaness's Symphony for Metal Orchestra (flutes, trombones and percussion), one of his stronger pieces.
* One of my own teachers, who had has a composition lesson with Hovhaness as a young man, insisted to me (and later in print) that Hovhaness's "secret" to his prolific composing was a prolific use of repeat signs.  A survey of his scores will quickly convince that exactly the opposite was the case: Hovhaness's actual use of repeat signs in his scores is very limited, wide stretches of material that initially seem repetitive turn out to have many subtle variations, and man, the guy wrote and wrote a lot of notes in longhand. He was prolific simply because (a) many people asked him for new pieces and (b) he just plain spent a lot of time at his desk composing (the story goes that Hovhaness would compose all night and sleep all day. I can respect that.)  
** Mr Harrison once told me about being sent by the Herald Tribune to review an all-Hovhaness Town Hall concert.  Hovhaness had a certain reputation in New York and  Harrison had come prepared to pan the concert, inviting Cage as his guest. All of the Coplandites and all the 12-toners were there, and were apparently loudly dismissive of the music which just didn't do any of what their own music did. But Harrison liked the first piece, Cage agreed, and they decided to wait for something not to like. But that something, Harrison reported, never came.


Michael Strickland said...

Thanks for the tip. I've always been tempted to listen to his music, but "received opinion" had it as a waste of time, and it's not like it's played on the Classical Radio Channel, so I followed the herd. Thanks again for the advocacy.

bill wesley said...

"Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York" why not just say the problem is elitist snobbery and unreasonable prejudices? this is no different than what gangs do and so I call it the same, he fell victim to a turf war content be damned. The elite like to dismiss original music using the world music label, a brilliant composer is not a genius just a noble savage acting according to instinct, as long as we can label it "foreign" we can simply dismiss it without a qualm. Its disgusting to think that the attitudes of composers is no better than that of intolerant territorial street thugs