Alan Hovhaness (1911 – 2000)

Back in 2000, my erstwhile colleague Richard Kostelanetz gave me Alan Hovhaness’s home address in the city across Lake Washington, on the shores of which I then lived, on Yarrow Bay. I wished to interview him for a project I was working on. Alas, The Seattle composer died while my request letter was in transit. I never got to meet the composer.

I had seen him years years before, on stage near Portland, Oregon, though, for a performance of a work of his for colatura soprano and gamelan, at Lewis and Clark College. His wife sung. I had been listening to Hovhaness’s music, at that time, for two decades. Also on the program was a work by Lou Harrison. That may have been my introduction to Harrison’s work.

All this to preface my long-standing interest in this branch of American music — the Far Eastern branch, if you will. Roy McMullen, in Modern Situations in the Arts (1968), called this variety of music “exotic.” An apt, if perhaps too terse, a term.

I have numerous CDs of Hovhaness’s work, as many as I have of some of my other favored composers, like Haydn, Hindemith, Sibelius, Stravinsky. And now I have in my hands an Audio DVD, one of the few in my record collection, from OgreOgress: Hovhaness: Solos Duos Trios. The DVD format allows for a lot of music to be crammed onto one disc:

  • Trio I for piano, violin & cello Op. 3 (1935)
  • Sonata Ricercare for piano Op. 12 (1935)
  • Artinis ‘Urardüan Sun God’ for piano Op. 39 (1945)
  • Suite for oboe & bassoon Op. 23 (1949)
  • Poseidon Sonata for piano Op. 191 (1957)
  • Bardo Sonata for piano Op. 192 (1959)
  • Sonatina for piano Op. 120 (1962)
  • Trio for strings Op. 201 (1962)
  • Three Haikus for piano Op. 113 (1965)
  • Night of a White Cat for clarinet & piano Op. 263 (1973)
  • Sonata for 2 bassoons Op. 266 (1973)
  • Sonata for 2 clarinets Op. 297 (1977)
  • Sonata for oboe & bassoon Op. 302 (1977)
  • Sonata for viola Op. 423 (1992)

From the very first trio, from 1935, we hear more than an earful of an individual voice. The work is dominated by counterpoint: fugal in the outer movements, canonic in the middle, slow movement. Though this is from the composer at less than a quarter century of age, already the kind of writing from, say, Mysterious Mountain, is in abundance: modal, fugal, tuneful. Those two outer movements are exciting, and the slower movement is a work of genius, I think. The final movement reminds me of the concluding fugal movement from a work by Bach — and, just a bit, of the final movement of Ernest Bloch’s first Concerto grosso, too. Through it all one can always hear the Hovhaness touch, too, if in ovo.

The Sonata Ricerare for piano entices me to obtain the sheet music. I wonder if it is within my meager abilities. Maybe just. Easier, I think, would be the next piece, the Op. 39 — and it would probably impress my listeners more, too, if for nothing else than its obvious Eastern flavor. (I should also mention that this is very much the style I have been improvising in since before I ever heard Hovhaness. I must have imbibed this style from movie music, though none of it matches up to Hovhaness’s — not even Bernard Herrmann’s. I discovered what I called “tetrads” — four-note chords that do not contain triads — while improvising in this style, so whatever my limitations may be as a composer, at least I cannot be acused of Ketèlbian kitsch. And Hovhaness used some of those same chords, as can be seen by studying the score for Visionary Landscapes, alas not on this album.) The Poseidon Sonata, Op. 191, is way beyond my abilities, I suspect, and is a sonata of the first water. The Bardo Sonata, Op. 192, is perhaps even better. The 1962 sonatina is more more wondrous yet, and within my abilities, I think. But note an oddity with Hovhaness’s oeuvre: a later date than those two sonatas, but a lower opus number!

The most impressive work on the disc is probably the solo viola sonata. It is also the longest. But I enjoyed the string trio from 1962 the most. It is both exotic and meticulously crafted. This is the one work from the album I would probably “make” my friends listen to, too.

Next in my value hierarchy, the works for duet winds pleased me most. I could listen to this music on perpetual loop and I would experience no damage at all, and much pleasure. The short Dance (track 15) for oboe and bassoon is a great deal of fun, complete with bended notes.

Of some personal interest to me is the fact that this recording introduced me to a piano I had not taken notice of before, the Fazioli. I will be on the look-out — and listen-out — for this brand in the future. I like that fourth pedal: great idea.

All in all, I would say this is a disc worth its sticker price. But remember: it is a DVD, and may not play on your car stereo. I listened to it using my main-room Blu-Ray player, which is attached to my old, trusty “surround sound-ready” Denon receiver from the 1990s.

But of course I listened to it in stereo.


Music from OgreOgress