Alan Hovhaness Website

July 2013   Recording the Complete Hovhaness Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas

INTERVIEW: Young Italian pianist

Nicola Giosmin

talks about his landmark 7-volume Hovhaness recording project.

Interview by Marco Shirodkar

Click HERE
for track listing
and audio clips

MS: Nicola, your cycle of complete Hovhaness piano sonatas brings us not only your debut Hovhaness recording, but also far more Hovhaness repertoire than any pianist has previously undertaken. Many will want to know something of your musical background.

NG: Well, I have the typical 'classically-trained' background with a piano diploma, and additionally an electronic music diploma. But I also studied composition and hence compose too, though not at the speed of Hovhaness! My family had no professional musicians, but we listened to a large variety of music: classical, mainstream as well as music from non-European traditions. My Italian hometown, Padua, was not so rich in live music, so we listened to records, radio, etc. particularly on Sunday mornings, my parents put music on and we started cooking and singing...they were nice moments. My parents told me I especially loved two records of Vivaldi violin concertos and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I often took a pencil, waved my arms and sang along like a crazy conductor. Then I discovered the piano upon choosing music as an extra class at school. I remember they brought me a simple score with two pentagrams — we played only simple melodies notated in one pentagram with the flute, at that time — and I said: "Ah, well... I guess that the upper is for the right hand and the lower for the left hand": all the teachers laughed. It was the beginning of a true love story between me and music: a story that lasts until today. Furthermore the first compositions of mine arrived shortly after, so I begun seriously to study piano. My teacher was Galliano Bortolami, a wonderful person: strict but fair, full of energy and humor, he gave me really a lot. We started piano technique and analysis immediately: then harmony, some outlines in composition and history of music, everything as soon as possible. He bequeathed to me the idea that there is not 'piano music' but only 'music', and that music is a small part of what we call human culture: still today I search for a global approach to the pieces that I decide to play. As I grew, we started discussing scores, not only for piano but also orchestral, vocal, chamber music and writings by composers such as Schumann, Debussy, Berlioz. He was an invaluable source of inspiration and sometimes I am stunned that only now do I fully understand what he was telling me, but I think that it is a sort of natural path of personal maturation.

What about your electronic music and any other studies?

After my degree in piano I studied electronic music with Nicola Bernardini, assistant of Luciano Berio, and it was a tremendous experience. He was not only a great source of fundamental concepts, but he pushed his pupils to reach their limits and to think with their own mind. Concurrently I was refining my piano with several international teachers in master classes: J. Glauss, T. Koch, U. Eisenlohr, D. Baldwin, they all taught me many things, too many to list here, but the most important was to persist and not to leave the study until the solution of a problem was found.

After college I chose also to pursue my studies in philosophy, as a result I earned a degree in philosophy, a powerful tool to open your mind - I'd suggest to everybody a serious immersion in philosophy, and I often send as a birthday gift philosophical books...the result is that some of my friends no longer invite me to their birthday parties, while others ask me for more suggestions... ah, the power of thinking! As usual, for a pianist, time for competitions and concerts was coming: so I did some piano and chamber music competitions - winning some prizes — and started my activity. Finally, I spent two years in perfecting with Pier Narciso Masi in Florence: this experience virtually blew my mind away. Masi is an outstanding musician and put an enormous strain of imagination into performances: he starts with a serious analysis and then tries to give the most consistent picture of the whole. He explained in great detail that there is no difference between technique and interpretation and always looked for 'only one' solution to technical and interpretative problems: "Otherwise — he said — it is not good...".

While perfecting with Masi I also earned a PhD in musicology, strongly biased towards analysis and with a thesis on musical semantics supervised by Rossana Dalmonte and Michel Imberty.

It is difficult to say how much I am in debt to all these teachers and masters: everyone gave me something and pushed me to give the best: I can only thank them warmly. The last three years I've lived in Paris working as a pianist in different conservatories, going on with my projects for concerts, piano recordings, compositions and research. But there is not only music in my life: my girlfriend, my son, my friends also have a big place, of course. Also there is cooking, chess playing — when I have time), politics and social engagement. I would define myself as a sort of humanist fond of music.

What was your first encounter with Hovhaness?

