Angelic Cycles – An Interview with Alan Hovhaness
[Editor’s note: The following is my interview with Armenian/American composer Alan Hovhaness which I was published in the March 1982 issue of Down Beat magazine. It appears here with the kind permission of Down Beat.]
As he showed me into his modest home in a quiet Seattle suburb, Alan Hovhaness felt the need to apologize for two things; first the cluttered state of the house and secondly the noise of saws and hammers overhead. The reason for both these inconveniences quickly became evident. Scores. Piles of them. Overflowing from every room and stacked in corners and passageways. The results of over six decades of creative outpouring virtually unparalleled in the realm of contemporary music. Hence the workmen on the roof ‑ they were in the process of building an extension onto the Hovhaness home just to accommodate the collected works of this remarkable man, whose creative fire shows no sign of diminishing, even as he enters his 71st year.
Alan Hovhaness enjoys unique status among contemporary composers. Part of this is due to his enormous output, which, not including over a thousand early works which he destroyed, runs to 49 symphonies with number 50 ‑ a symphony for Mount St. Helens ‑ on the way, as well as more operas, ballets, and other works than even he can keep track of. But more important, perhaps, is that he has created a style which is utterly original, unconcerned with fads, fashions, or schools, and which somehow finds a common ground between Eastern and Western ‑ as well as the most ancient and the most modern ‑ forms. The end result is a music which transcends technique in striving for, and almost invariably achieving, a profound and simple beauty that has captivated audiences all over the world. As Hovhaness himself writes: “The greater the emotional intensity, the greater the simplicity. This is not ‘intellectual’ music, but music of pure feeling.”
Born in 1911 to an Armenian father and a Scottish mother, Hovhaness was actively making music from his earliest years, improvising at the piano before taking any lessons, and writing pieces as soon as he had learned notation ‑ by about the age of seven. By the age of 13, he had written two operas as well as many smaller works. Formal training followed, first at the New England Conservatory and later at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachussetts. Yet, in these early years, it was his own intuition, rather than any formal influences, which guided the direction of his musical thought.
By 1945, New York performances of his work had brought him considerable recognition, and from this followed Guggenheim and Fullbright fellowships which enabled him to travel and study the music cultures of India, Korea and Japan. These influences, along with that of the Armenian music he was exposed to in his youth, gave his style its characteristic Eastern dimension, which is counterbalanced by a profound admiration of, and involvement with, Western contrapuntal techniques. He has now achieved such mastery of these that he is able to write intricate contrapuntal forms based on a wide variety of Eastern and ancient modes.
Unlike many attempts at synthesis, however, Hovhaness’ integration of such diverse resources seems to have arrived at the best of all worlds, to judge by the range of critical and popular appeal he has achieved in many parts of the world. He has received just about all the plaudits which can come to a composer in his lifetime. He has been commissioned by almost every major orchestra in the US, yet is equally welcomed in Japan or the USSR. He has received commissions from the governments of Japan, Korea and India. He has written ballets for such choreographers as Martha Graham, produced scores for Broadway shows, and in recent months, he has seen his music gaining even wider audiences as a result of performances of Lousadzak by Keith Jarrett and the American Composers Orchestra, and the use of parts of his 19th symphony by Carl Sagan in the PBS Cosmos series. The result of these successes is that Hovhaness has been one of the few composers to be able to make a comfortable living exclusively, and without any kind of compromise, from his composing.
As we settled into our conversation, I asked him about the apparent effortlessness of his creative work. Had it always been easy for him?
Yes, much of my music writes itself up to a certain point, though I am always practicing and studying how to improve things. I always work on contrapuntal problems and things like that. Not to make them intellectual but to make them beautiful. Difficult and complicated music doesn’t interest me if I can’t make it beautiful. It’s very easy to write complicated music.
Often people with special gifts are surprised when they realize others don’t have them. Did you find that?
That was my first realization, because when I was very young I was always hearing melodies in my head and I thought that, of course, everyone else does and I didn’t think anything about it. Then one day in school they had music appreciation, and they played a song and said this was written by Schubert and I thought, “Well, I guess I should write these things down because apparently everyone else doesn’t have this …”
So then you had some formal training to help you write these things down?
Well, I never had any difficulty in writing things down because in school we sang simple things and read notation, and I always felt that if you can read you can write. It never struck me as a problem. I don’t understand when people tell me they can’t write down their music. Anyone can write music, it’s much easier than many languages. Chinese notation is used in Gagaku [traditional Japanese court music], and I don’t know Chinese but I learned those notations right away.
At the same time you have chosen to expose yourself to a number of experiences which have greatly enriched your music – traveling, for example.
