„SPIRIT MURMUR“ OF ALAN HOVHANES

PhD Wanda Dobrovská /Czech Radio – Prague, CZ/

I

Alan Hovhaness [Alan Vaness Chakmakjian] (1911-2000), an American composer with Armenian and Scottish ancestry, was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. His output counts more than 400 works, including 65 symphonies. This amount is partly due to the style of his music, to his musical language – which enabled him to write relatively fast and easily, in a manner of composers of the so called popular music – or – which is of course more correct in our case, in a manner of masters of baroque and classic era (with their music today consumed as artificial, but in those times distributed as popular). Alan Hovhaness searched the European heritage for the basis of his style or language in Renaissance and baroque musical techniques, and otherwise widely used procedures of non-Western musical cultures (Indian, Japanese and in particular Armenian).

As for historical relevance, Alan Hovhaness was of the same generation as Henry Cowell and George Gershwin, or Aaron Copland and John Cage.

Alan Hovhaness was born and grew up in Boston (Somerville), Massachusetts. He had talents not only for music, but also for writing and painting, and with other interests, such as astronomy. He loved mountains, and nature was one his most constant sources of inspiration and personal philosophy. By age 14 he decided to devote himself to composition. He obtained conventional musical training (for a very short time he was also pupil of Bohuslav Martinů at Tanglewood) and through conventionally practiced skill he became a composer.

In the beginning of his career he followed late romantic influences, especially that of Jean Sibelius. In Boston music circles he was occasionally called „American Sibelius“, even personally meeting Sibelius in Finland (1935). Till the end of the 1930s he wrote rather conventionally sounding music of the late romantic style with the use of baroque techniques. (These compositions he has later destroyed.)

In 1940 he became organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, in the Boston area, there hearing early liturgical Armenian music, which is predominantly monody, and also came to know the music of Armenian composer Komitas. These preserved traditions of Armenian liturgical music then became the main influence and source of his musical thinking.

In the early 1940s Alan Hovhaness met Greek painter and mystic Hermon di Giovanno, and fundamentally reevaluated his approach to music writing and his view music in general. Music historians today, provided with appropriate view, or distance of time, evaluate the 1940s in Hovhaness´ output as a crisis similar to that of, some decades later, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki or John Tavener.
II

Hermon di Giovanno [Hermolaus Ionides] (? 1901-1962) was born in Greece (in Mytilene on Lesbos Island), but for most of his life he lived in Boston. He initially wanted to be an operatic singer, but because of health troubles he was forced to give up this idea. (He had adopted Hermon di Giovanno as a cover name for his dreamed-of singing career, and afterwards he has kept it.)

In Boston he was called „the Socrates of Boston“, and was a member of a free circle of friends with shared intellectual and philosopher interests. Alan Hovhaness was also among them. Hermon di Giovanno began painting as late as his 40s. Several paintings of di Giovanno are in a gallery of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

I have gotten some information and photos of his paintings [Without Title, Fabulous Bird, Pyramid, Mystic Temple] from descendents of his relatives.

Alan Hovhaness and Hermon di Giovanno met in 1940s in Boston. All his life, Hovhaness referred to the painter as his „spiritual guide“ and teacher. He said, that di Giovanno provided „spiritual forces“ for him to compose his Easter Cantata (1953) and he called his Symphony No. 6 „Celestial Gate“ after an artwork by di Giovanno.

Hermon Di Giovanno was also a „spiritual father“ of the „spirit murmur“ technique, which Alan Hovhaness for the first time used in the work from the year 1944, „Lousadzak“ – for piano and strings (op. 48).
III Lousadzak

Of the „spirit murmur“ technique Alan Hovhaness notes: „Hermon di Giovanno said he heard some of it in a visionary state. He heard a strange murmuring effect and he tried to describe it. He wasn´t a musician, he didn´t know music – except he was a tenor and wanted to be singer. The way he desribed it, I tried to imagine how one could write it, and I created that kind of aleatoric notation and I called it ´spirit murmur´.“

The phenomena of „spirit murmur“ is not much known, thus it deserves to be introduced. It is a partial matter in a range of composer techniques of the 20th century, as such subsequently straightaway non-adapted by possible Hovhaness´ followers, nevertheless may be generalized enough to find its use – though not with this indication and without relevances with Alan Hovhaness – in music of many other composers, contemporaries of Hovhaness and members of next generations, especially in music of representatives of minimal music. However, primarily, „spirit murmur“ of Alan Hovhaness is not to be mentioned in connection with minimal, but rather with aleatoric music, considered to be as one of the earliest appearances of it. Hovhaness himself described it in words „a kind of aleatoric notation“.

What Alan Hovhaness had called „spirit murmur“, was that of – also from the early music known as – „senza misura“, or without metre, (in notation) without bars. Alan Hovhaness had intended it, however, as not only a kind of note, but also as an acoustic „icon“ directly related to a specific significancy. In fact, Hovhaness´ „spirit murmur“ is closer to minimal, but minimal as such didn´t yet in that time exist, or rather hadn´t its name (its style category). Thus it is related rather to modern music, which was the upcoming style-basis of Hovhaness´ generation.