It's a funny story. My girlfriend — a singer — had a pupil, a very smart and nice American lady. One day she went with an 'American piece'. I was in another room during the lesson, but found the melodic lines captivating. After the lesson I asked for the composer's name: surely it was not Copland, Carter or another modern American composer. She said it was Alan Hovhaness. Well, I must admit being surprised that for such a good-sounding piece the composer's name was, for me, completely unknown. So curiosity started to grow and I made some internet researches. You cannot imagine the shock when I discovered that this man had written more than sixty symphonies, plus operas, an impressive piano catalog, and an enormous quantity of chamber music. This composer deserved more attention. So, I looked into the catalog — yes, on your wonderful website — and started to investigate some scores. Of course in Italian libraries there was not a single score of Hovhaness, so I decided to purchase some sonatas from CF Peters and directly from the composer's widow Hinako. So, my first encounter was, as usual, a mix of chance and curiosity.

But as some point your curiosity for Hovhaness evidently became something much more?

As I gradually acquired the scores of the sonatas I came to understand that Hovhaness was not a straightforward musical voice. The first thing that leaps out is the exceptional variety of his output. The first sonata I read was the Sonata Ricercare, dated 1935, an inflexible and sober piece full of counterpoint and based on just a single theme. The second sonata was the Blue Job Mountain, from 1979, which is a very strange sonata, containing a Fantasy in the middle! The third sonata I perused was the Madras Sonata, again a strange composition with some passages based on Indian classical music, but ending with a fugue. I took a pause and then continued my survey and I fell upon the Poseidon Sonata: a powerful composition in two movements that seemed to me almost a written improvisation — no theme, no development, etc. After that I lingered on the two sonatinas: the first was an hypnotic piece based on a strange oriental chromatic scale and the second a quasi-romantic two movements work. At the end of the morning I had read all the scores and I decided that Hovhaness needed more investigation. This happened in 2009 when I planned my relocation to Paris, so I arrived in France with my bag full of scores, others were sent to me later in Italy and some friends brought them to me. During the first times here in Paris I had no piano at all and this large amount of scores, so I started to analyze and study them without keyboard. It took me a month to begin to understand the subtle cross references between the sonatas, the compositional approach to eastern structure, the penetrating insight of counterpoint, brief, to understand the man behind the composer. And that moved me. This man was speaking to me in his own language, without compromises, without concessions.

Like all 'honest' composers, Hovhaness needs not only a performer, but also one capable of tuning into his particular mood: so besides his music I started to study his life. So, to answer to your question there is more than one reason for my admiration of Hovhaness. The first is not related to his music but to his life, and it is his consistency. Hovhaness was isolated, but not at all in a naive attitude. He was concerned with the problems of contemporary music — and society — and gave them his answer: we can agree or not with him but we cannot accuse him of being anti-historic. He was a friend and colleague of Cage — they recorded a disc together — and decided to be himself after a promising debut as "the American Sibelius": he was brave, in a world of so-called "composers". He never thought about his music in terms of his career or social position. In fact he was music-oriented all his life. We could say that his coherence is most valuable if we consider his enormous sacrifices: he decided not to study with Nadia Boulanger — refusing a scholarship with her, an almost obligatory passage for an American "classical" composer at that time — he decided to burn an enormous amount of music when not satisfied, and he later left the States in order to deeply study oriental music with native musicians at a time when it was not fashionable, and with no YouTube-Internet facilities at that time! In brief, he decided to be true to himself in a world of masks: such a man who chases throughout his life his ideal in music, a music that could unite East and West, cannot be forgotten. I think we need composers with his moral integrity today.

The second reason is, of course, his music. To be honest, I think that Hovhaness could have been more selective in his writing, at least for the piano, but isn't his apparent hypergraphia a fascinating aspect of his personality? Anyway, his music can really touch the listener who starts to listen without preconceptions. Let's take his attention to Eastern cultures. It is not exotic at all. Hovhaness never plays with cultures, he respects people too much to use their culture like a trickster with some cards. On the contrary, it is a serious attempt to tie traditions, savoir faires, competences and experiences in a plain and incisive language, such as in his sonata Journey to Arcturus.

So how do you see Hovhaness "tying traditions" in Journey to Arcturus?