Actually, I had no intention of traveling, but the man I call my teacher ‑ a Greek painter named Hermon DiGiovanno whom I knew in Boston ‑ told me I should do research work, investigate ancient music ‑ whatever survives ‑ and so on. And I think this was suggested to me even before I met him. I happened to hear a concert by the dancer Uday Shankar, the brother of Ravi Shankar, with Vishnu Shirali ‑ this was in Boston in 1936 ‑ and this has been a tremendous influence on me. And there was another composer, Roy Stoughton, who loved Oriental music, mainly from the Near East. We were very interested in this sort of thing. The Oriental influence was always there. Even in some of my earliest childhood works it was there. People used to think they were very queer because they were ‘gloomy’ and Oriental. I didn’t think they were gloomy at all! Afterwards I got away from it for a while, and suddenly I came back to it. But I never really tried to write anything Oriental. My way of thinking and ideas just are that way.
You have said that one of your goals has been the development of melody. That would tend to pull you toward Eastern music.
Well yes, I thought that Armenian music ‑ ancient Armenian music, which is very rich in modes and melodies ‑ and Indian music seem to have melody which could stand by itself, it didn’t need harmony. In fact it’s better with a single line with perhaps a drone to give it foundation. And many pieces ‑ some of my symphonies, like the Eighth Symphony (Arjuna) ‑ have no harmony from beginning to end. It’s just one giant melody as [composer] Lou Harrison would say. Anyway, I did eventually go to study in Japan and Korea, and before that in India. I went to South India because I very much wanted to study the Carnatic music system. Then on my way back I went through Japan. Of course I had been very interested in Japanese music for many years, and so, when I went there, they performed for me ‑ my Third Symphony and other works were performed. I did some conducting, but also I listened to [Japanese] Gagaku music, Kabuki, and Bunraku music, and I was dying to go back and study that music, and so I did. I got a grant a few years later to go back. And so I think from 1959 my traveling began and I was able to hear these musics first hand. I can remember hearing Korean music many years before and thinking “This is so beautiful, it’s like another planet.” And then I found myself in Korea studying that music, and studying those instruments. Finally I was commissioned to write a symphony for two orchestras ‑ an ancient orchestra of Ahak, as they call it, instruments, and a full symphony orchestra on the same stage. So that’s the 35th Symphony ‑ for two orchestras.
Do you write many things for non‑Western instruments?
I like to from time to time. My 16th Symphony , which I wrote while I was in Korea, uses Korean instruments. There are pieces for Japanese instruments, a sonata for ryuteki [a cross‑blown bamboo flute] and sho [a bamboo, pipe‑like mouth organ], and one for hichiriki [an oboe‑like double‑reed instrument] and sho. There is a piece for oud [a Middle Eastern lute] and strings, quartet, or orchestra. And when I was in India I wrote a piece for South Indian orchestra, with vinas, Indian harps, tamboura, and so forth. I called that Nagooran after a 19th‑century saint from Madras. Later I transcribed it for cello and percussion. Also, I have used Oriental forms, such as Gagaku orchestral techniques, in writing for Western orchestra.
You must also have been influenced by the rhythms in Oriental music. I notice many devices like South Indian rhythm cycles cropping up in your work.
Yes, of course. Indian concepts, but also Armenian dance rhythms and other things. These have been important to me and I have studied them, but I don’t use them directly. I have always made my own systems.
Can you recall any specific examples?
Well, it’s pretty well diffused throughout my writing. I like to use cycles of 13 or 10 or 7 beats or whatever, often for percussion. I think the St. Vartan Symphony is a good example there. Or sometimes, like in the Eighth Symphony (Arjuna), I juxtapose complex rhythm cycles in the percussion against simpler rhythms in the rest of the orchestra. But it’s always my own system.
Your music has definitely gone in a very different direction from that of many of your contemporaries. Was that intentional?
Well, I think it came out when I was really very young, about 19 or so. I had a scholarship to the New England Conservatory to study with Frederick Converse. He was a very nice man and he asked me to go to Paris and study with Nadia Boulanger. And I said “no”. I felt I didn’t want to be a part of ‘contemporary music’. I didn’t want to be a part of this very intellectual approach. A very cold approach I felt.
Boulanger represented that approach to you?
To me she did. But somehow I didn’t want to be subjected to other people’s influence. I felt I wanted to write music which was more universal and melodic, so I went my own way. But I felt that the real need for writing melodic music was that you had to know melodic music. To know it from all over the world. I don’t use melodies from India or other places, but I have to know them.
What about atonality? Do you feel that it is in some way unnatural?
