Sunday, February 08, 2015

Landmarks (51)

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony for Metal Orchestra [Symphony No. 17] Opus 203 (1963)

I hadn't planned to go past fifty items on this landmarks list — thinking that that number was already presumptuous, even indulgent, on my part — but there are still some pieces that I have to shout a bit about.  I've had the score to Hovhaness's 17th since 9th grade, when I used the prize money from a local composition contest to buy an handful of scores from Ralph Pierce Music in Pomona, California (this was a very special music store; Pierce sold pianos and sheet music and had an assortment of the latter quite unlike anywhere else in the 'States — when I finally saw the famous Patelson's in New York some years later, my first thought was simply "Ralph Pierce doesn't have to worry about the competition.")  Hovhaness's small set of keyboard pieces, Bare November Day, a prelude and five canzona-like "hymns" in odd scales, was already favorite Hausmusik for me, and I had worn some grooves in recordings of scattered examples of his orchestral music, particularly Symphonies (and not just Mysterious Mountain, which I always found lacked the unpredictability that Hovhaness's great model, Sibelius, had) borrowed from a local library.  What music-obsessed 14-year old wouldn't be impressed by the idea of a metal orchestra?  So I've lived with this score for a long time, and can still recall the excitement of working out its mechanics, figuring out how Hovhaness could use simple and efficient of means to achieve engaging surfaces and deeper textures that are, to the ear, far from simple. Indeed, to the ear, the piece often suggests the "textural" musics of the European Avant-Garde of the same historical moment, but Hovhaness arrived there from a very different point of departure.

The Symphony for Metal Orchestra comes in the middle of what might be called Hovhaness's Japanese period, during which he was able to spend time in Japan listening to everything he could and gaining some practical playing experience with traditional instruments.  He wrote, i.a., several chamber operas connected to his experience of Noh music and dance dramas (the first of which predates Britten's first Church Parable, also Noh-connected), featuring instrumental ensembles with multiple flutes and percussion, and in some cases, multiple trombones. This metal symphony is part of that same ensemble concern, in which the pitched texture is often based around modal monodies amplified by simultaneous variations, often densely chromatic, and the model, rather than the Noh ensemble, is more that of Gagaku, court music, with the massed flutes and trio of trombones recalling the ryuteki (flute) and hichriki (cylindrical reed instrument) in their deliberate melodies graced by slides and movement between unison and not-quite unison playing.  Senza misura sections for the six flutes in the third and fourth movements recall both the loosely canonical wind introductions in Gagaku repertoire, but also recalls the textural quality of some European 15th century vocal polyphony, and despite the continuous play between modal, chromatic and portamenti lines, the net tonal effect is generally static.  The five part percussion ensemble here — glockenspiel, two vibraphones, chimes and tam-tam — allows both for similarly clustered pitched writing in the metallophones to that of the winds as well as a suggestion of the formal markers found in the percussion of many Asian large ensemble musics.  However, in its instrumentation and in the level of playing technique demanded, the percussion writing here does seem dated now, dated back to an era in which the variety and technique expected from the percussion section was generally less on both counts;  one imagines that, had the piece been written a decade later, Hovhaness could and would have done much more with the percussion.  

Setting aside a more substantial argument about whether this piece, for 14 players, "really" is a symphony, this a four movement piece (Andante, Largo, Allegro, Adagio) that inverts and retrogrades the tempi of a stereotypical classical symphony (instead of Fast, Slow, Fast, Fast, it's Slow, Slow, Fast, Slow), but even that Allegro is actually in a paradoxical tempo (the flowing sixteenths in the first vibraphone are predominantly repeated tones (also paradoxical is the relationship between that vibraphone and the other percussion — which is the solo and which is the accompaniment?), such that we're really talking about a piece in all slow movements, somewhat in the manner of East Asian court musics; nevertheless, Hovhaness achieves a sense of pacing within this slow spectrum of tempi that is frequently magical.

Finally, a note about the provenance of the piece: It was commissioned by the American Society for Metals (now the professional research society ASM International) for their annual meeting, which naturally makes one wonder why organizations of the sort don't do more commissioning of the kind — new works of music with thematic connections to their own work —  nowadays?

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