Sunday, January 1, 2012


Alan Hovhaness. American Mystic: Music of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Centennial Collection (Prayer of St. Gregory, Op.62b; The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, Op.308; 4 Bagatelles, Op.30 Nos.1-4; Symphony No.2, Op.132, Mysterious Mountain; String Quartet No.2, Op.147, Gamelan in Sosi Style; String Quartet No.2, Op.147, Spirit Murmur; The Flowering Peach, Op.125; And God Created Great Whales, Op.229, No.1). Delos. "At home one day in 1956 George Avakian, then one of the top executives and producers at Columbia Records, received a telephone call from the classical music composer Alan Hovhaness, who told him, 'There’s a terrific musician from India who is here, and you should meet him.' His friend was so adamant, Mr. Avakian recalled recently, that a few minutes later Hovhaness was knocking on the door, with Ravi Shankar in tow. The consequences of that encounter were many, starting with Mr. Shankar, who at that time had no recording contract in the United States, making a series of American albums, one with liner notes written by Hovhaness. But within a decade Mr. Shankar was also giving sitar lessons to George Harrison and playing at the Monterey Pop Festival -- events that encouraged an entire generation of rock and pop musicians and listeners to look eastward for new inspiration. This year is the centennial of Hovhaness’s birth, and for the occasion Delos Records just released a commemorative CD of some of his most important orchestral and chamber works . . . . Born near Boston to an Armenian father and a Scottish mother, Hovhaness (pronounced ho-VON-iss) gravitated from the very beginning to music outside the European tradition. His first contact with Mr. Shankar came during a United States tour by the Shankar family dance troupe in 1936, but from childhood Hovhaness had been immersed in the work of Komitas Vartabed, an Armenian priest and musicologist of the late 19th century who specialized in the medieval liturgical and folk music of his homeland in the Caucasus. In the world of mainstream American classical music, however, Hovhaness, who died in 2000, was --and remains -- an outlier. At a time when dissonance, serialism and other styles were in vogue and many of his colleagues were writing works meant to be both modern and specifically American, Hovhaness embraced tonality and also showed a fondness for archaic elements like the polyphony of Renaissance music and the counterpoint of Baroque fugues. 'Alan was a composer who was not really interested in being contemporary, and he didn’t look to Western Europe as his only inspiration,' said Dennis Russell Davies, a conductor who has long championed the music of Hovhaness, first as music director of the American Composers Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic and now at the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. 'He wasn’t concerned with trends. He had a vision of what he wanted his music to sound like, and he just responded to that inner voice.' As Hovhaness’s initial fascination with Armenian music expanded, his curiosity led him further and further afield, first to India, where he lived in 1959 and 1960, then Indonesia, and finally to Japan, China, and Korea. Those influences all worked their way into his music. . . . [H]e also wrote pieces he described as ghazals, the name given to a genre of classical sung poetry popular in India and Pakistan. 'To me the hundreds of scales and ragas possible in Eastern musical systems afford both discipline and stimuli for a great expansion of melodic creations,' Hovhaness once said in an interview. 'I am more interested in creating fresh, spontaneous, singing melodic lines than in the factory-made tonal patterns of industrial civilization or the splotches and spots of sound hurled at random on a canvas of imaginary silence.' The two most common complaints against Hovhaness are that his work is 'exotic' and that he was simply too prolific. . . . He wrote more than 400 pieces, among them 67 symphonies . . . . He also complained of 'the tyranny of the piano' in classical music, and, to combat it, wrote pieces featuring Middle Eastern stringed instruments like the oud and kanun, and other compositions mimicking wind instruments like the Armenian duduk and the oboes and flutes used in Japanese gagaku music, one of Hovhaness’s favorite styles. At the time he was experimenting with all of this it may indeed have seemed exotic. But such sources and techniques are now widely used in both popular and classical music. As Mr. Davies noted, Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli 'are two composers who in their own way have done a similar thing' by drawing on medieval liturgical music and feeling 'at home using tonality and expressing spirituality.' Hovhaness’s career started promisingly and conventionally enough. When the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed his first symphony, called 'Exile' in recognition of the genocide Armenia had suffered under Turkish rule, Leslie Howard, the conductor of the ensemble, described Hovhaness, then still in his 20s, as a 'young genius.' But at Tanglewood one summer in the early 1940's Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland publicly attacked Hovhaness, with Bernstein going to the piano to play chords mocking his style, which he derided as 'cheap ghetto music.' Hovhaness withdrew to regroup, earning his living as an organist at an Armenian church and destroying many of his scores. But he returned after World War II with an even stronger commitment to writing melodic music that featured nontraditional scales and instrumentation. An innovative 1945 work, a concerto for piano and orchestra called Lousadzak, used elements of aleatory music, with instruments repeating phrases in random, uncoordinated fashion. That technique impressed John Cage and Lou Harrison, two fellow composers who became Hovhaness’s friends and supporters; the growing individuality of his music may also help explain his considerable appeal to jazz musicians over the years. In 1947 the saxophonist Sam Rivers studied orchestration with Hovhaness, who at the time was teaching at a conservatory in Boston, and cites Hovhaness as an important early influence on his development as a musician. 'In a way you could say Hovhaness was the start of free music,' Mr. Rivers said last month, referring to a style practiced by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and others in the 1960s. 'Jazz didn’t come up in his course, although Armenian and Asian music did. But he always talked of trying to go beyond the limits, of following your own path, not the traditional composers, and challenging the whole structure of music, and that had a big impact on me.' The jazz pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, who played in the quartet of her husband, John, was also known to be an admirer of Hovhaness, and when the guitarist Carlos Santana was in his jazz phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s and occasionally working with her, he recorded a version of the second movement of 'Mysterious Mountain' for his album Oneness. The jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius recorded and often improvised live on 'Mysterious Mountain,' and Wynton Marsalis has recorded Prayer of St. Gregory. But among current jazz figures influenced by Hovhaness the best-known is probably Keith Jarrett, who recorded Lousadzak in 1989. It was in the early 1970s, when Mr. Avakian was managing Mr. Jarrett, that the pianist seems to have first expressed interest in Hovhaness’s music. Mr. Avakian’s wife, the violinist Anahid Ajemian, who played or recorded many Hovhaness works beginning in the 1940s, gave Mr. Jarrett scores and recordings to study and not long after began detecting the results in the early piano solo albums that made Mr. Jarrett an international star. Mr. Davies was the conductor when Mr. Jarrett recorded Lousadzak, which means something like 'dawn of light' in Armenian. He too sees a strong connection. 'Both Hovhaness and Lou Harrison have been very influential in a direct way on Keith,' in part because 'they have a melodic and harmonic language that is very close to him,' Mr. Davies said. 'When Keith was forming his improvised music, these two composers had already written a lot of that, so he felt at home there, that it was part of his musical language.' Eventually Hovhaness settled in Seattle, which seems appropriate in view of his interest in the civilizations on the other side of the Pacific Rim. . . . 'Hovhaness’s own music may have been too idiosyncratic for others to copy, but his embrace of other cultures has been influential in general,' said Gerard Schwarz, musical director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which regularly features the Hovhaness repertory. 'He opened that world to other composers, the way they were influenced harmonically by Debussy and rhythmically by Stravinsky. Would they have heard it anyway? Who knows? But certainly Hovhaness was there first'" [Larry Rohter, The New York Times, 11/4/11].