To me it’s unnatural because it lacks a center. The best atonal composers usually try to give a feeling of pedal or center, and that’s what you need. I was looking at a string quartet by Schoenberg, and I noticed that he really harped on one note for a long time before he quit it. Any mode has certain central notes. Everything in the universe has a center. We are on a planet which has a center. The sun is the center of our solar system. Every solar system is the same way. Galaxies have cores which they rotate around. I don’t want to have music always out in limbo somewhere. I think there should be a center. There can be moments of it, but to have a whole system of music …
You have incorporated moments of serial technique in some of your pieces though haven’t you?
Yes, sometimes to get unrelated sounds like distant stars, I may use something like that, because some sounds are related and some sounds are very distant sounds from a center. But there usually is a center. Or there may be a moment of cloud or some kind of thing, like the beautiful melodic passage that Beethoven marks “oppressed” ‑ it’s in one of his late string quartets; it represents a feeling of despair for a moment, but he comes out of it.
But even if not atonal, some of your pieces are very complex and dissonant aren’t they?
Well, there was a period when I was writing some very coloristic, experimental things. Floating World was one and Mountains and Rivers Without End. That was in the Sixties, around 1963. But recently my work has been much more classical, I think. I’m trying to simplify everything to get to the essence.
These titles are very evocative. Is there a strong programmatic content to these pieces? Or to your music generally? Do you try to imitate nature when you write?
No, I don’t think about a program when I write. In fact, most of these titles come up after the piece is written. Or perhaps while I am working on it. Mountains and Rivers Without End was named after a famous Chinese scroll painting. It seems to evoke the same mood.But there are pieces where there is some programmatic content determined beforehand. I’m thinking of And God Created Great Whales.
Well, that was a commission from the New York Philharmonic. They wanted a piece based on some tapes of whale songs. The man who made them, his name was Dr. Payne, felt that my music would be the most suitable. What he had heard of mine was purely abstract, but he just felt it would fit. So it may be that my music evokes things in nature, but if it does it’s not because I try to make it that way.
You don’t consciously attempt to portray certain things? It’s something subtler than that?
Yes. It’s more on the level of feeling.
Tell me some more about your educational experiences. Did you ever go through a complete program at a conservatory or university?
No, I never did. I took what I wanted. I came back to Converse later because I wanted to have somebody look at my music and to hear some things which I had written for orchestra. And later I felt I wanted to study counterpoint with him. He said, “You’re crazy, you know it.” But I said, “No, I’m very good at faking things but I don’t really know it. I’d like to start at the beginning and work it out as a kind of mathematics.” And so I did. I went very deeply into it. Very deeply. I gave myself the most terrible problems. Finally he gave me an examination ‑ a theme to write a fugue on, and I wrote a whole book of fugues, canons, and finally a quadruple fugue bringing his theme in at the very end with all the other subjects the way Bach intended with his Art Of Fugue. Later I wrote a piece with a similar form, only using my own themes. That was the Prelude And Quadruple Fugue.
So you get the best of both worlds – melody from Eastern music, counterpoint from the West?
Yes, I felt that counterpoint was the very pinnacle of Western [musical] achievement. Very much so. I remember when I was very young, Roger Sessions, who had seen one of my little pieces through my piano teacher, told me to study the classics. Not just because they are classical but because they are the only music we have which is good enough. And my feeling is to study the best music from all around the world. Whatever I feel is really the best example of music, that I study very deeply. For melody, I think that the highest development is in India.
Is there any other influence that has been important to you?
Armenian music has been important to me. Not so much the folk music, as that has been weakened by so many other influences, but the church music and the work of Komitas Vartabet. He was the Armenian Bartók. He was a great musician and he created Armenian style really, out of the actual materials. He created something very beautiful. His choral music is magnificent. I conducted some of his choral music for his centennial celebration in 1969 ‑ he was born in 1869. I was also the first to play his piano pieces in this country.
Have you heard much popular music?
I never can listen to music except at certain times, because I always want to work. I love to work. So mostly I don’t listen any more. I read scores sometimes. I go back to the scores I love. But there’s so much violence in popular music now, with electronic devices, that my ears just can’t stand it. I don’t hear too well anyway, but it’s worse when it’s loud. Beethoven said, “Don’t shout because I’m not deaf.” Well fortunately I’m not deaf, but I sometimes think that I almost wish I was, because I can hear music so well without my ears.
I get the feeling that your inspiration is a very personal thing.
Yes. There is a lot of music which has been important to me, particularly Handel and Oriental music. But I have almost been more influenced by someone who was not so much a musician as a great mystic ‑ Francis Bacon. He was a very great man, and all his philosophical works are dedicated to what he calls the Angelic Intelligences. I like that idea very much. I believe that this is the kind of music which I would like to produce if I could. I try to do that. I fail every time, but I try. There may not be much chance for much of it, but I’d like to have a little of that kind of music on Earth.
© Peter Westbrook (1982)
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