The title already suggests a journey beyond human capability. The choice of Hovhaness is to build a sort of programme for this imaginary journey, but this is not a simple programme music. Hovhaness starts with a Lullaby — you can find some lullabies in his sonatas, an interesting aspect to study — that leads the listener to a quiet mood. A modal Vibration fugue follows. It is a concept typical of Hovhaness: a fugue with a theme made up of repeated notes, the theme must literally 'vibrate' and so the fugue moves not only in the harmonic and counterpoint side but also internally, each note carries a big tension and each modulation and each entry of the theme adds more tension. After that a Nocturne follows and we find the mysterious atmosphere of the beginning. This is the preparation for the journey because the fourth movement Jhala for Star Journey is the emotional climax of the sonata. The jhala is an Indian form based — I'll keep the whole thing extremely simple — on an upper line of repeated notes with a melody interjected: of course the performer must keep in relief the melody while the repeated notes are in the background. Besides this an ostinato drone in the bass line accompanies at regular lapses of time, not the classical four or six. This jhala uses the piano in a very percussive manner — so exploiting a piano characteristic — with chromatic passages: the drone is based on major seventh intervals (and fourths) while the melody is of a mysterious chromaticism. Sometimes changes of time and meter culminate in polymodal episodes until the very peak: an outburst of minor seconds — witness the relationship with both the theme and the seventh of the drone — starting from the extreme low octave of the keyboard, reaching the highest octave and coming back at a high speed. The 'flat' jhala restarts after a fermata and fades away in a completely mysterious way. To save the listener from this abyss, Hovhaness provides a sad but plain Love Song. Finally another jhala, chromatic and playing with the major-minor modes, ends the sonata. With this Jhala for Arcturus we have finally reached the star, but we don't know if we are safer than before. Well, after this simple description — hardly an analysis and it cannot replace a listening, of course — I pose this simple question: how can we judge a sonata like this? Why did Hovhaness call it "sonata"? Which meter of aesthetic judgment can we use for this kind of music? I do not have all the answers but I can say that the whole construction, the balance of the "hot points" with the quiet moments, the consistency of the material used in the different movements and the peculiar use of the oriental structures — not in a pictorial way, but in a real musical way — rank this sonata at a very high level in Hovhaness's output.

Let's take another example: his Bardo Sonata. Here the atmosphere is different: already in the title Hovhaness informs the performer that "Bardo refers to the 'After Death State' described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead". Well, as a performer I never saw a subtitle of this kind! It means perhaps one should study a little Buddhism and reflect on that while preparing this piece — it is a piece about you, about us, not only a "good old sonata" to be played on the stage. In the first movement we find a technique that I found only in some Ligeti or in Nono: melody by subtraction. Hovhaness starts from an accord and builds a melody not by adding notes, but 'removing' notes from it. The result is a strange melodic mood always in diminuendo. After a small jhala — thirty seconds! — Hovhaness gives us a superb quasi-improvisatory piece with the third movement, the Hymn to Amida. Melody by subtraction and by harmonics sounding compose a still and shiny texture. Why is this sonata not in the repertoire of a good number of pianists? Is it lacking some features of "contemporary music"? On the contrary, this is a very good piece, dated 1959, in which Hovhaness tried to go beyond traditional writing and piano technique.

What about the workings of less overtly Eastern-inspired pieces?

Let's take Hovhaness's early Sonata Ricercare. This composition, dated 1935, is based on a single theme that serves as the basis for a passacaglia and fourteen canons, two mirrored fugues, and a final fugue in the Dorian mode. The composition is a serious attempt to write in a neoclassical vein a complex set of counterpoints using modality. Space doesn't permit us exhaustive analysis of the whole composition, but for me this kind of music perfectly fits the spirit of the 1930s: the quality of its inventions and the internal cohesion of the piece make this sonata a must in the piano repertoire.

But let's also mention the simple beauty of Hovhaness's melodic lines — the three 'Cat Sonatas', for instance, or the Op.145 second movement, or his capacity to quote himself using material taken from other sonatas or other composers…take, the "Eclipse" sonata with its beginning that imitates and mocks Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in such a warped way, or even his simple late-Romantic works like the Monadnock Sonatina — broadly speaking, it is a high-quality output and deserves attention. In the end, to answer your question I admire his moral honesty joined to his high craftsmanship: the sum of the two gives us the measure of his humanity and his prominence.

Was it his "moral honesty" or "high craftsmanship" that was the chief motivation for such a big recording project?

There are many motivations. First of all Hovhaness is hardly known in Europe, so I thought that a big project can do more for Hovhaness than a little CD selection. So, my attention focused primarily on the sonatas, because I wanted to see how Hovhaness confronted this important keyboard genre of the Western musical tradition. The music I discovered online was in fact very 'oriental', if not 'exotic', so how could a composer like him write sonatas? Sonata is traditionally a narrative form, but Hovhaness uses the sonata form in a free and creative way: we find classical sonata-form movements, fugues, jhalas, nocturnes, lullabies, fantasies, etc. For Hovhaness the sonata label is a container: he uses it to express a narrative sketch related to philosophical or mystical concepts or to the transfiguration of nature. How does one illustrate these peculiarities of Hovhaness's writings using music directly? Only a big-sized project could achieve this.