Practically and particularly „spirit murmur“ in the composition of „Lousadzak“ looks such that both soloist, and strings players reach (in a score) the part „senza misura“, whereas the notes for the soloist are written out and for string players this part anticipated by the solo viola pattern, that afterwards all string players take on and for some time – marked in a score – repeat it (pizziccato), with no necessity of mutual synchronization.

„Lousadzak“ is a neoplasm of Alan Hovhaness, a word derived from Armenian – meaning something like „Coming of Light“, which is also the regular title of the work in English (with the space for wider associations and symbolism).

The technique also probably had a practical purpose:

In the early 1940s Alan Hovhaness formed an amateur orchestra with the aim to play music based on pure intervals – as he came to know it in the Armenian church, where he worked as organist and was in contact with Armenian priests. Maybe in this technique he took into account this factor – that to push his musicians to play accurately, he instead made a virtue of necessity. (By the way, Vivaldi also wrote for a local ensemble, the same made Gustav Holst, and an illustrious contemporary case for us can be Tomáš Hanzlík and members of his Ensemble Damian.)

„Lousadzak“ stands on the beginning of the Armenian period of Alan Hovhaness (1943-1951) – Hovhaness in these years composed music based purposely on melody, with minimum regard to harmony, or static in harmony (only with pedal drone or sustained fifth).

In any case, the method of „spirit murmur“ became a prevailing technique for Alan Hovhaness also in his subsequent production and it is typical of his individual style.
IV

A few more words about circumstances of acceptance of this work and about its further life.

In 1940s there were very strongly increased forces for taking up the ingoing postwar modern music, and Alan Hovhaness had presented this work more than once.

The work was performed for the first time in Boston with the composer at the piano. Alan Hovhaness asked for the support to his amateur ensemble some musicians from Boston Symphony Orchestra, thus professionals, and they reportedly cocked noses at his music. (They considered it as too simple and too „oriental“ – because Hovhaness used some Armenian idioms in it. Musicians from his orchestra, inversely, were pleased. „My amateur orchestra didn’t laugh,“ remembered Alan Hovhaness. „They enjoyed it because it gave them a rest from things that they had to count and play in rhythm – in this, all they had to do was just play it very freely.“)

A year after its premiere in Boston, „Lousadzak“ was given in New York and there was even a scandal around it. Many local leading composers came to the concert, including John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson and Lou Harrison. Alan Hovhaness later (not without mischief) remembered, „Lou Harrison and John Cage came to the New York concert, more or less to laugh at it because they´d heard that I was a crazy composer.“

However, Lou Harrison was surprised; later he commented to the composer, that from the first few notes it sounded good and that he wondered when it was going to go bad, but it didn´t. The audience liked the work and Hovhaness had to encore part of it. John Cage came to meet him back-stage to say that Lou Harrison would be meeting him the next day because he wanted to write a review on the piece. „And he gave me the best review I´d ever had up to that time,“ remembered Alan Hovhaness.

(In the review on another concert performance of the work, Lou Harrison wrote: „There is almost nothing occuring most of the time but unison melodies and very lengthy drone basses, which is all very Armenian. It is also very modern indeed in its elegant simplicity and adamant modal integrity, being, in effect, as tight and strong in its way as a twelve-tone work of the Austrian type. There is no harmony either, and the brilliance and excitement of parts of the piano concerto were due entirely to vigor of idea. It really takes a sound musicality to invent a succession of stimulating ideas within the bounds of an unaltered mode and without shifting the home-tome.“)

Lou Harrison also described the electrical atmosphere of the memorable concert in New York. „The serialist were all there,“ notes Lou Harrison. „And so were the Americanists, both Aaron Copland´s group and Virgil´s. And here was something that had come out of Boston that none of us had ever heard of and was completely different from either. There was nearly a riot in the foyer – everybody shouting. A real whoop-dee-doo.“

Composer Lou Harrison, later a great admirer and commentator of Hovhaness´ music, recalled, that it seemed to him it was the closest he ever been to one of „those renowned artistic riots“. („What had touched it off of course,“ Harrison said, „was that here came a man from Boston whose obviously beautiful and fine music had nothing to do with either camp, and was in fact its own very wonderful thing to begin with.“)

The work had nevertheless to wait almost 40 more years before somebody from the domain of the music business took charge of it and drew attention to it as a unique example of an early aleatoric and a beautiful music at the same time. This artist, Keith Jarrett, performed „Lousadzak“ of Alan Hovhaness in concerts and made a recording with the American Composers Orchestra with Dennis Russell Davies.

PhD Wanda Dobrovská
music, critic, theorist, writer / Czech Radio – Prague, CZ /

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