Another motivation is that I love contemporary music: that's why I suffer for its pitiful condition. Completely anesthetized in an academic life, so called "contemporary" music is performed and heard thanks to a false tolerance for a "different thing" that we must bear in order to safeguard intellectual pluralism. Its function is to fill an empty space in the system, its capacity to affect contemporary society is null. I do not have here the space to outline the causes of this sad condition but I think that, as a composer and as a performer I have a responsibility. Hovhaness's position in the cultural establishment — as I tried to define before — is very important in this regard. A sentence he wrote, shocked me most of all. For a survey of the American Music Center, Hovhaness wrote:

"It is better that no mention be made of my scholarships or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers — thus the responsibility [for attitudes toward my music] will be inflicted only on myself".

We can love Hovhaness or not, but this is the spirit that should pervade composers today. Unfortunately, composers are now more interested in their premieres than in their music: the result is a patency: this pathetic situation of contemporary music today...

For me there was also a sort of challenge: for a classically-trained pianist and composer, contemporary music can only be written in some typical ways: there is no room for alternatives, and people often judge from an ideological point of view. The result is that we are blocked from facing some simple Hovhaness melodies: "Come on, we are intellectuals! How can we play an E minor piece in 4/4 time?" Sometimes I had to think one week to decide how to play a simple melodic line: which is the best tempo? Where is the climax? Is my phrasing correct? Hovhaness leaves you so many possibilities! It is a challenge but is worth the risk. Take for instance his 'vibration' compositions: a pianist has some pages of repeated notes with a few dynamics indications. These pieces pose problems and the performer must find a solution. For instance the Vibration Hymn (fourth movement of the Op.367 Total Eclipse of the Moon Sonata) and the Prelude before the final fugue of the Madras Sonata cannot be played in the same way: the first is a sort of transparent vibrating material coming from outer space, while in the second the composer expresses a more human and concrete feeling. Again, you cannot play the chordal structures at the beginning of his last sonata Mount Katahdin or the ones at the beginning of Mount Chocorua: I have never visited these mountains, but I clearly understand what Hovhaness thought about them. The first is a solemn hymn while the second is a part of a more complex construction. I needed time in order to master the Hovhaness universe: this was more important than solving technical problems on single pieces. And I take the occasion to thank all the staff at Taukay who allowed me to do this: without their help and support not even one disc would have been recorded: sometimes we have the luck to find the right people to work with, and this was the case.

Spanning six decades, Hovhaness's piano works are — as you know better than most — stylistically very diverse, and since you did not take a chronological approach, what was your strategy for deciding how to group the sonatas within each volume?

Well, when I proposed the whole project to Taukay we discussed not only the planning of the recording sessions but also the content of each CD. The two hypotheses were a chronological order and... well, something else. Furthermore we reflected on the current evolution in the recording market and this project was a very good excuse to question this point. The result was that we thought that the traditional record market is at a turning point. I mean: selling records in the common way today is extremely difficult. A project like this, moreover, poses problems due to its size: are you going to buy a disc with the juvenile sonatas, are you looking for Hovhaness's output during the 1980s, etc? Instead of reasoning in this way, Taukay, which is a very dynamic label, already had the solution: the internet. It is not only a matter of costs, but really a big shift in our mind attitude. The internet can be, I repeat, can be, a fabulous vehicle for music and what we wanted to do was to spread the largest quantity of Hovhaness piano music over the web. That's why we decided to divide sonatas following their mood and grouping them in a contrasting way. So you can find (2nd CD) the obscure and mystic Bardo Sonata opening the disc and the quasi-romantic Mount Belknap Sonata closing, or (6th CD) the long powerful classic Mount Chocorua associated with the tremendous Poseidon Sonata. Of course there are some exceptions, like the three Cat Sonatas all on the 3rd CD. This was also the policy we adopted with iTunes and in connection with YouTube: first is listening, then, if you want, buy a disc. Casual listeners who do not know Hovhaness will find themselves plunged into Hovhaness's rich eclecticism, his variety and (why not?) his contradictions and his problems: that's the most important.

Not to undermine your landmark achievement, Hovhaness devotees may notice that a few sonatas are still missing. Will a seventh disc be recorded at some point to make your survey truly "complete"?

Good question and, actually, I have already recorded it! It will contain two previously unrecorded sonatas — Lake Sammamish Op.369 and Mount Shasta Op.299 No.3 — along with a juvenile sonata, not listed in the catalog. I hope that Hovhaness aficionados will enjoy it.

Now I'll perform this music on stage, but my task in recording Hovhaness music, is, I think, ended. I really hope that in say fifty years another pianist will come along and release a full Hovhaness piano music set. If I have been a pioneer, I will be extremely happy.

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